“You have the best backhand in the world” – Thomas Högstedt (Sharapova’s coach)
Yesterday I wrote a post about a new statistic that I wanted to track during tennis matches: the Forehand and Backhand Efficiency Ratings. The concept is rather simple: I would count how many forehands and backhands are attempted by a player during a match, and get a figure by using the following formulas:
Forehand Efficiency rating = (Total Attempted Forehands – Forehand Unforced Errors)/Total Attempted Forehands
Backhand Efficiency Rating: (Total Attempted Backhands – Backhand Unforced Errors)/Total Attempted Backhands
In yesterday’s post I tracked David Ferrer’s shots, and the numbers showed just what an incredibly consistent player the World No. 5 is. Today gave me an opportunity to track the shots of a very different player – one that is well know for being extremely aggressive with all of her shots. Maria Sharapova defeated Sara Errani for the fourth straight time today, in a tough 7-5. 7-5 affair. Judging by the reactions on Twitter, the match wasn’t all that pleasant to watch. However, I had a lot of fun tracking Sharapova’s shots through every game. I even feel like I gained a new level of appreciation for the woman who’s already won a career Grand Slam.
Particularly for that backhand of hers.
Before I forget, I made one modification from yesterday’s post in terms of methodology: I included second serve returns in this tally.
Without further ado, let’s look at my first set scorecard, which Sharapova won 7-5:
As always, the blue highlights on games 1, 3 and 11 represent Sharapova breaks of serve, while the red highlights on games 4 and 10 represent Errani breaks of serve. Notice that Maria Sharapova hit 11 more forehands than backhands in that opening set, and hit more forehands than backhands every time she broke serve.
Here are the first set unforced error numbers (courtesy of TennisTV), as well as the Forehand and Backhand Efficiency Ratings:
Look at that backhand efficiency rating. 94%. This means that Maria Sharapova makes six backhand errors per 100 backhand attempts. And as we know, Sharapova looks to attack with her backhand on almost every single point.
That’s simply a shocking number.
What’s interesting is that as I started noticing this trend, I began to play closer attention to Sharapova’s backhand. And I was left in awe. It’s just breathtaking how much power and depth she gets with that wing. It’s such a sound, perfect shot. I also think it’s totally underrated how easily Sharapova changes the direction of the ball with her two-hander, without losing any pace during the process. It’s just deathly. Not only that, but Sharapova defends well with that shot, and she can negotiate tricky short balls incredibly well with her natural touch on that wing. Those short balls are actually fun to watch, because Sharapova fully uses her left arm to simply re-direct the ball where it needs to go. It’s just such a natural motion.
Of course, we all know that Sharapova’s struggles come when her forehand becomes erratic. Like her serve, that forehand works extremely well when Sharapova is fully engaged to do all the little things to make a “learned” shot work. When all the moving parts are in harmony, the shot works beautifully. As Venus Williams found out a couple of months ago at the Australian Open, when Maria Sharapova is not missing with her forehand, she’s pretty near unplayable. Today, Maria’s forehand came and went, as did her serve. However, I will say that her struggles with her serve were greater than her struggles with her forehand. After all, an 86% Efficiency Rating is not that bad, particularly when you take into account the 13 forehand winners Sharapova hit in that first set, as well as Sharapova’s clear intent on being aggressive off that wing. Her serve, however, was an issue. Sharapova hit eight double faults in the first set, and only came up with three aces.
Before we move to the second set, did you notice any difference between Sharapova’s service games and her return games? There’s a fascinating pattern in play:
Sharapova hit 18 more total forehands than backhands in her return games. That’s pretty significant. And you can see that the pattern is somewhat inverted during her service games, where she hit seven more total backhands than forehands.
I should mention that Errani was trying to get most of her returns to Sharapova’s backhand corner, which I thought was a slight mistake. If anything, Errani should have tried to get Sharapova to hit a running forehand as the first shot of the rally. Starting a point with her backhand is Sharapova’s most comfortable scenario.
Isn’t it interesting that Sharapova hit significantly more backhands than forehands (11 combined) in both games in which she got broken? And she hit eight more combined forehands than backhands in the three games in which she broke Errani’s serve.
Let’s move on to the second set (also won by Sharapova, 7-5) and see if the trends that were established in the first half of the match continued:
Notice that in set 2, Sharapova actually hit more backhands than forehands (six more, in fact). One trend has been reversed so far, then. Here are the second set unforced errors and Efficiency Ratings:
I find this very interesting. Even though Maria hit more backhands than forehands in that second set, her Efficiency Rating for that wing only went down by 1%. That’s remarkable. Her forehand Efficiency Rating went up by that same 1%, too.
Now, did the trends we saw in return games and service games stay true? Here are the numbers for both sets of games during the second set:
Notice how Sharapova went from hitting 18 more forehands than backhands during the return games in the first set to just 10 in the second. And a similar change occurred during her own service games, where she hit 16 more backhands than forehands in the second set, as opposed to just seven more in the first set.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, “if Sharapova’s numbers were so good off the ground, why was this match such a struggle?” Here are three possible answers:
1. Maria Sharapova ended up serving 14 double faults. That’s way, way too many, and she only had six aces to counter them. That ratio needs to be at least 1 to 1 in order to be somewhat healthy. You don’t want your serve to throw away more points than it earns you.
You can also see that Sharapova’s confidence is directly related to what’s going on with her serve. When the serve is humming, the forehand clicks, and it’s all peachy. But when the double faults start showing up, the footwork on the forehand starts to disintegrate, and that shot becomes more and more tentative. Sharapova will keep plugging along, because she’s such an incredible competitor, but you feel like she’s battling her own issues as well as her opponent from that moment on.
I also think Sara Errani played a good second set. Not good enough to win it, but good enough to make it a dogfight in which she just couldn’t find that extra gear to force a third set.
2. Sharapova didn’t play the break points particularly well. She ended up converting just six of the 18 that she created. She seemed too tentative in some, and too impatient in others.
3. I didn’t think Sharapova had a good afternoon returning Errani’s first serve. As we know, the Italian tends to serve a high percentage of first serves because her delivery doesn’t have much pace. In a perfect world, that would be Errani’s second serve, not her first serve. Sharapova made way too many errors by trying to go for too much on every single one of them, instead of focusing on getting it back in play so her superior firepower off the ground could help her dominate Errani in a much more straightforward fashion.
Regarding this last point, Thomas Högstedt – Sharapova’s coach – berated her during a second set changeover, because he thought Sharapova was looking to hit too many forehands on returns (by running around her backhand), instead of letting her backhand produce a more consistent return that would allow her to dominate during the rallies. That’s when he uttered the quote at the top of this post: “You have the best backhand in the world.”
At that point in the match, I had already zeroed in on Sharapova’s two-hander, and marvelled at just how incredible that shot truly is. So when Högstedt uttered that phrase, I almost nodded in agreement. Yes, Sharapova doesn’t hit a one-handed slice backhand. Yes, coaches love to overrate their player’s abilities. Yes, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have pretty great backhands, too. But I could see why Högstedt would say such a thing: during points I would not only know that Sharapova wouldn’t miss with her backhand, but that Errani was in serious trouble if Sharapova had time to set up and attack with that wing. It was a surprise when she made an error with it, and Maria hit many incredible shots off that wing. She finished with 13 backhand winners, which is the same number of winners Sara Errani produced off both wings during the whole match.
Sharapova’s backhand is, simply put, a glorious tennis shot.
Let me leave you with the final match figures for attempts, unforced errors and Efficiency Ratings, as well as a thought:
Yesterday we saw that David Ferrer had almost a 95% Efficiency Rating on his forehand during his match against Kei Nishikori – which is outstanding. But as you can see from the above table, that’s just one percentage point higher than Maria Sharapova’s backhand Efficiency Rating during today’s match. And while Ferrer’s forehand has a ton of spin and doesn’t have that much pace, Sharapova’s backhand is mostly flat, and she is looking to inject as much pace as she can on most of the shots she hits off that wing.
That’s one big reason why she’s won every Grand Slam. And why Thomas Högstedt isn’t all that wrong.