In my post last week about players who have performed better than expected in tiebreaks (temporarily, anyway), I speculated that big servers may try harder in tiebreaks than in return games.
If we interpret “try harder” as “win points more frequently,” we can test it. With my point-by-point dataset, we can look at every top player in the men’s game and compare their return-point performance in tiebreaks to their return-point performance earlier in the set.
As it turns out, top players post better return numbers in tiebreaks than they do earlier in the set. I looked at every match in my dataset (most tour-level matches from the last few seasons) for the ATP top 50, and found that these players, on average, won 5.2% more return points than they did earlier in those sets.
That same group of players saw their serve performance decline slightly, by 1.1%. Since the top 50 frequently play each other, it’s no surprise that the serve and return numbers point in different directions. However, the return point increase and the serve point decrease don’t cancel each other out, suggesting that the top 50 is winning a particularly large number of tiebreaks against the rest of the pack, mostly by improving their return game once the tiebreak begins.
(There’s a little bit of confirmation bias here, since some of the players on the edge of the top 50 got there thanks to good luck in recent tiebreaks. However, most of top 50–especially those players who make up the largest part of this dataset–have been part of this sample of players for years, so the bias remains only minor.)
My initial speculation concerned big servers–the players who might reasonably relax during return games, knowing that they probably won’t break anyway. However, big servers aren’t any more likely than others to return better in tiebreaks. (Or, put another way, to return worse before tiebreaks.) John Isner, Ivo Karlovic, Kevin Anderson, and Roger Federer all win slightly more return points in tiebreaks than they do earlier in sets, but don’t improve as much as the 5.2% average. What’s more, Isner and Anderson improve their serve performance for tiebreaks slightly more than they do their return performance.
There are a few players who may be relaxing in return games. Bernard Tomic improves his return points won by a whopping 27% in tiebreaks, Marin Cilic improves by 16%, and Milos Raonic improves by 11%. Tomic and Raonic, in particular, are particularly ineffective in return games when they have a break advantage in the set (more on that in a moment), so it’s plausible they are saving their effort for more important moments.
Despite these examples, this is hardly a clear-cut phenomenon. Kei Nishikori, for example, ups his return game in tiebreaks almost as much as Cilic does, and we would never think of him as a big server, nor do I think he often shows signs of tactically relaxing in return games. We have plenty of data for most of these players, so many of these trends are more than just statistical noise, but the results for individual players don’t coalesce into any simple, overarching narratives about tiebreak tendencies.
There is one nearly universal tendency that turned up in this research. When leading a set by one break or more, almost every player returns worse. (Conversely, when down a break, almost every player serves better.) The typical top 50 player’s return game declines by almost 5%, meaning that a player winning 35% of return points falls to 33.4%.
Almost every player fits this pattern. 48 of the top 50–everyone except for David Ferrer and Aljaz Bedene–win fewer return points when up a break, and 46 of 50 win more service points when down a break.
Pinning down exactly why this is the case is–as usual–more difficult than establishing that the phenomenon exists. It may be that players are relaxing on return. A one-break advantage, especially late, is often enough to win the set, so it may make sense for players to conserve their energy for their own service games. Looking at it from the server’s perspective, that one-break disadvantage might remove some pressure.
What’s clear is this: Players return worse than usual when up a break, and better than usual in tiebreaks. The changes are much more pronounced for some ATPers than others, but there’s no clear relationship with big serving. As ever, tiebreaks remain fascinating and more than a little inscrutable.