On Wednesday, Diego Schwartzman scored a notable upset, knocking out 12th seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters. Even more unusual than Bautista Agut’s first-round exit was the way it happened. Both players won more than half of their return points: 61% for Schwartzman and 52% for Bautista Agut. There were 14 breaks of serve in 21 games.
Players like Schwartzman win more than half of return points fairly regularly. In the last 12 months, including both Challenger and tour-level matches, the Argentine–nicknamed El Peque for his diminutive stature–has done so more than 20 times. What is almost unheard of in the men’s game is for both players to return so well (or serve so poorly) that neither player wins at least half of his service points.
Since 1991–the first year for which ATP match stats are available–there have been fewer than 70 matches in which both players win more than half of their return points. (There are another 25 or so in which one player exceeded 50% and the other hit 50% exactly.) What’s more, these matches have become even less frequent over time: Wednesday’s result was the first instance on the ATP tour since 2014, and there have been fewer than 30 since 2000.
Here are the last 15 such matches, along with the both the winner’s (W RPW) and loser’s (L RPW) rates of return points won. Few of the players or surfaces come as a surprise:
Year Event Players W RPW L RPW 2017 Monte Carlo Schwartzman d. RBA 61.4% 51.9% 2014 Rio de Janeiro Fognini d. Bedene 50.6% 50.6% 2014 Houston Hewitt d. Polansky 51.3% 51.5% 2014 Estoril Berlocq d. Berdych 51.5% 50.6% 2013 Monte Carlo Bautista Agut d. Simon 58.8% 50.6% 2013 Estoril Goffin d. P Sousa 55.2% 50.5% 2011 Casablanca Fognini d. Kavcic 51.0% 51.9% 2011 Belgrade Granollers d. Troicki 61.5% 50.8% 2008 Barcelona Chela d. Garcia Lopez 54.3% 50.5% 2008 Costa Do Sauipe Coria d. Aldi 58.5% 51.9% 2007 Rome Masters Ferrero d. Hrbaty 52.9% 51.7% 2007 Hamburg Ferrer d. Bjorkman 50.6% 50.6% 2006 Monte Carlo Coria d. Kiefer 53.2% 50.9% 2006 Hamburg Masters Gaudio d. A Martin 57.3% 51.1% 2006 Australian Open Coria d. Hanescu 53.4% 50.6%
All but 8 of the 69 total matches were on clay. One of the exceptions is at the bottom of this list, from the 2006 Australian Open, and before 2006, there were another five hard-court contests, along with two on grass courts. (The ATP database isn’t completely reliable, but in each of these cases, the high rate of return points won is partially verified by a similarly high number of reported breaks of serve.)
Bautista Agut, who won one of these matches four years ago in Monte Carlo, is one of several players who participated in multiple return-dominated clashes. Guillermo Coria played in five, winning four, and Fabrice Santoro took part in four, winning three. Coria won more than half of his return points in 75 tour-level matches over the course of his career.
Over course, both Schwartzman and Baustista Agut cleared the 50% bar with plenty of room to spare. The Spaniard won 51.9% of return points and Schwartzman comfortably exceeded 60%, putting them in an even more elite category. It was only the 22nd match since 1991 in which both players won at least 51.9% of return points.
As rare as these matches are, Schwartzman is doing everything he can to add to the list. With a ranking now in the top 40, he has entered just about every clay tournament on the schedule, so the most return-oriented competitor in the game is going to play a lot more top-level matches on slow surfaces. If anyone has a chance at equaling Coria’s mark of winning four of these return-dominated matches, my money’s on El Peque.