Nick Kyrgios and the Minimum Viable Return Game

No matter how well a player serves, he still needs to win some return points. While one-dimensional ATPers such as Ivo Karlovic and John Isner have demonstrated that an unbreakable serve alone can get you a steady paycheck and some quality time in the top 20, their playing style has never translated into a prolonged stay in the top ten.

Nick Kyrgios isn’t quite as tall as Isner or Karlovic, but his numbers are similar. In the last year, he has won 31.7% of return points, third-worst among the top 50, ahead of only those two players. In fact, since 1991, only five players have lasted a full season at tour-level while winning a lower percentage of return points. To make an impact in the upper echelon of the men’s game, the Australian will need to improve his return game in a big way.

To win matches, you need to break serve or win tiebreaks, and most players don’t demonstrate any particular tiebreak skill. That leaves breaks of serve, and to break serve, you need to win return points. Almost all ATP tour regulars win between 29% and 43% of return points, so a single percentage point or two is a meaningful distinction. While Milos Raonic‘s rate of return points won over the last 52 weeks is a Kyrgios-comparable 32.1%, no other top-ten player is below 36%.

If Kyrgios is to crack the top ten without any substantial improvement in his return game, Raonic is the model. Last year, Milos finished the season at #8 in the rankings despite having won only 33.7% of return points. That’s the lowest rate on record for a player with a year-end ranking in the top ten, and only the seventh time since 1991 that a RPW% below 35% earned someone a spot in the top ten.

Even at 33.7%–two percentage points higher than Kyrgios’s current rate–it took a remarkable run of tiebreak success for Raonic to win as many matches as he did. Milos won 75% of tiebreaks last year, a rate that almost no one has ever sustained beyond a single season. In other words, if Raonic is to continue winning matches at the same pace, he’ll probably need to post better return-game results.

To earn a place in the elite of the top five, the return-game threshold is even higher. Only two players–Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic–have finished a season in the top five with a RPW% below 36%, and only two more–Andy Roddick and Stanislas Wawrinka–have done so with a sub-37% RPW%. Roger Federer, the most serve-oriented of the big four, hasn’t posted a RPW% below 38% in fifteen years.

The difference between 32% and 36% is enormous. To use a baseball analogy, a similar gap in batting average would be, roughly, from .240 to .280. The effects are equally meaningful. At 32%, a player is breaking serve roughly once per eight return games–considerably less than once per set. At 36%, he’s breaking serve almost once per five return games. Improve a few more percentage points to 39%, and he’s breaking every fourth game, almost twice as often as Kyrgios is now.

Those break rates are simply a way of quantifying what we already know at a general level: Players with strong return games have the power to decide matches. The more one-dimensional the playing style, the more likely a match is decided by just a few key points. And the smaller that number of points, the more that luck plays a part.

Of course, luck cuts both ways. It’s what makes players like Isner and Kyrgios so dangerous. Someone like Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal can usually dictate play, but against an unbreakable opponent, it all comes down to a few points in a couple of tiebreaks. So big servers tend to rocket into the top 30 or 40. A fifty-fifty winning percentage, especially coupled with a big upset and an occasional deep run at a big tournament, is plenty good enough to earn a spot that high in the rankings.

But without at least a mediocre return game, it’s tough for a big server to get beyond that level. Isner has managed it by winning tiebreaks at one of the best rates of all time, and even he has barely dipped his toe in the top ten. Raonic is a substantially better returner than the American, and it remains to be seen whether he can sustain his impressive tiebreak winning percentage and keep a spot among the game’s best.

Fortunately, Kyrgios has plenty of time to improve and break out of the mold of a one-dimensional big server. If he hopes to make a mark beyond the occasional upset and a home at the fringes of the top 20, that’s exactly what he’ll need to do.