At the ATP level, the ability to hang around in long rallies seems to be a key to success, especially on clay. Most of the top players are such good defenders that a one-dimensional serve/forehand game just doesn’t cut it.
One stat you’ll occasionally see on television broadcasts is the number of points that reach a certain length, along with how each player is performing on those points. The cutoff I’ve seen most frequently is 8 shots, and that seems like a reasonable enough line to draw.
Armed with point-by-point data from (most of) the men’s singles matches at the French Open, we can take a closer look. The following table shows three numbers for each of the 16 players who reached the 4th round:
- Average rally length–that’s the total number of shots per point for every point that the player contested.
- Percentage of points that reached eight or more shots.
- Percentage of eight-or-more-shot rallies that the player won.
PLAYER Shots/Pt 8+ 8+Wins Juan Ignacio Chela 5.3 25.7% 48.0% Gilles Simon 5.3 25.7% 59.8% Andy Murray 5.1 22.8% 50.5% Viktor Troicki 4.7 19.2% 48.9% Rafael Nadal 4.6 18.3% 56.5% Robin Soderling 4.6 19.5% 55.1% David Ferrer 4.5 16.8% 70.7% Alejandro Falla 4.5 19.7% 47.9% Gael Monfils 4.3 17.3% 44.8% Albert Montanes 4.3 15.2% 46.1% Fabio Fognini 4.3 15.5% 59.5% Novak Djokovic 4.1 16.0% 63.6% Richard Gasquet 4.0 13.9% 57.0% Roger Federer 3.9 14.0% 49.7% Ivan Ljubicic 3.7 11.8% 49.4% Stanislas Wawrinka 3.6 11.1% 46.2%
Unsurprisingly, the first two stats correlate quite closely. The more eight-shot rallies you play, the higher your per-point average will be. What may be more of a surprise is that the number of eight-shot rallies you play doesn’t appear to have much effect on your success in eight-shot rallies. Andy Murray may be an instructive example here: He’s good at keeping himself in long points, but not always so good at doing what he needs to do to win them.
These numbers are far from authoritative–none of these stats comprise more than seven matches, and many comprise only four. With so little data, a single opponent can skew the numbers. For instance, Nadal was closer to the top of the rally-length leaderboard in the Australian Open, but a disproportionate number of his points came against John Isner, who is normally at the extreme other end. Matches against Ljubicic and Federer also kept Nadal’s average down.
The same warning should be made about Ferrer’s impressive 70.7% winning percentage on long points. I don’t doubt that he’s usually quite good in such rallies, but his four matches included two against players who are the exact opposite: Jarkko Nieminen and Sergiy Stakhovsky.
As more data of this sort becomes available, it will be interesting to see what trends emerge.