Numbers, numbers, numbers. Tennis is swarming with them these days – winners and errors, serves and break points, times to the net, depth of shot, speed of ball, total points won.
But which truly matter? Which best tell the tale of a match? Consider, for example, a few to blow apart and put back together.
Total points won. Highly meaningless, except perhaps for the nifty curiosity of a match going deep into the decisive set and each player having won the same number of points. Having read hundreds of match reports, According to research guru Craig O’Shannessy (braingametennis.com), “In 95 percent of matches, at least each player wins 45 percent of the points.” Tennis is not basketball, where points accrue. A better analogy is to presidential elections, where the popular vote is less important than the battle for key states.
First serve percentage. Depends on the player and the opponent. If you’re as good from the baseline as Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray and the opponent can scarcely hurt you off a return, why try for too much with the serve? So get in a high percentage. But if the receiver is likely to strike big, it’s more important to serve more aggressively, in which case the percentage will likely go down. In other words, there is scarcely a universal standard here.
Points won on first serve. Not much insight. If a player gets in 70 percent of their first serves, and wins 70 or even 80 percent of those points, all we’ve learned here is that a player has won roughly half the points.
Points won on second serve. More insight, as winning less than half of these points usually indicates a player is in frequent trouble when serving.
Break points converted. Unquestionably, one of the most misleading statistics of them all. Consider: you break my serve in the opening game of the first set. You continue to hold yours. You continue to return well, generating three break points per game the rest of the set – but you never break. You serve out the set. The numbers will say you were one of 13 on break point opportunities. Does that metric really define futility or sustained pressure?
Unforced errors. Again, depends on the player. These will happen frequently when such aggressive ball-strikers as Jelena Ostapenko, Madison Keys and Garbine Muguruza play. On the other hand, perhaps it would benefit Agnieszka Radwanska or Caroline Wozniacki to go for more and increase their error count.
Trips to the net equal success. Jumps out in a major way, especially on the lawns of Wimbledon. Just about every player who does this wins the point more than 60-70 percent of the time – and often more. And yet, the way players learn to play these days has minimized net rushing. To be sure, it’s not easy to serve and volley given the quality of returns, or approach versus such strong passing shots. Still, the application of pressure this way is highly productive. Really, who wants to hit a passing shot on a big point?
Most of all, the analysis of a match needs to take into account tennis’ delicious and diabolical scoring system. So what if you double-fault or make an error when serving at 40-love? Even a winner at 40-love is simply a bases-empty home run. But 15-30 is air-tight time, when it’s vital to get in the first serve or spit back a return. If in some ways all points are equal and it’s vital to fight for every one of them, there are calculated decisions that go into what to do on each – and therefore, how each should be evaluated in determining what happened in the course of the match.