Roger Federer’s Break Point Opportunities

Remember Roger Federer‘s dreadful performance on break points against Tommy Robredo at last year’s US Open?  Of course you do. He had 16 chances to break, converted only two of them, and lost the match in straight sets.  Then we all cried.

Yesterday, Federer won in straight sets against James Duckworth, but his break point performance wasn’t much better.  Four breaks of serve was all he needed to cruise to victory, but the Australian saved 13 other break chances.  In his disappointing loss to Lleyton Hewitt in Brisbane, Fed only converted 1 of 10 break chances.

Is this the end? Is a lack of break point conversions the monster that will finally slay the old man?

Not so fast.

To identify how bad (or, possibly, good) Federer has been on break points, we must compare that performance to his record on other return points.  Roger isn’t same kind of master returner as Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, so it would be unrealistic to expect him to convert as many break points as they do.  To control for general returning ability, we must compare break point conversion rate to winning percentage on all other return points.

Sure enough, 2013 wasn’t a good year for Fed.  His break point conversion rate was 8% lower than his winning percentage on other return points.  When I ran these numbers after the Robredo match, that ranked 40th out of the ATP top 50.

Most of us, thinking back to Fed’s glory days, surely imagine that this is new.  And it’s true: 2013 was a bad year. But watch out for runaway narratives–there’s more randomness here than trend.  The graph below shows how Fed has performed each year on break point conversions.  A number above 1 is good: He’s winning more break point chances than other return points, as in 2009, when he exceeded expectations by 4.4%. Below 1 is bad: Last year was 7.8% below expectations.


If you see a pattern here, I’m impressed.  2013 was bad, but not as bad as 2003, when 21-year-old Fed performed more than 10% worse on break point chances than on other return points.  He also went 78-17, winning seven tournaments, including Wimbledon and the Masters Cup, raising his ranking from #6 to #2.

Last year’s break point record was also comparable to 2007, when he converted 5.9% fewer break points than expected … and won three Grand Slams.

As with so many popular tennis stats, this one just doesn’t have that much of a relationship with winning.  Breaks matter, but missed break chances don’t. In Federer’s case, even breaks don’t always matter that much–he’s one of history’s best in tiebreaks.

The bigger picture with break point conversions

Over his career, Federer has been just a tick below average on break point, winning about 1.5% more other return points than break points.  The year-to-year fluctuations don’t appear to be terribly meaningful.

That isn’t to say that no player has strong break point tendencies.  Nadal has consistently excelled in these clutch situations, winning more break points than expected for each of the last five seasons.  He is even better when facing break point, typically winning about 7% more service points in that situation than in others.  (Some of that is due to the advantage of a lefty serving in the ad court.)

Novak Djokovic has also been a little better on break points than on return points as a whole. But last year–a season he finished within a whisker of #1–his performance in those situations was almost as poor as Federer’s.

Andy Murray is consistent when handed break point chances–consistently bad.  Since 2006, he has only exceeded expectations once. In 2012–a pretty good year from him by most standards–he won 7.3% fewer break point chances than other return points.

David Ferrer? A tick below expectations. 7.7% below other return points in 2013. Juan Martin del Potro? Consistently above expectations, including an impressive +6.8% in 2011.  Stanislas Wawrinka? -7.3% in 2011, +7.8% in 2012, then in his breakthrough 2013 campaign, -3.0%.

Constant exposure to break point stats has tricked us into thinking they are particularly meaningful. There are plenty of reasons why Federer is winning fewer matches than he used to–for one thing, he’s almost as old as I am–but break point performance just isn’t that important.

7 thoughts on “Roger Federer’s Break Point Opportunities”

  1. Thanks, very interesting, especially the fact that Fed is in line with the other top guys, because it sure doesn’t feel that way. I think Fed has traditionally been at the top in number of break points created so maybe that’s why it seems to stand out more for him than the others. Really surprised that return masters Djokovic and Murray don’t kill this stat. Of course, Nadal is a great returner too but I suspect his positive score is helped by his clay dominance where he sees a breakpoint and takes a breakpoint like clockwork (of course last year he did the same on all surfaces). I wonder what Del Po’s BP return strategy is that puts him on top.

  2. edelbee, Delpo seems to have an extremely good competitive temperament. Leaving physical considerations and skill out of the picture, he focuses well when it matters, stays calm when some others would get nervous or upset, and is often at his very best when the stakes are highest. That’s why he has such a good record in finals. Based on my limited time watching his matches, I think he probably maximizes his chances when he gets a break point by going for it – but not recklessly. Another characteristic of Delpo’s tennis is that there seems to be a bigger margin between his “average” level and the best he can do. Maybe Dr Berger advised him to go easy on his wrists, as far as possible, so he tries to get by with big serves, baseline rallying, and manoeuvring. But when the stakes are down, out comes the big “fearhand”.

  3. This post is just a masterpiece. I am just now getting to Wertheim’s column of 1/15/13 in which he observes in talking about Serena Williams’s intimidating aura, “There are dimensions of tennis that don’t lend themselves to empirical support.” Yes certainly. But at the same time, stats can surprise us in a way that musing about “aura” never can. I don’t remember what your day job is but surely someone with $$ is going to come calling on you for this kind of juicy insight. Of course it won’t be IBM . . .

    1. Thanks! Yeah, Wertheim claims to be interested in tennis analytics, but I’ve never seen any evidence of actual interest. In Serena’s case, not sure it matters how intimidating her aura is–she’s better than any other woman alive! Give her Wickmayer’s aura and she’d still be #1.

  4. Nadal is a lefty, and that may be an explanation for his break points stats.
    Most break points happen from the Ad-court (all of them but the ones in a 15-40 score),and that way the return is easier for him.

  5. It’s surely hard to argue that Federer’s poor BP performance isn’t that important, given that any minor increase would likely show Federer winning many more of the lottery matches in which he does so badly. I would agree that when Federer wins matches, his low BP conversion does not seem to matter, but I would argue that the fact Federer’s low BP conversion runs alongside both his wins and losses implies not that it is unimportant but that it is a leak which other elements of Federer’s game sometimes mask and sometimes do not. Djokovic and Federer’s recent meetings at both the Cincinnati and US Open finals showcased what I believe usually makes the difference between Federer winning a ‘close’ encounter by a significant margin – as he did at Cincinnati winning 56.4% of points – and a common alternative, Federer losing a ‘lottery match’. This factor is the Federer serve. In Cincinnati Federer’s BP conversion was dreadful, only 1 of 8. But the fact that he did not even expose himself to a single break point made this statistic irrelevant, especially since Federer does very well in tie breaks, as you have discussed elsewhere. It is important to note that the serving percentage is not always the most important statistic, since Federer often serves ineffectively while maintaining a statistically healthy 60%+ 1st serve percentage. The US Open final is a case in point, with Federer’s first serve in percentage averaging 64%. In fact, in the fourth set, in which Federer was at one point 2-5 down, he served at 71%. Yet in this match Djokovic broke Federer 6 times, converting 6 of 13 break points. At Cincinnati Federer only served at the 59% mark, barely what would usually be considered reasonable. Yet he exposed no break points whatsoever and won 12% more first serve points and a phenomenal 33% more second serve points than he did at the US final. This could be explained by several different factors, such as the conditions, fatigue, Djokovic’s performance, and so on, but it was clear to me from watching both matches that Federer’s serves, especially his second serve, were simply better at Cincinnati than the US, they were more accurate, more awkwardly placed, more powerful, created more unreturned serves, and generally allowed Federer to breeze through his service games without much contest or energy expended. In the past this has generally been the same. Players who can match or beat Federer’s baseline prowess, as the likes of Nadal and Djokovic have shown they can, defeat Federer when he serves badly on a regular basis, and lose to Federer when he serves well on a regular basis too. I would also, as a last thought, suggest that the other common denominator is often the weather, with Federer’s aggressive serving and generally hyper aggressive style surfacing, and then usually succeeding, much more regularly in hot, dry conditions than damp, cold ones. Again, the Cincinnati and US finals are useful examples, with Cincinnati being hot and dry and the US cold and damp. Not only does this affect Federer’s serving, but as I suggested above I think it also affects his hyper aggressive style in general. It was very noteworthy how many more long, drawn out rallies and how relatively few fast serve and volley or SABR style rallies Federer played in the US when compared to Cincinnati. Whether this is psychological, a result of damp, heavy tennis balls, or something else is hard to say. It’s probably a combination of several things, but whatever it is, it very frequently accompanies the weaker serve which makes Federer’s BP conversion stand out like a sore thumb.

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