PARIS — The French Open men’s singles final between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem on Sunday was everything fans expect clay-court tennis to be: full of long rallies capped by tremendous winners.
That’s what clay court tennis is all about, right? Patience, perseverance, consistency, shot tolerance, grinding and suffering?
Short rallies ending in errors are relegated to our short-term memory, quickly dismissed as being irrelevant and extraneous to the final outcome.
But short rallies are the norm, not the aberration, at the French Open, according to analytics provided by Roland Garros’ new technology partner, Infosys. Errors flow freely on clay, particularly at the start of the point.
An analysis of 541 women’s matches involving 67,267 points from 2013 to 2019 reveals that the most common rally recorded is a return of serve error, which is 17.4 percent of all points. It’s not the spectacular 12-shot rally that you text your friends about.
A two-shot rally that ends in an error (10.5 percent) is next at 10.5 percent. Then it’s a rally length of three ending in an error (9 percent), then four shots ending in an error (7 percent) and then double faults (6.9 percent). In fact, the leading six ways a point ended are among the six shortest possible points — and they all end in an error.
The analysis of 111,041 points in 571 men’s matches over six years yielded similar results.
Just like the women, the most common outcome for men is a one-shot rally ending in an error, at 19.4 percent. Second is a two-shot rally ending in an error (9.7 percent) followed closely by a three-shot rally ending in an error (9.5 percent).
So much for grinding. So much for spectacular winners. Tennis coaches who develop clay-court juniors all over the globe overdose on the long rallies in practice, but players miss so much at the start of the point that they rarely reach double-digit rallies.
Why spend hours, and indeed years, focused on making an opponent miss at the end of 12-shot rally when it accounts for only 0.7 percent of total points?
Rally length is determined by the ball landing in the court, not the ball hitting the racket. For example, if the serve goes in and the return is hit in the net, the rally length is one. If the return comes back in the court and is then missed, then that’s a rally length of two.
In women’s French Open singles matches since 2013, there are 19 other possible outcomes that occur more than a double-digit rally ending in a winner. For the men, there are 18.
Incredibly, over the past three years, the percentage of points that are rallies of 0-4 shots is higher on the clay of Roland Garros (68.6 percent for men and 64.7 percent for women) than on the hard courts at the United States Open (68 percent and 63.8 for women).
For both men and women over that span, Roland Garros and the U.S. Open produce the same percentage of rallies of nine shots or more — 11.8 percent for women, about 10.7 percent for men.
It’s the opposite of what players, coaches and fans might expect, and another example of how the increased use of analytics in tennis is breaking down myths of the game.
Craig O’Shannessy is the tennis strategy expert for Wimbledon, the ATP World Tour and Novak Djokovic. He runs the website Brain Game Tennis.
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