Wimbledon’s fast grass courts haven’t been so fast this year

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Of the many features that make Wimbledon a special event on the tennis calendar, the pristine, finely cut grass courts are among the most prominent. Only about 10% of top tennis matches are contested on grass, so the short part of the season played on turf in June and July is a challenge for professionals, mostly of them have upped their game for one of the most popular surfaces. Unlike the clay season, which has its own “King” in Rafael Nadal, the grass court swing hardly offers much data to evaluate the players best suited for the surface.

So far, the second week at Wimbledon has showcased several of the best grass court players in the men’s game to great effect. Leading the pack is Roger Federer, seven-time champion at the All-England Club, who has advanced to this year’s semi-finals without dropping a set. Also in the semi-finals is Marin Cilic, the 28-year-old Croat who almost edged out Mr Federer in the quarter-finals last year. According to Elo, a rating system that measures players according to the quality of their opponents, Mr Cilic is the fourth best player on grass, despite being outside the top ten overall. Sam Querrey, Mr Cilic’s opponent in the semi-final, is famous for knocking out Novak Djokovic in the second round at Wimbledon last year. Mr Querrey is also rated much higher on grass courts than on all surfaces, and has reached his first major semi-final by upsetting another strong grass court player, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and taking advantage of Andrew Murray’s hip injury in the fourteenth quarter. final round.

For all the grass court prowess that the final four represent, the best active player who qualifies as a “grass court specialist” is the man who lost to Mr Cilic in the quarter-finals, Gilles Muller (pictured). Mr Muller, a big left-hander from Luxembourg, is playing his best tennis at the age of 34. He won the Wimbledon warm-up in Hertogenbosch on June 18 and reached the semi-finals at the Queen’s Club a week later that. The apotheosis of Mr Muller’s season – and perhaps his career – came on July 10 in the fourth round at Wimbledon. In a match that could go down as the best in the tournament this year, he defeated Mr. Nadal, 6-3 6-4 3-6 4-6 15-13.

On a neutral surface, it is inconceivable that Mr Muller would send the Spaniard out. Even on grass, where the Luxembourger is at his strongest, Elo – which ranks him 11th on turf – put the probability of Mr Muller’s victory at 27%. Bookmakers were even less optimistic, estimating the odds of an upset at just 13%, the worst of any of the eight men in the fourth round. The consensus of the bettors may have been partially responding to what Mr Muller said earlier in the tournament, when he called the grass “soft and slow”. But despite a surface that could have moved the scales to Mr. Nadal, Mr. Muller became successful from the marathon of almost five hours.

It is true that the Wimbledon courts are playing slower than in the past. Court speed is difficult to pin down, as so many other factors – including altitude, weather, and balls – affect the bounce and spin of the ball. While tennis governing bodies measure court distance alone, it is more useful to measure the overall conditions at a tournament. A common proxy for playing conditions is the ace rate, and when the ace rate is adjusted for the players competing at each tournament, it turns out that in 2016 and 2017, courts did not play Wimbledon but slightly faster than the usual surface of the tour. They have been slower than two dozen hard court tournaments (including the Australian Open) and even a record three clay court events. In this year’s tournament and the last players at Wimbledon have received 5% more than the same group of players would have on a neutral surface. In 2015, the same comparison would have shown a 20% difference, and in 2014, a whopping 35% difference, making that year’s Championships one of the fastest stops on tour.

Aces are a key part of Mr Muller’s powerful game: he hits them at a higher rate than all but four other tour masters, and aces account for more than a quarter of his winning service points. He posted 30 of them in a frenzy on Monday. But no amount of ace-level can explain Mr. Muller’s success on grass. For example, the surface in Hertogenbosch this year, where he won the title, was even slower than Wimbledon’s. His style of play is designed around the low bounce of a grass court, which he takes advantage of by getting close to the net often and hitting much thinner hands than most of his peers. -ages. Mr Muller wins more than 40% of his points at the net, compared to 22% for the average player on the tour and 17% for Mr Nadal. 19% of Mr Muller’s non-service shots are backhand slices, more than double the tour average of 9%, and well above Mr Nadal’s 7%. In Monday’s match, both players won about seven out of ten of their net approaches, but Mr. Muller came forward almost twice as often.

Even with Mr Muller’s grass-fuelled tactics, Mr Nadal narrowly escaped danger. Any match that goes beyond 6-6 in the fifth set is as close as it is close to money, and in fact, Mr. Muller won fewer total points than his opponent, 191 to 198. To get beyond such a deficit, a player must win more often in the most important moments. Despite a court that was not particularly quick, Mr Muller preferred to apply his quick court tactics as the pressure rose. We can measure the importance—“leverage”—of any point by measuring the potential impact each player has on winning or losing that point. We can then average these measurements for a subset of points to determine when a player was using a technique or engineering a result. As we have seen, Mr. Muller went to the net much more often than his opponent, and when we think about importance, we see that he did so in greater times. The average leverage of Mr. Muller’s net approaches was 35% higher than that of Mr. Nadal.

Similar differences appear for almost all positive outcomes. Mr. Muller’s upset occurred on 76% more important points than Mr. Nadal’s points. Mr. Muller’s wins (excluding aces) came on 17% more important points than Mr. Nadal’s. Mr. Muller even got his first serve a little more often on points with high pressure, while Mr. Nadal missed a little more often in those moments. These results are not stable: over a season, they will be even out for almost every player. We would be wrong to conclude, say, that poor Mr. Nadal is under pressure. But it would be just as rude to ignore the impact of those points in one game, in which Mr Muller’s excellent play allowed him to secure a narrow victory.

In a normal game, these factors are not that important. It is possible to throw away a lot of important points if you win the less important ones by a wide margin. On Monday, the Wimbledon grass wasn’t enough to give victory to a surface specialist like the Luxembourger, but it was enough to make for a close match. To close the deal, Mr. Muller needed his grassroots tactics to work in the big moments. It took 78 games and almost five hours, but in the end, that’s what he managed to achieve.

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