Donald Young’s Perpetual Hopes and the Lefty Serve That Isn’t

Donald Young celebrated his 25th birthday last week, and if you’ve been following the ATP for any part of the last decade, you know all about his talent, his potential, and his underwhelming results. Every time he goes deep in a tournament–as he has in Washington this week, upsetting Kevin Anderson in three sets today–all that upside talk gets dredged up again.  Is this finally the breakthrough for which we’ve waited so long?

In general, it’s a safe bet to watch longer-term trends more closely than short-term peaks and valleys. So the short, obvious answer is: No, it’s unlikely to be a sign of much greater things to come. Still, Young has beaten three top-50 players this week, and it’s a good time to take a closer look at what might be holding him back.

A prime obstacle isn’t hard to identify. Donald has one of the weakest serves on the ATP tour. While that doesn’t automatically keep him out of the top fifty in the world, it sure doesn’t help. Young’s year-to-date ace percentage, 3.4%, is among the ten worst on tour, and with the exception of David Ferrer and Roberto Bautista Agut, none of the other players on that list are inside the top 35. This year’s number is no slump, as Young’s ace rate has been below 4% every year since 2009.

Another metric to indicate the effectiveness of a player’s service game is the ratio of service winning percentage to return winning percentage (SW/RW). If a player wins lots of service points, it might be due to a good serve, or it might owe to a strong overall game. This ratio gives us a rough measure of how much a player’s success on serve is due to the serve itself.

Coming into Washington this week, Young’s SW/RW was 1.49, one of the lowest marks of any left-handed tour regular in the last ten years. A few right-handers succeed while winning only 50% more service points than return points–including Ferrer and, for one season, Andy Murray–but the average player on tour wins roughly 73% more serve points than return points. Even Rafael Nadal hasn’t fallen below the 1.5 mark since 2005.

As Ferrer has demonstrated, a player with Young’s level of service success can have a very good career on tour. Yet Ferrer’s skillset is unusual, and importantly, he’s a righty.

Not every successful ATP left-hander is a big server. Nadal won dozens of titles before fully developing the serve he uses today. Neither Fernando Verdasco nor Jurgen Melzer, two lefties who cracked the top ten, are known for overpowering deliveries. But in the last decade, Nadal is the only left-hander to consistently succeed with a SW/RW under 1.6.

It’s a different story for righties. As we’ve seen, Ferrer is a perennial top player despite Young-like serve stats. Fabio Fognini, Nikolay Davydenko, and Lleyton Hewitt have all enjoyed solid seasons without greater serve dominance than Young. (Though Hewitt has racked up better ace totals.)

Surprisingly, it isn’t that lefties are bigger servers. On average, both lefties and righties win about 73% more service points than return points. The tentative conclusion I see from these numbers is that lefties–with the typical exception of Rafa–can’t get away with a weak serve the way that right-handers can.

Young’s SW/RW this week of 1.69 suggests that, despite only 13 aces in four matches, he’s playing well behind his serve, and the results have followed.  It may be, though, that a modest improvement to his serve–or perhaps his tactics behind the serve–would be particularly valuable, seizing whatever specific advantages worked for guys like Verdasco and Melzer.

If Young is (finally) to take a big step forward, he’ll need to do more with his serve for a season–not just a week. He doesn’t need to become the next Feliciano Lopez; he just needs to be a little less like a left-handed Fognini.

8 thoughts on “Donald Young’s Perpetual Hopes and the Lefty Serve That Isn’t”

  1. Whoa! I’m teaching myself to play primarily lefty (at 50) and this is harsh news. I thought I’d get a natural break, but you’re telling me I’m making my life harder?! And, needless to say, the serve is the hardest thing to get right.

    Any idea on the mechanisms of the vulnerability would be appreciated. Perhaps a lefty serve down the middle creates a natural “inside” directional the returner can leverage?

  2. Cool post. I had not heard of SW/RW before but it makes sense to me as a useful shortcut or mathematical heuristic. I’m curious – if the math does indeed suggest that lefties need a stronger serve than righties, what are some possible reasons for that? I cannot even call myself a recreational player at this point, so I don’t have even a minimal level of personal playing experience to draw upon in speculating.

    Only other comment – I miss your posting more often as you used to. Podcasts can be fun, and I’m sure they’re fun to put together, but they are also time-consuming and I rarely find I have the time to listen to a complete podcast. Sigh.

  3. In respond to both Kevin and wholesight:

    After thinking about this some more, here’s what I think is going on. Lefties have a natural advantage serving to righties, because the natural lefty slice spins away from the RH’s backhand. (A RH serve spins away from a RH’s forehand, and it’s easier to lunge to hit a decent forehand. Also, this logic implies that a RH will have more success serving against a LH than against a fellow RH.)

    So, that natural advantage means that if a RH server and a LH server have exactly the same ability level (say, max serve speed, placement, etc.), the LH will get more aces (and probably more non-ace cheap points) against RHs, and since most players are RHs, that means they get more aces in general.

    I’m not sure what that equivalence is — if Young has a ~3.5% ace rate, don’t know whether it’s equal to a RH 2% or 1% or what. But if my logic is correct (that LH vs RH spin should be about as effective as RH vs LH spin), there have been enough LH/RH matches and LH/LH matches over the years that I can do a mini-study on that.

  4. This doesn’t apply specifically to DY’s case but maybe here is another way to think about serving stats that attempts to incorporate the quality of the opponents faced.

    Suppose a player P wins his first serve points with probability 0.75 (identical argument addresses 2nd serve). Then you can look at all his opponents and look at the probability that they win first serve return points. Suppose that this average across all opponents (in the past year for example) is 0.34. Then you would conclude that since player P’s opponents win return points against him at a lower rate than their averages, then P is in some way a stronger server than his statistics might indicate. Of course, if your opponents are weaker than average than this can inflate your stats, and if you are winning a lot of matches then you are playing deeper into tournaments and playing stronger players than the random player. In some ways it’s like baseball pitchers – look at the batting averages of the hitters they faced and compare with how those batters did against a particular pitcher. Here is a link that looks at this in the context of baseball – I’m sure there is more research into topics like this?

  5. Being a LF hander, I always find these comments to b a bit off base, most especially the concept that all LF handlers have a distinct advantage serving to the AD court and thus getting an easy point on the”final” point. Personally, I believe the most important point is the FIRST point, and there the RH has a distinct advantage. It is much better to b”up” love /15 every game !!!!

  6. Are you able to quantify a comparison between the quality of DY’s and DF serves? I would guess that DF serve (even though not a great shot for a top player due to perhaps height?) is on the whole a better shot, heavier and more consistent with more topspin in comparison to DY’s serve. In the past a lefty with an average serve could just slice it in play and because it naturally went to the backhand of right hand players that was an effective shot 30 years ago because you would often just get a slice return. Now with the ability of all solid players to hit heavy topspin off a backhand return it is less of an advantage. In the 1960s & 1970s and into the 80s players such as Orantes, Muster, Connors, Laver, Vilas, Rios, with average (top player) serves were the best in the world and players with good lefty serves such as Roche, Tanner, McEnroe and Martina were dominant servers.

    On another note I am curious if you have any studies that indicate that the player who who hits the first shot with heavy is likely to control the point as it is difficult to hit a heavier harder shot back off of a heavy topspin shot because of the change in direction of ball rotation that is required to hit heavy topspin ball back with greater topspin than what is coming into the player. Thus for instance the strategy to stand way back on on return of serve enabling players such as Nadal to end up hitting a heavy top spin shot off a very hard serve can perhaps reverse the advantage that a server usually has when the return comes back with more of a block or is hit with under spin allowing the server to hit a big second shot off a ball with minimum topspin.
    Best Steve

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