Sharapova's strong first and second serves show her mental toughness
PARIS – The following should come with a disclaimer. Math to follow. Discretion is advised.
But an economist friend of mine, a casual tennis fan at best, recently asked why player doesn’t hit first and second serves at the same speeds. Would you win more overall points that way?
The short answer is yes. Oh, there are all sorts of variables. (One that always stops me: on WHICH points to do servers hit their first serves accurately? There’s difference between serving well to open a game and serving well at 30–30; and this difference is often obscured by overall serve percentage.)
But let’s consider the data. As I write this, at the French Open, the men won 70% of their first serve points and the women have won 62%. The men have won 51% of their second serve points and the women have won 45%. Note that the drop-off is remarkably close, 19% for the men versus 17% for the women.
Both men and women make about 63% of their first serves. With those numbers—hitting a first serve on both attempts— the probability of a double fault is roughly 14% percent, or one in seven points. Who among us wouldn’t concede one in seven points in exchange for boosting out likelihood of winning the point by 17%–19%?
One player who has caught on to this math? Maria Sharapova, who has very little differential between first and second serves. According to the IBM data—full disclosure: a Sports Illustrated partner—her average first serve is 102 mph and her average second serve 96 mph. Compare this to other players (we’re looking at you Andy Murray) who can have a 30 mph differential. Venus Williams has been known to hit her second serve 50(!) mph lower than her first.
Sharapova doubles faults a lot, 137 in 29 matches, or 4.7 per match, third most on the WTA Tour. But she is also second to only Coco Vandeweghe in second serve points won. She takes more 52%—remember, the WTA average is 45. (Consider that Serena Williams is sixth in this category with 50.8.)
When we talk about Sharapova’s mental toughness, it usually pertains to comeback wins and clutch shotmaking. But her willingness to strike the ball uncommonly hard on her second serve takes guts of another kind. And she is rewarded for this accordingly.
* Look for an IBM infographic on this tomorrow.
A few Q/A
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
I was shocked when Murray admitted earlier in the year that physically, there's not much more he can do to get stronger or fitter. Does that not give Djokovic the mental advantage, seeing that he has won their last seven meetings, and in the two times in 2015 that the match has gone more than two sets, Djokovic has taken the final set 6–0?
Djokovic knows that if it gets physical, he'll likely come out on top. Is there anything Murray can do specifically against Djokovic to either pull the trigger earlier on points, come up to net, or anything other than hope that Djokovic has an off day?
—James Pham, Garland, Texas
• Unless Murray is playing poker and secretly working hard, but letting Djokovic think he’s maxed out. Unless Djokovic knows that Murray is bluffing. Unless Murray knows that Djokovic knows that he is bluffing….I’m kidding but I don't think that Murray’s admission does much to impact the rivalry. It could just as easily be construed as: I have supreme confidence in my optimal fitness. It’s a question of tidying up my game now.
I really enjoy your weekly column. Roland Garros changed its website format this year and it’s impossible to figure out. If it isn’t broke why change? If there is anyway to pass this on to the powers that be in Paris: Please go back to a fan friendly version or better yet, follow the Australian Open’s example.
• Suffice to say: you’re not the first person to make this observation.
But here’s a friend: “I think the French Open website is really well done, especially the module where you can access the round-by-round stats for the players—and therefore, do things like average out winners over for the tournament etc. I know the majors are good on this, and tour events are not. I hope that will change. Beyond that, this current FO website seems the best I've worked with yet.”
Not to dispute what you're saying about Paris/France becoming more sports-oriented (in my 15 years here I do believe it has), but it should be noted that bidding for the Olympics is probably more surprising not because it goes against the image that many have of Paris but because the city (fairly recently, from the "Old Europe" perspective) came off total and devastating heartbreak when Paris was nipped at the finish line by London for the right to host the 2012 games.
—Mike ("originally from Cincinnati")
• Right. I didn’t mean to imply that 2024 was the first time London would contend for the Olympics. But, again, I’m struck by the quantity of Premier League jerseys and NBA ballcaps and sports talk. A few colleagues were wondering today whether they could watch the NHL playoffs tonight. They called a bar and the guy asked, “Rangers game?”
Now that there are more combined men's and women's events outside of the majors, I was curious why they don't have mixed doubles at those events, e.g. Indian Wells, Madrid, etc. I think it would be fun to see those matches and will give doubles specialists more opportunities to play. Similarly, why aren't mixed doubled counted towards someone's doubles ranking points? I think for folks like Kristina Mladenovic, it would be nice to see those efforts rewarded, especially if they've won a major.
—John, New York
• Mixed doubles is a nice addition to the landscape. But two inconvenient truths: it clogs the schedule. It’s there as much to fill sessions as anything else. At the joint tour events—at smaller venues on more compact time periods—it would be difficult. Check that: it would be a logistical nightmare.
As far as your other suggestion, I appreciate your sentiment. But one of the challenges is getting stars to play with a partner. (Indian Wells is the gold standard here.) Letting players augment their doubles ranking by rewarding mixed doubles results would make it harder for singles players, not easier.
I have been reading the Mailbag since its inception. It seems just yesterday readers were asking if Mary Pierce would win her second major. By the time she retired, Pierce had won two singles Grand Slams, a doubles major, a mixed doubles major and made it to four other major finals and two season ending championships finals. She played the ultimate match at all the biggest tournaments but one. These are great accomplishments. Just ask Sabatini, Novotna, Martinez, Ivanovic, Wozniacki, Radwandska, MJ Fernandez and Dementieva, to name a few!
Yesterday, you wrote, "There is a huge wall dividing the players who have won [the majors] and those who haven't." Yet, Pierce doesn't get the respect she deserves. Her Grand Slam accomplishments are spread over three different phases of her career: teenage sensation years, middle years and final years. During these phases, she competed against and defeated the greats from several different generations. The draw gods didn't smile on her either; both of her Grand Slam wins were a result of defeating top seeds. She denied Hingis her career slam. Also, who can forget her wins against Graf and Seles at 1994 and 2000 Roland Garros, respectively.
Pierce and her accomplishments need to be remembered. Maybe, if she had played for the U.S. she would have had a higher profile within the American tennis media and the USTA and, thus, held in a higher regard. Instead of becoming a cautionary tale like many others, Pierce played her way to multiple majors. Let's give her the proper respect she deserves. Here is a CNN piece on her.
• Bally makes a compelling case. And on the 15th anniversary of Pierce’s French Open title, it's as good a time as any to give her some credit. Adding to the irony: Mary Pierce was not voted into the Hall of Fame this year. The one successful nominee, Amelie Mauresmo, is pregnant and unlikely to attend the induction ceremony. One suspects that if bylaws permitted a re-vote, Pierce would be in Newport in July.
One for the "cruel sport, this tennis" top ten: two former champions meeting in the second round, and not even playing on one of the big show courts. But so far—a match worthy of two former champions!
—Helen of Philadelphia
• Helen speaks of the Svetlana Kuznetsova/Francesca Schiavone second round clash that might be the match of the tournament thus far.
Five thoughts from Day 6
• You won't see it in the match result, but the tournament received a rough defeat on Friday as the Paris city council voted against the Roland Garros expansion project. This is far from over but not a favorable result for the event. As tournament director Gilbert Ysern said the tournament is “once again hostage to politician games.”
• Ana Ivanovic is a player who makes tennis exceptionally easy and exceptionally hard. On Friday we got Door No. 2 as Ivanovic absolutely steamrolled young Donna Vekic.
• It’s literally, the French Open here on Friday. Alize Cornet beat Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Gilles Simon beat Nicolas Mahut in five sets. As I write this, both Gael Monfils, Benoit Paire, Jo-Willie Tsonga are on the court. And Richard Gasquet finished off Carlos Berlocq.
• Roger Federer had little trouble advancing, beating Damir Dzumhur in straight sets. Is that any way to treat a child actor?
• Ivan H. Has siblings again: Thanasi Kokkinakis and Justin Bieber: