The ATP Atlanta event is typically packed with big servers. John Isner won five titles in six years between 2013 and 2018, during which time the only man to stop him was Nick Kyrgios–in two tiebreaks, naturally. The last champion before Isner took over was Andy Roddick. It’s a fast hard court and the weather is often scorching, so the tournament tends to be a week-long ace festival.
The 2019 titlist posted another wave of eye-popping service numbers, winning four matches without facing a single break point, and winning more than 90% of his first serve points in each match. Those positively Isnerian numbers didn’t belong to the big man himself, nor were they posted by heir apparent Reilly Opelka. The serve king in Atlanta this year was the “six-feet tall” (sure, buddy) Australian grinder, Alex de Minaur.
Unlike many of his peers, de Minaur doesn’t make his money with a big serve. In the last 52 weeks, both Isner and Opelka have hit aces on one-quarter of their serve points. The Aussie’s 52-week rate is a mere 4.5%. He posted a tour-level career best of 14.8% against Taylor Fritz in the Atlanta final (excluding a Bernard Tomic retirement), but failed to reach double digits in second round against Bradley Klahn, or in the semi-final against Opelka. Last week, de Minaur proved that there are a lot of ways to win serve points without necessarily piling up the aces.
The easiest non-ace route to victory is the unreturned serve. Players don’t have the same level of control over the rate of unreturned serves that they do with aces. But many great serves are reachable–if not effectively returnable–so they don’t go down in the ace column. The unreturned-but-not-ace category was de Minaur’s bread and butter in Atlanta.
According to the point-by-point log of the final in the Match Charting Project dataset, Fritz put only 57% of the Aussie’s serves back in play. Across over 1,300 MCP-charted hard court matches from the 2010s, the ATP tour average is 70% returned serves, and de Minaur’s opponents have traditionally done even better than that. De Minaur’s unreturned-serve rate of 43% is exceptionally good, ranking in the 90th percentile of service performances. He was even better against Opelka. Only 5 of his 93 service points went for aces, but 38 more didn’t come back. That’s an unreturned-serve rate of 46%, a 94th-percentile-level showing.
De Minaur was even better when the serve wasn’t quite as good. Coaches and commentators like to talk about the “plus one” tactic: Hit a strong serve and get in position to make an aggressive play on whatever comes back. This is where the Aussie truly excelled in the title match.
In addition to the 43% of unreturned serves against Fritz, another 26% of his service points fell into the “plus one” category: second-strike shots that his opponent couldn’t handle. Tour average is 15%, and again, de Minaur hasn’t always been this good. His average over 15 charted hard-court matches in 2018 was only 12.6%. His 26% rate on Sunday ranks in the 98th percentile among charted hard-court matches. Of the 67 single-match performances on record that were better than 26%, 15 were recorded by Roger Federer. Most players never have such a good day in the plus-one category.
Even the best servers have to deal with the occasional long rally. In our sample of charted hard-court matches, 40% of points see the returner survive the plus-one shot and put the ball back in play. From that point, the rally is more balanced, and returners win a bit more than half of points. (That’s partly because 4-shot rallies are more common than 5-shot rallies, and so on, and because a 4-shot rally, by definition, is won by the returner. Put another way, once you exclude 3-or-fewer-shot rallies, you bias the sample toward the returner; if you excluded 4-or-fewer-shot rallies, you would bias the sample toward the server, because 5-shot rallies make up a disproportionate amount of the remaining points.)
Serving like de Minaur did, he didn’t see nearly so many “long” rallies. 22% of his service points against Fritz, and 29% against Opelka, reached four shots. Facing the typical one-dimensional big server, this is the returner’s chance to even the score. But de Minaur is known more for his ground game than his service. In the final, he won 58% of these points, good enough for the 83rd percentile in our sample.
De Minaur’s performance on longer rallies didn’t really move the needle on Sunday, mostly because he so effectively prevented points from lasting that long. But the fact that he won more than half of the extended exchanges is a reminder that a great serving performance depends on more than just the serve. On a good day, even a six-footer can post numbers that leave Isner and Opelka in the dust. It isn’t always about the aces.