Category Archives: Oddities

The Misleading Stat Sheet

A glance at the stat sheet from Serena Williams’s third-round match against Jie Zheng suggests that Serena dominated.  23 aces to 1, 3 break point conversions to none, 54 winners to 21, 84% 2nd-serve points won to 50%, and 55% of the total points played.

Of course, according to the more important stats–games and sets–Serena didn’t dominate.  She barely snuck through, losing a first-set tiebreak and going to 9-7 in the third.

Rick Devereaux, who brought this contrast to my attention, suggests that grass-court tennis–with more clean winners and fewer unforced errors than slower-paced styles–may be responsible.  That’s certainly part of the equation.

In fact, the Serena/Zheng match highlights the limits of the traditional stat sheet, especially on a surface that particularly favors the server.  Except for winners and unforced errors, nearly every stat directly captures some aspect of serving prowess–either yours or your opponent’s.  And in an era where nearly everyone is an excellent server, it doesn’t matter much whether you’ve set down a great serving performance or merely a good one.

To get to tiebreaks (or 9-7, or 70-68), you don’t have to be as good as your opponent, you just need to be good enough to hold.  Even the “winners” stat has to do with serving dominance, since so many are third shots behind a serve.  The vast majority of the stats from Serena’s match tell us that the American was more dominant on her serve than Zheng was.  And, of course, while Zheng was good enough to hold to 6-6 and 7-7, she lost the second set fairly badly, so the stats are a weighted average of two almost-even sets and one lopsided one.

When we find a mismatch between stat sheet and scoreline, we’re usually seeing one of two things:

  1. One player was much more dominant on serve (think 4 or 5-point games instead of 6+)
  2. One player won a lot of clutch points (like deuce, on serve) — losing unimportant ones (like 40-0 on serve), thus padding her opponent’s stat sheet.

Oddly, in the men’s game, the players who we think of as most dominant on serve rarely give us mismatched score sheets like this–quite the opposite.  Note the wording: “one player was much more dominant.”  There’s no doubt John Isner can dominate on serve, but since almost all his opponents are also good servers, Isner’s weak return game means that he is often the less dominant server, winning service games at 40-30 and losing return games at 0-40 or 15-40.  In fact, Isner has won more than 20 career matches despite losing more than half of the points played!

The same reasoning doesn’t apply to Serena.  She may be as big a server (relative to her opponents) as Isner, but her return game is also world-class.  And in the WTA, there are far more weak-to-middling servers.  On grass, as Rick points out, those weak-to-middling servers are (usually) still able to hold, making it more likely that a dominant performance on paper ends at 9-7 in a deciding set.

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The Simon/Monfils 61-Shot Rally: In Perspective

A couple of weeks ago, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon made the unorthodox decision of extending their warm-up into the first game of the match.  Or somthing.  At 40-40 in the opening game, they counterpunched each other into oblivion, needing sixty-one shots before Monfils finally sent a slice long to end the point.

If you haven’t seen it, or you suffer from insomnia, click the link here.

What might be most remarkable about the rally is that, when Monfils made his error, there was no sign of the point drawing to a close — it isn’t hard to imagine those two hitting another 61 shots like that.  But even at 61, it’s an awfully long point.

So (asks the statistician) … how long was it?  Rally length is not widely available for ATP matches.  But thanks to IBM Pointstream, I do have rally length for each point on a Hawkeye court from the French Open.  (I’ve played around a bit with those numbers.)

From the French Open, we have roughly 20,000 men’s points to look at, which doesn’t count double faults.  About 35% of those points lasted only one stroke: an ace, a service winner, or an error of some sort on the return.  Only 15% of the points went 8 strokes or longer, and fewer than 10% reached 10 strokes.

In the entire tournament, only 12 rallies hit the 30-shot mark–only halfway to the Simon/Monfils level.  You won’t be surprised at most of the names involved in those dozen extreme points:

Mardy Fish    Gilles Simon       38  
Andy Murray   Viktor Troicki     37  
Gilles Simon  Robin Soderling    36  
David Ferrer  Sergiy Stakhovsky  33  
Andy Murray   Viktor Troicki     33  
David Ferrer  Gael Monfils       33  
Rafael Nadal  Pablo Andujar      32  
Tobias Kamke  Viktor Troicki     31  
David Ferrer  Sergiy Stakhovsky  31  
Rafael Nadal  Andy Murray        31  
Rafael Nadal  Pablo Andujar      30  
Andy Murray   Viktor Troicki     30

Both Simon and Monfils make an appearance, with Ferrer, Murray, and Nadal showing up multiple times.  What surprises me a bit are some of the guys who hung in there with the counterpunchers, especially Fish and Troicki.

In any event, 61 shots still stands out as a once-in-a-blue-moon accomplishment.

WTA rally length

Incidentally, you might suspect (as I did) that some WTA players would slug it out even longer.  Again using Pointstream data from the Hawkeye courts at the French, it turns out that ladies only reached the 30-shot threshold twice.  First, Marion Bartoli went to 33 against Olga Govortsova, and Na Li got to 32 shots against Silvia Soler-Espinosa.  The tongue-tying Wozniacki-Wozniak matchup comes in third, with a 28-stroke rally.

Wimbledon rallies

While we’re at it, let’s check the Wimbledon data.  Surprise, surprise–tied for the longest rally of the tournament is a 31-stroke exchange between Juan Martin del Potro and … Gilles Simon.  In fact, that match featured four of the 20 longest rallies of the tournament.

Also notable is Novak Djokovic, who reached 31, 30, and 29 against Bernard Tomic, and 25 (twice) and 24 against Marcos Baghdatis.

The true oddity in the top ten is John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, who somehow took a break from aces and errant groundstrokes to go 25-deep.  It was the  only point of the match that went longer than 12 shots.

 

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Filed under French Open, Oddities, Research

Stuttgart, De-Seeded

At the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart this week, only two rounds have been completed, and all eight seeds are gone.  It isn’t even a particularly weak top of the field–five of the eight seeds are ranked in the top 20, and all eight are 37th or better.

Six of the eight lost their first-rounders, including #1 Gael Monfils (to Hanescu) and #2 Jurgen Melzer (to Giraldo).  The remaining two seeds–#3 Mikhail Youzhny and #8 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez–lost today.  Youzhny may be the only man in the draw without something to be ashamed of–he won a match, then lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero on clay.

The remaining draw almost makes Newport look good.  Of the eight unseeded players, we have two wild cards (Cedrik-Marcel Stebe and Lukasz Kubot) and two qualifiers (Pavol Cervenak and Federico Del Bonis).  The two qualifiers will play each other tomorrow, so at least one man from the qualifying draw will reach the final four.

It’s a project for another day, but it would be interesting to see which tournaments are most upset-prone.  The post-Wimbledon clay circuit seems like a prime contender, if only because of its awkwardness on the schedule.  And as friend-of-HT Tom Welsh pointed out, there seems to be a post-Davis Cup swoon, evident at Stuttgart with the losses to Mayer and Monfils.

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