Winning Matches With Very Few Return Points

Yesterday in Paris, Gilles Simon won the first set of his match over Nicolas Mahut (a.k.a. Nicolas Massu), doing so with the benefit of a single break.  That’s not unusual, but his return performance in the set was.  He won only four return points in the entire set–all, of course, in that single game.

It’s possible to win a set while claiming only one return point, if you reach a tiebreak and win every point on your own serve.  In theory, then, a player could win a best-of-three-set match while winning only two return points, or a best-of-five with only three.  If no sets reach tiebreaks, a player could win a match with as few as four return points per set, as Simon did in the first set yesterday.

In the last 20-plus years of ATP tour-level matches, no one has ever posted such an extreme win, winning only two return points (or even eight return points in a match with no tiebreaks) en route to victory.  But on several occasions, players have come close.

Since 1991, six players have won matches while winning only ten return points.  The most recent was Philipp Kohlschreiber‘s 6-4 7-6(4) victory over Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy at the 2011 Metz tournament.

More impressive, though, was Albert Montanes‘s 2002 victory over Felix Mantilla in Acapulco.  He won 6-4 6-4 with only ten return points won, meaning that he “wasted” only two of those return points.  Mantilla had ten service games, lost two them, and held to love in at least six of the others.

Record-setting in their own way are two more of these ten-return-point matches: Irakli Labadze d. Justin Gimelstob 6-7(2) 7-6(3) 6-2 (2001 Shanghai) and Gustavo Kuerten d. Marat Safin 3-6 7-6(2) 7-6(2) (2000 Indianapolis).  These are the three-set matches in which the winner claimed the fewest return points.  It’s possible that Labadze and Kuerten didn’t win a single return point in the sets they lost, but it makes their eventual victory all the more impressive.

The Labadze win is also notable in that it is the only ten-return-points-won match in which the winner won a double-break set.  The Kuerten victory points in a new direction: Safin hit two double faults, so of the ten return points Kuerten won, he only had to make an effort on eight of them.

Remarkably, that’s not quite the record.  At 1992 Queen’s Club, Shuzo Matsuoka beat Goran Ivanisevic 6-4 6-3 while winning just 12 return points.  Five of those were Ivanisevic double faults, so Matsuoka only won seven points in which he returned the big Croatian’s serve.

One more bit of trivia.  At last year’s US Open, Milos Raonic beat Paul Henri Mathieu 7-5 6-4 7-6(4) while tallying only 16 return points (two of which were PHM double faults).  That’s the record for best-of-five-set matches, just barely edging out Jurgen Melzer‘s 2007 victory in Australia over Ivo Karlovic, 6-4 6-4 7-6(6), in which he won only 17 return points (three of them doubles).

Dr. Ivo, as you might guess, has piled up more than his share of this sort of match.  In fact, he has played 65 matches in his career in which the winner won fewer than 20 return points, amassing a nearly even record of 33 wins and 32 losses.  That impressive total puts him in second place among ATPers of the last 23 years, behind Andy Roddick.  Roddick played 69 such matches, winning 54 against only 15 losses.  Fittingly, Roddick and Karlovic played two of those matches against each other … and the American won both.

Is There an Advantage To Serving First?

There’s no structural bias toward the player who serves first.  If tennis players were robots, it wouldn’t matter who toed the line before the other.

But the conventional wisdom persists.  Last year, I looked at the first-server advantage in very close matches, and found that depending on the scenario, the player who serves first in the final set may win more than 50% of matches–as high as 55%–but the evidence is cloudy.  And that’s based on serving first at the tail end of the match.  Winning the coin toss doesn’t guarantee you that position for the third or fifth set.

Logically, then, it’s hard to see how serving the first game of the match–and holding that possible slight advantage in the first set–would have much impact on the outcome of the match.  There’s simply too much time, and too many events, between the first game and the pressure-packed crucial moments that decide the match.

Yet, the evidence points to a substantial first-serve advantage.

In ATP main-draw matches this year, the player who served first won 52% of the time.  That edge is confirmed when we adjust for individual players.

39 players tallied at least 10 matches in which they served first and 10 in which they served second.  Of those 39, 21 were more successful when serving first, against 17 who won more often when serving second.  (Marcos Baghdatis didn’t show a preference.)  Weigh their results by their number of matches, and the average tour-level regular was 11% more likely to win when serving first than when serving second.  Converted to the same terms as the general finding, that’s 52.6% of matches in favor of the first server.

That’s not an airtight conclusion, but it is a suggestive one.  One possible problem would arise if lesser players–the guys who play some ATP matches against that top 39, but not enough to show up in the 39 themselves–are more likely to choose returning first.  Then, our top 39 would be winning 52.6% of matches against a lesser pool of opponents.

That doesn’t seem to be the case.  I looked at the next 60 or so players, ranked by how many ATP matches they’ve played this year.  That secondary group served first 51% of the time, indicating that the guys on the fringe of the tour don’t have any kind of consistent tendency when winning the coin toss.

For further confirmation, I ran the same algorithm for ATP Challenger matches this year.  That returned another decent-sized set of players with at least 10 matches serving first and 10 matches serving second–38, in this case.  The end result is almost identical.  The Challenger regulars were 9% more likely to win when serving first, which translates to the first server winning 52.2% of the time.

This is a particularly interesting finding, because in the aggregate, these 38 Challenger regulars prefer to serve second.  Of their 1110 matches so far this year, these guys served first only 503 times–about 45%.  Despite such a strong preference, the match results tell the story.  They are more likely to win when serving first.

When we turn our attention to the WTA tour, the results are so strong as to be head-scratching.  Applying the same test to 2013 WTA matches (though lowering the minimum number of matches to eight each, to ensure a similar number of players), the 35 most active players on the WTA tour are 28% more likely to win when serving first than when serving second.  In other words, when a top player is on the court, the first server wins about 56.3% of the time.  24 of the 35 players in this sample have better winning percentages when serving first than when serving second.

For something that cannot be attributed to a structural bias, a factor that can only be described as mental, I’m reluctant to put too much faith in these WTA results without further research.  However, the simple fact that ATP, Challenger, and WTA results agreed in direction is encouraging.  The first-server advantage may not be overwhelming, but it appears to be real.