Mr. Momentum: Why Kei Is King
Nishikori wins more than three out of four three-set matches when he wins second set
It’s a set all and you are about to play the deciding third set. Would you rather be the player who won the first set or the second?
Tennis folklore often talks about the first few games of the second set being the most critical in a three-set match, as breaking serve at this specific juncture provides a springboard to capture set two and steam into the deciding set holding the momentum. We may have just found statistical evidence to support this time-honoured tennis theory.
An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of three-set matches on the ATP Tour identifies that the winner of the second set is more likely to win the third set. Japanese star Kei Nishikori leads the pack, winning an impressive 76.5 per cent (65/85) of matches throughout his career when he has split sets after dropping the opening set and rebounded to win set two.
The data set is comprised of 166 players who have played a minimum of 50 three-set matches in either category since 1991, when official statistics in tennis were first recorded.
1991-2020 Tour Averages•Winner of Set 2 wins the match = 57.2% (7844/13708)
•Winner of Set 1 wins the match = 52.1% (6870/13182)
Nishikori was the only player in the data set to win greater than three out of four matches after winning set two in a three-set encounter. The leading 10 players winning the third set after capturing the second set are:
1. Kei Nishikori = 76.5% (65/85)
2. Rafael Nadal = 74.3% (75/101)
3. Stefan Edberg = 72.0% (36/50)
4. Lleyton Hewitt = 71.3% (87/122)
5. Pete Sampras = 71.3% (62/87)
6. Andy Murray = 71.2% (74/104)
7. Novak Djokovic = 71.0% (76/107)
8. Yevgeny Kafelnikov = 70.4% (88/126)
9. Andy Roddick = 70.1% (54/77)
10. Stefan Koubek = 70% (35/50)
Players generally fell into three sub-sets:
1. Those who carried the momentum of winning set two into the third set
2. Those who successfully fought back after dropping the second set
3. Players who performed about the same after winning set one or set two
Nishikori fell into the last group, as he also finished fourth best winning the match after winning set one but dropping set two. The leading 10 players winning the third set after capturing the first set are:
1. Novak Djokovic = 76.0% (73/96)
2. Thomas Muster = 73.1% (57/78)
3. Juan Martin del Potro = 70.5% (43/61)
4. Kei Nishikori = 69.2% (45/65)
5. Andy Murray = 67.4% (60/89)
6. Andy Roddick = 67.0% (61/91)
7. Roger Federer = 66.7% (110/165)
8. Pete Sampras = 66.7% (62/93)
9. Michael Chang = 65.1% (69/106)
10. Tommy Haas = 64.2% (77/120)
Former World No. 4 James Blake was a player who performed much better winning the match after capturing set two.•Blake winning Set 2 & winning the match = 57% (58/102)
•Blake winning Set 1 & winning the match = 45.8% (38/83)
Former World No. 1 Andre Agassi didn’t have a preference of which set he won as he marched to a three-set victory.•Agassi winning Set 2 & winning the match = 63.2% (48/76)
•Agassi winning Set 1 & winning the match = 63.1% (53/84)
Juan Monaco, who reached a career high of No. 10 in 2012, performed significantly better winning the opening set and then losing the second set as he navigated his way to a three-set victory.•Monaco winning Set 1 & winning the match = 57.3% (55/96)
•Monaco winning Set 2 & winning the match = 45.3% (34/75)
The three-set journey to victory can travel along different roads, but if you drop the first set and get an early break in the second set, you have got to feel good about the pathway you are on.