Among Andy Murray‘s many accomplishments in 2016, he achieved an impressive–though obscure–feat. In each one of his 87 matches, he broke serve at least once. He has broken at least once per match since failing to do so against Roger Federer in the 2015 Cincinnati semifinals, for an active streak of 107 matches.
Where does that place him among the greats of men’s tennis? Just how unusual is it to break serve in every match for an entire season? As is the case with too many tennis statistics, we don’t know. Someone finds an impressive-sounding stat, and that’s the end of the story. We can’t always fix that, but in this case, we can add some context to Murray’s accomplishment.
Full break-per-match seasons
I’ve collected break stats for matches back to 1991, though we need to keep in mind that there are some mistakes in the 1990s data. Further, Davis Cup presents a problem, as it is excluded entirely. Sometimes we can tell from the scoreline that a player broke serve–as with all of Murray’s Davis Cup matches this year–but often we cannot. I’ll have more to say about that in specific cases below.
Since 1991, there have been at least 14, and perhaps as many as 20 instances in which a player broke serve in every match of a season. (Minimum 40 tour-level matches, and I’ve excluded retirements when calculating both minimums and the streaks themselves.) I say “instances” because several players–Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Rafael Nadal, and Nikolay Davydenko–pulled it off more than once. Hewitt’s 2001 season had the most matches–95–of any of them, followed by Murray’s 2016 and Nadal’s 2005, at 87 each.
Here is the complete list:
Player Season Matches (Unsure) Andy Murray 2016 87 0 Juan Monaco 2014 41 0 Novak Djokovic 2013 83 0 Rafael Nadal 2010 79 0 Nikolay Davydenko 2008 73 0 Nikolay Davydenko 2007 82 0 Lleyton Hewitt 2006 46 0 Rafael Nadal 2005 87 0 David Nalbandian 2005 63 0 Andre Agassi 2003 55 0 Lleyton Hewitt 2001 95 0 Lleyton Hewitt 2000 76 1 Hernan Gumy 1997 53 1 Alex Corretja 1997 67 0 Andre Agassi 1995 81 0 Magnus Gustafsson 1994 40 0 Carlos Costa 1992 60 0 Guillermo Perez Roldan 1991 40 2 Ivan Lendl 1991 72 0 Boris Becker 1991 61 2
(The “Unsure” column indicates how many matches are missing stats and may not have included a break of serve.)
We shouldn’t be surprised that so many players–especially the greats–have broken so often. It’s very rare to win a match without breaking serve: Of the 2,570 ATP tour-level matches from this season for which I have match stats, the winner broke serve in all but 30 of them. Even losers break serve in more than two out of every three matches: In 2016, the loser broke serve in 1,843 of the 2,570 matches, 72% of the time.
Still, there are enough dominant servers on tour that it is difficult to last an entire season without being shut out of the break column. In 1995, Muster broke serve in 99 matches, but failed to do so when he drew the big-serving (and completely unheralded) qualifier TJ Middleton on the carpet in St. Petersburg. Murray’s current streak is all the more impressive because, in his 107 matches, he has faced Milos Raonic six times, John Isner four times, Kevin Anderson and Nick Kyrgios twice each, and Ivo Karlovic once. Given the chance, he probably would’ve broken TJ Middleton as well.
For Murray to surpass the longest streaks in this category, it will take several more months of high-quality returning. As we saw above, Davydenko and Hewitt may have gone two full years breaking serve in every match they played. In both cases, the lack of ITF data makes their records unclear, but regardless of those details, Davydenko has set an extremely high bar.
Here are all the break-per-match streaks of 100 or more matches since 2000:
Player Start End Streak Possible Nikolay Davydenko 2006 2009 159 182 Rafael Nadal 2004 2006 156 Rafael Nadal 2009 2011 146 Andre Agassi 2002 2004 143 Novak Djokovic 2012 2014 127 Lleyton Hewitt 1999 2002 124 230 Andy Murray 2015 2016 107 ∞ David Nalbandian 2004 2006 104
This season, Murray didn’t play his 53rd match until August at the Olympics; he’ll need to break serve at least once in that many matches to reach the top of this list.
The exact length of Davydenko’s streak hinges on his 2008 Davis Cup semifinal match against Juan Martin del Potro, which he lost in straight sets. If he broke serve in that match, his streak stretched into early 2009, spanning 182 matches.
(Edit: Thanks to Andrew Moss, we now know that Davydenko did break serve in that match, according to this contemporaneous report.)
Hewitt’s best streak is even more unclear. I don’t have break stats for his 6-3 6-3 loss to Max Mirnyi at the 2000 Olympics. If he didn’t break Mirnyi–a definite possibility, given The Beast’s serving prowess–the streak is “only” 124 matches. If he did, the streak is at least 187, and the exact length depends on more unknowns, including both of his singles matches in the 1999 Davis Cup final against France.
(Edit #2! Thanks to Carl, we know that Hewitt broke Mirnyi, so his streak is at least 187 matches. The next issue is his last match of the 1999 season, a dead rubber against Sebastian Grosjean in that year’s Davis Cup final. Hewitt lost 6-4 6-3, but Grosjean was hardly an overpowering server. Hewitt lost his previous Davis Cup match in straight sets as well, a live rubber against Cedric Pioline, and a match report establishes that Hewitt broke serve. If he broke Grosjean, the streak stretches back to April 1999, and numbers the full 230 matches.)
In any case, Murray has already earned himself a place among the greatest returners in modern tennis. In 2017, we’ll see just how far he can climb this list.