Tennis Stats Have Been Left Behind

Fivethirtyeight.com has a fascinating post on the state of statistics in tennis:

Old, an avid player himself, meticulously charted every shot of every rally to figure out how to play the game optimally. A scientist, he broke down the sport scientifically — then wrote about it in a series of books endorsed by some of the best American tennis players of their day.

Sometimes his son, Randy, watched matches with him. “It was boring,” Randy said, laughing. “He didn’t talk. He had this huge notebook, and he just was concentrating.”

In a typical story of a sports stats pioneer, I’d show how this early work inspired others and led to a revolution in analysis of the game.2 Not this time. Nearly six decades after Old’s first book hit shelves, no one is producing stats like his. Old’s stats on how often pros hit overheads for winners, or hit their returns down the line, aren’t available in tennis today.

The author of the post showed Old’s 60+ year old book on doubles to some modern players, including the record-setting Bryan brothers, and they found that much of it still applied to the modern game:

Last month at the World Tour Finals in London, I showed the doubles book to the Bryans, to Fleming, and to Daniel Nestor, a 12-time Grand Slam champion. None had seen stats like Old kept — on winning percentage on volleys depending on where they were struck, or on which shots were most likely to yield winners.

They said some data-driven tenets from the book still held: Come to net.12Crowd the middle of the court. Keep returns low. Others, like taking speed off the first serve to allow time to come to net, don’t apply in today’s power-dominated game, the current stars agreed.13

Unfortunately doubles is the red-headed stepchild of tennis and so these kinds of stats aren’t available to even the pros. While the tenets are all well and good, it would be helpful for them to have stats like these on specific opponents. After all, you might find that a certain player’s success rate drops if you hit sliced low returns versus aggressive hard returns. That kind of information can mean all the difference in matches that are often decided by two or three critical points.

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