Friday October 14th, 2011

An improved serve has been a big part of Novak Djokovic's dominant season. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

The ATP unveiled a more robust data center on its official website this week. Now you can see some of the more notable statistics dating to 1991 and run comparitives until the cows come home. It's a little piece of heaven for those who, like young, future fictional President Jed Bartlett, prefer numbers over empty arguments.

Here are five observations from just a few hours of clicking around the site:

1. The return is king: It's often said that the return of serve produces the most revealing numbers on the stat sheet. If you poke around the site, you find that to be true. The top men may not lead the service stats -- Ivo Karlovic, Milos Raonic and John Isner are tops in percentage of service games won for 2011, with Roger Federer the only one of the Big Four in the top five -- but they anchor the return stats. Look at the leaderboard for return games won this year entering the week:

1. Novak Djokovic: 40.5 percent

2. Andy Murray: 36.4 percent

3. Rafael Nadal: 35.5 percent

(Incidentally, Federer ranks 15th at 27.3 percent. More on him below.)

2. Service with a smile: From eggs to gluten, people have dedicated many hours of their lives trying to identify exactly what has made 2011 the Year of Djokovic. The stats offer empirical evidence for what his vanquished opponents have been saying all year: The serve is a key factor in his dominance. Most notably, he's served nearly as many aces (in 12 fewer matches) and 168 fewer double faults than last year and he's protecting his second serve better. Add an improved serve to his better conditioning, strong baseline game and terrific return of serve, and you get a 64-3 record with three majors and 10 titles overall. Here are Djokovic's numbers:

  2010 2011
Matches 79 67
Aces 304 (34th) 297 (26th)
1st Serve % 64% (14th) 66% (12th)
1st Serve points won 71% (37th) 74% (23rd)
2nd Serve points won 52% (27th) 56% (3rd)
Service games won 82% (23rd) 87% (7th)
Break points saved 67% (7th) 67% (5th)
1st serve return points won 34% (4th) 37% (2nd)
2nd serve return points won 54% (4th) 58% (2nd)
Break points converted 45% (4th) 48% (2nd)
Return games won 32% (2nd) 41% (1st)

On the other hand, Nadal has taken a hit in the serving category. While the margin is only a few percentage points, those little things make all the difference among the game's elite. The U.S. Open final, when Djokovic converted 11-of-26 break points against Nadal, was an extreme example of what the numbers highlight: The Spaniard is returning well but having more trouble on his serve in 2011. Nadal faced 322 break points last year; he's already faced 408 this year.  Here are more of Nadal's stats:

  2010 2011 (through last week)

Matches 81 77
Aces 310 (32nd) 260 (34th)
1st Serve % 67% (7th) 68% (5th)
1st Serve points won 75% (16th) 71% (30th)
2nd Serve points won 60% (1st) 57% (1st)
Service games won 90% (2nd) 84% (16th)
Break points saved 69% (2nd) 64% (12th)
1st serve return points won 31% (14th) 35% (4th)
2nd serve return points won 55% (1st) 57% (2nd)
Break points converted 44% (8th) 47% (3rd)
Return games won 29% (6th) 36% (3rd)

3. Federer's trending down, but not by much: During Federer's most dominant years, 2004-07, he won 30.4 percent of his return games.  That number was 27 percent in 2008, 24.5 percent in 2009, 27.2 percent last year and 27.3 percent this year.

Turning to service games won, there's no doubt that Federer is one of the best and most consistent. He's been in the top five every year since 2003 and for a four-year stretch he was second only to Andy Roddick. He hasn't fallen much from his peak years, as he won 90 percent of his service games from 2004-07 and 89.4 percent in the last four years.

4. When stats make you laugh: The top five in break points converted this year:

1. Xavier Malisse: 50.2 percent

2. Novak Djokovic: 48.1 percent

3. Rafael Nadal: 47.1 percent

4. Andy Murray: 46.4 percent

5. Fabio Fognini: 45.8 percent

5. When stats make you say, "Wow": Goran Ivanisevic sets the standard for career aces on grass, with 1,834 in 91 matches. That 20-aces-per-match figure is even more impressive when compared to the rest of the pack. Greg Rusedski edges Peter Sampras for second with 1,523 aces in 122 matches, a 12.5 average and more than 300 fewer aces in 31 more matches than Ivanisevic. Roddick ranks fifth with 1,366 aces in 97 matches (14.1 average), and Federer is eighth with 1,227 aces in 117 matches (10.5). If there's anyone who can surpass Ivanisevic, it could be another tall, lanky Croat. Karlovic is seventh with 1,334 aces in only 59 matches, an average of 22.6.

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