Brain Game: Murray Prevails With Short Rallies
Brain Game breaks down the keys to Andy Murray’s Day Four victory at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals
Don’t be seduced by the long rallies.
Our eyes are naturally drawn to the drama of matches, the running, the sliding and the spectacular. Andy Murray defeated Kei Nishikori 6-7(9), 6-4, 6-4 in a grueling three hour and twenty minute slug-fest. There were plenty of twists and turns before the World No. 1 finally held serve to love to put the result to bed.
An examination of typical match metrics would have you firmly believing that it was Nishikori who took the honours. Here’s 13 areas where the Japanese star fared better, although some are linked more to stroke performance than match outcome.
1. Hit more overall winners (37-31).
2. Won more points at net (21-15).
3. Made more first serves (64% to 54%).
4. Averaged hitting his forehand harder (75mph to 70mph).
5. Averaged hitting his backhand harder (69mph to 63mph).
6. Hit more forehand winners (23-11).
7. Hit more backhand winners (8-6).
8. Hit more spin on his forehand (2673rpm to 2344rpm).
9. Hit more spin on his backhand (1827rpm to 1625rpm).
10. Ran less (3034m to 3428m).
11. Created more break point opportunities (11-7).
12. Won the 5-9 shot rally length 43-42.
13. Won the 9+ shot rally length 20-12.
1. The 0-4 shot rally length 76-58 (by 18 points).
This is a new metric in our sport that is more directly tied to winning than basically anything else. It was not the only advantage Murray had, but it was the most important. Even though there were a lot of long rallies in the match, and Murray often was forced to dig out impossible shots from a defensive position, the final breakdown of rally length was:
0-4 shot rallies: 54%
5-9 shot rallies: 33%
10+ shot rallies:13%
In all four Grand Slams this year, the 0-4 shot rally length was approximately 70 per cent of rallies. It’s important to note that the Murray-Nishikori match was well below that average at 54 per cent, but it was still the most dominant rally length in the match.
Murray won the bigger pool of points and lost everything else. And that's just fine for the World No. 1.
It’s fast becoming a front-line metric in our sport, with 2016 Grand Slam match winners correspondingly winning more than 90 per cent of the 0-4 shot rallies, but basically breaking even with the players they defeated in the long rallies of 10+ shots.
Murray overwhelmingly won the battle of serves and returns, while Nishikori won the battle of forehands and backhands, including speed, spin and winners. Murray won the front end, while Nishikori won the back end. The front end is simply a bigger pool to swim in.
Murray’s first serve location against Nishikori was very much in alignment with his normal patterns. In the deuce court, he hit 65 per cent of serves out wide, went down the middle T 30 per cent, and hit just two serves (five per cent) at the body. In the ad court, he went 78 per cent down the middle, 19 per cent out wide, and again hit just two serves (three per cent) at the body.
Murray won 48 per cent (30/62) of his second serve points. It doesn’t sound impressive, but it’s a good day at the office any time you can basically break even in this key metric, Nishikori could only manage to win 40 per cent of points (18/44) on second serves, including just 33 per cent (5/15) in the deciding third set.
The numbers illuminate Murray’s focus to dominate the larger pool of short points, while Nishikori’s game shone brightest in the smaller pool or longer points. Simple math will help guide you to who ultimately was the winner.
Evaluating player performance by rally length is new for us all, but it’s something that is clearly tied to winning and helps us make sense of close matches like this one.