Yep, Wimbledon is Playing Slower This Year

Italian translation at settesei.it

The players are right. Wimbledon’s surface–or balls, or atmosphere, or aura–has slowed down in comparison with recent years. We’ve heard comments to that effect from Roger Federer, Milos Raonic, Boris Becker, Rafael Nadal, and many others. Raonic attributes the change to the grass, and Nadal to the balls. Regardless of the reason, the numbers back up their perceptions.

Here is an overview of several surface-speed indicators for the first three rounds of singles matches at Wimbledon, 2017-19:

                     2017   2018   2019  
Aces (Men)           8.9%  10.0%   8.5%  
Aces (Women)         4.1%   4.2%   4.1%  
                                         
Unret (Men)         36.0%  36.6%  33.3%  
Unret (Women)       25.9%  27.6%  25.2%  
                                         
<= 3 Shots (Men)    65.2%  65.6%  61.9%  
<= 3 Shots (Women)  55.3%  57.9%  55.0%  
                                         
Avg Rally (Men)       3.4    3.5    3.7  
Avg Rally (Women)     4.0    3.8    4.1

The second set of rows, "Unret," is the percent of unreturned serves. The next set, "<=3 Shots," is the percent of points that ended in three shots or less. For all four of the stats shown, including aces and average rally length, men's numbers point to slower conditions. The women's numbers are less clear, but to the extent that they point in either direction, they concur.

Not just 2019

Aggregate numbers such as these usually give us an idea of what's going on. But we can do better. The numbers above do not control for the mix of players or the length of their matches. For instance, 2019's rates would be different if John Isner, instead of Mikhail Kukushkin, had played a third-round match. The surface speed might have affected that result, but if we're going to compare ace rate from one year to the next, we shouldn't compare Isner's ace rate with Kukushkin's ace rate.

That's where my surface speed metric comes in. For each tournament, I control for the mix of servers and returners (yes, returners affect ace rate, too) to boil down each event to one number, representing how the tournament's ace rate compares to tour average. While there's more to surface speed than ace rate, aces are a good proxy for many of those other indicators, and more importantly, aces are one of the few stats that are available for every match.

The resulting score usually ranges between 0.5--50% fewer aces than average, usually on a slow clay court like Monte Carlo--and 1.5--50% more aces than average, on a fast grass or indoor hard court, like Antalya or Metz. Over the last decade, Wimbledon's conditions have drifted from the high end of that range to the middle:

Year      Men    Women  Average  
2011     1.26     1.37     1.31  
2012     1.27     1.06     1.17  
2013     1.29     1.04     1.17  
2014     1.35     1.19     1.27  
2015     1.20     1.16     1.18  
2016     1.06     1.03     1.04  
2017     1.03     1.07     1.05  
2018     1.14     0.98     1.06  
2019     1.04     0.96     1.00 

The men's numbers are usually more reliable measurements, because they are based on many more aces, which means that the ace rate for any given match is less fluky. Ideally, we'd see the men's and women's speed ratings move in lockstep, but there is some noise in the calculation, and the ratings are also relative to that year's tour average, which depends in turn on the changing speeds of dozens of other surfaces.

Caveats aside, the direction of the trend is clear. There isn't a substantial difference between 2019 and the last few years, but the gap between the first and second half of the decade is dramatic.

What is less clear--and will require considerable further research--is how much it matters. In 2014, Nick Kyrgios upset Nadal in four sets, while last week, the result was reversed. How much of that can we attribute to the surface? Would faster conditions have allowed Isner to outlast Kukushkin? Kevin Anderson to hold off Guido Pella? Jelena Ostapenko to withstand Su Wei Hsieh?

For now, those questions remain in the speculation-only file. Now that we can conclude that the grass really has gotten slower, we can focus that speculation on the fates of several grass court savants, including Federer, Raonic, and Karolina Pliskova. By the end of the fortnight, they--like Kyrgios--might be wishing it was 2014 again.