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.