I love watching tennis and making observations about what a player might be doing right or wrong, but I don’t trust my own eyes. I am a skeptic by nature. Whenever I hear a commentator make an assertion about a players’ strategy or tactics, I tend to question it when they don’t have numbers to back it up. After all, the eye test is often unreliable in determining underlying patterns.
It’s undeniable that tennis statistics are stuck in the dark ages. We can find first serve percentage, win-loss percentage, tiebreak record, and percentage of points won on serve and the return from the ATP and WTA. But those numbers tell us very little about the actual course of events that leads to those points being won. They also tell us little about a players’ strength and weakness beyond serving and returning.
Here are five stats I wish the ATP and WTA would track:
1. Serve placement.
Tennis players often have a go-to serve that they feel is most comfortable, or a serve that tends to win a high percentage of points. Yet, there is very little tracking data (aside from in-match Hawk-Eye information) on tennis players’ serve tendencies. Not only would it be interesting to know that information when watching top players, but it would also be valuable to players from a scouting perspective when playing against a certain opponent.
You could take it a step further and see whether a player goes for a different serve pattern on big points (break points, deuce points, etc.). It would reveal some fascinating tendencies, I think.
To make it simple, there would be three distinctions: out wide, down the T, and body (middle of the box). Service depth would be interesting as well, if we’re discussing pipe dreams.
2. Winners broken down by forehand and backhand.
Winners are a flawed stat by nature. Many times, the actual shot hit for a winner isn’t what leads to the point being won. A lot of the work comes before the winner. Maybe a winner is just a simple put-away up at the net after a well-hit groundstroke. But if we’re going to look at winners, it would be helpful to know the breakdown of forehand vs. backhand, since there are numerous players who lack weapons on one side or the other.
These numbers are occasionally tracked on tennis television broadcasts, but they are not consistently compiled anywhere.
3. Average return depth.
Getting a serve back into play but hitting it well within the service box is a recipe for giving up easy points to an opponent. It would be great to see what kind of depth the best returners (and worst returners) are getting on their return shots. Hitting a deep return is one of the best ways to neutralize the serve. Looking at this stat could be revealing, because instead of looking at whether the player wins a return point, which is subject to many different variables, it would attempt to gauge the quality of the return itself.
4. Break chances converted.
Break points are tracked by the ATP and WTA, but those numbers can often be misleading. A player can have 15 break points in one service game, and finally break, and their break point conversion rate would be 1/15. That tells you nothing about the actual match, because they could potentially have 15 break points in five different return games and have the same break point conversion rate.
With break chance conversion rate, you would take each game a player has a break point in, and count it as one chance. So if a player has 15 break points in one game but subsequently breaks, they would be 1/1. At least to me, this is a better reflection of the match because it indicates how many games in which a player has a chance to break. Perhaps there are benefits to looking at both together, but sometimes break point conversion rate fails to tell the full story.
5. Average time to hold serve (counting time the ball is in play only).
Excluding any pre-serve rituals, I would like to know how much time it takes each player to hold serve. In this situation, you can look at time as a measure of effort expended to hold serve. Maybe Roger Federer, a player who earns many free points off his serve, takes less time to hold serve than a player like Rafael Nadal, who doesn’t win a huge number of free points, but earns an extremely high percentage of service holds based on his prowess off the ground. This stat could tell us quite a bit about the level of effort required to hold serve for different players, and the physical toll a match might take on a players’ body.
What tennis stats do you wish were tracked? Feel free to share suggestions in the comments.