Are Aces Overvalued? What Federer, Sampras Can Teach Us
Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers shows how aces and double faults are not a reliable barometer for success and failure
Do we place too much importance on aces? Are double faults really that toxic? Is there a better metric that correlates to winning matches on the big stage at the Nitto ATP Finals?
The most aces hit in a Nitto ATP Finals match from 1991 to 2019 was Goran Ivanisevic against Pete Sampras in 1996. He crushed 35 and lost. Tied for second most aces is Boris Becker, who bombed 30 aces against Pete Sampras in 1994 and 1996. He lost both matches.
The most double faults in in a Nitto ATP Finals match is 14. Ivanisevic came close to that mark in 1996, committing 13 against Richard Krajicek. The Croatian won the match. Also in 1996, Becker hit 12 double faults against Krajicek and also won. Both match totals were a breath away from the tournament double fault record, but Ivanisevic and Becker both triumphed over Krajicek.
What gives with these counter-intuitive results at the year-end championships?
An Infosys ATP Beyond the Numbers analysis of the Nitto ATP Finals dating back to 1991, when statistics in tennis were first recorded, identifies that aces and double faults are two match markers have been a staple on a tennis statistics page since day one. The problem is we have traditionally thought they were ideal markers for indicating who won and lost the match.
It turns out not so much.
When you look at the top of the tree for ace totals at the season finale, the leading three totals were all losses for the player hitting ace after ace after ace.
In fact, the 14 highest ace totals in the history of the tournament, which range from 22 to 35 aces, found the server winning just seven of those matches and losing the other seven. It’s a head-turning statistic, but prodigious ace hauls from the best players in the world only produce a 50-50 win/loss record.
The following list outlines the five players who have struck the most aces in Nitto ATP Finals history since 1991.
Daniil Medvedev leads the 2020 Nitto ATP Finals field with the most aces in a match at the year-end event with 21 against Rafael Nadal last year at The O2. Medvedev lost. Accumulating massive ace totals is clearly not a key performance indicator for winning matches.
Which brings the conversation to the antithesis of the ace - the dreaded double fault.
Of the 14 matches where a player committed the most double faults in the tournament’s history, they still managed to win seven of those matches.
To be clear, the most aces in tournament history has the server winning seven of 14 matches. The most double faults in tournament history also has the server winning seven of 14 matches.
The five players with the most double faults in Nitto ATP Finals history since 1991 are:
When Ivanisevic crushed 35 aces against Sampras in the 1996 semi-finals, he won an astounding 54 of 57 first-serve points. The problem for the Croatian was when the first serve did not land in the box. Ivanisevic only made 52 per cent (57/109) of first serves, so he also had to play 52 second-serve points, where he won 52 per cent (27/52). Sampras won 61 per cent (19/31).
That’s where the rubber met the road.
As it turns out, performance around second serves is a far better indicator of winning and losing matches than aces and double faults. Of the 14 best second serve performances in Nitto ATP Finals history since 1991, the player won 13 of the 14 encounters. The only loss was Fernando Verdasco, who won 78 per cent (21/27) second serve points against Juan Martin del Potro in 2009, but lost 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(1) in the round robin stage.
Crushing aces makes you feel good. Committing double faults leaves you feeling disheartened. Winning points behind second serves will put a smile on your face when you are shaking hands at the end of the match.