When Breaking Back Can Be A Back Breaker

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers looks at which players bounce back best after having their serve broken.

When is a break of serve in tennis not really a break? When you get broken straight back.

Protecting your serve is a high priority in our sport, but the inevitable is going to happen – everyone is going to lose their serve at some stage. The best players in the world don’t let the disappointment of getting broken get them down for long. The perfect antidote is to break straight back, effectively cancelling out the advantage the opponent briefly held.

The ability to break straight back after getting broken also speaks to the mental strength and fortitude of the player as much as the technical prowess and specific technique of returning serve.

Leaderboard

From January 2015 up to the 2016 Australian Open, nobody in the world was better at breaking immediately back after being broken than the World No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, Novak Djokovic. In the 2015 season, the super Serb won 34 per cent of his return games to be No. 1 in this specific category. But he was even better after getting broken.

Djokovic won a commanding 38 per cent of his return games immediately after getting broken to lead a handful of players that break more often than their season average right after feeling the despair of losing serve. Spaniards David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal were next in line as the most successful players to break straight back after being broken in 2015, with Ferrer at 36 per cent and Nadal at 34 per cent.

 Player 2015 Return Games Won  Breaking Straight Back
After Being Broken 
 Novak Djokovic  34%  38%
 David Ferrer  34%  36%
 Rafael Nadal  31%  34%
 Andy Murray  31%  31%
 Roger Federer  27%  30%
 Kei Nishikori  27%  29%
 Stan Wawrinka  21%  26%
 Tomas Berdych  26%  25%
 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga  20%  19%
 Richard Gasquet  22%  17%
 Kevin Anderson  16%  12%
 Ivo Karlovic  10%  8%
 Milos Raonic  12%  6%

Personal Best

Another way to dissect these key Infosys metrics is to analyse how well each player did against their own personal average. Stan Wawrinka had the most improvement, breaking back immediately 26 percent of the time as opposed to his regular rate of breaking 21 per cent of the time.

 Player  Percentage change
 Stan Wawrinka  +5
 Novak Djokovic  +4
 Roger Federer  +3
 Rafael Nadal  +3
 David Ferrer  +2
 Kei Nishikori  +2
 Andy Murray  0
 Tomas Berdych  -1
 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga  -1
 Ivo Karlovic  -2
 Kevin Anderson  -4
 Richard Gasquet  -5
 Milos Raonic  -6

Djokovic was up 4 per cent on his personal average, while Roger Federer and Nadal were up 3 per cent. The only other Top 10 players to improve their performance breaking back immediately after dropping serve were Ferrer and Kei Nishikori – both with a 2 per cent improvement.

It’s often hard to put a finger on the difference between good and great in our sport, but these key Infosys ATP Beyond the Numbers metrics do just about as good a job as anything at uncovering just that. Breaking immediately back clearly showcases a player’s mettle to not let adversity get the better of them. It’s a mental trick as much as anything else, cancelling out advantages, and stopping an opponent’s sudden momentum in its tracks.

Big Servers

The metrics also uncovered that big servers, such as Ivo Karlovic, Kevin Anderson and Milos Raonic, have more difficultly in this key category than we perceived they would. Raonic had a substantial 6 per cent drop from his 2015 season average, while Anderson was down 4 per cent, and Karlovic down 2 per cent.

The advantage of the big server is the ability to hold a lot more than normal, but it also seems that it is tougher for this specific style of player to immediately break back. An old tennis saying is that a break is not a break until it’s consolidated with a hold, and it seems that some players can tap into this fable a lot better than others. 

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