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:
- One player was much more dominant on serve (think 4 or 5-point games instead of 6+)
- 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.