The best ‘closers’ in tennis

Published by Stephanie Kovalchik

Serena Williams is one of the best 'closers' in tennis
Who are the best ‘closers’ of matches in men’s and women’s tennis? We took a look.

By the end of the second set of World No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s fourth round match against 14th seed Gilles Simon, it looked like it was going to be another straight-set win for the favourite. Two sets and many unforced errors later, Simon had evened the score at it was any man’s game. In the end, Djokovic managed to escape a loss but it took an anxiety-making three match point opportunities—two on his return and the third and final on his serve–to finally secure his place in the quarterfinals.

Tightly contested matches like the surprise Djokovic-Simon battle put a spotlight on how players handle match points and find a way to close out a match when the pressure is on.

What do the numbers tell us about the best closers in today’s game?

Best closers in the men’s game
Closers are players who achieve a win when they have the upper hand in a match. Having a match point is the most extreme case of having the advantage in a match. Top players capitalise on match-point chances to a high degree. Over five years of Grand Slams from 2011 to 2015, 19 of the current top-30 ranked male players won 100 per cent of matches when they had at least one match point opportunity.

Of the 11 players in the top 30 to have lost Grand Slam matches in the past five years having had a match point, five are currently ranked in the top – Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Richard Gasquet, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The first three of these players will all compete in the Australian Open 2016 quarterfinals.

The three match points that Djokovic needed to advance to the quarters raises the question of how common multiple match points are at the highest level of the game. Which players make the most of their match-point opportunities?

To see who were the most effective closers in the game, the Australian Open data analytics team developed a new stat, dubbed ‘match in one’, which is the percentage of matches a player has won with a single match point. In the past five years of Grand Slam matches, the average match in one ratio for the top 30 players was 60 per cent. On average, the top 30 needed 1.7 match points on average to close out Slam matches. Belgian David Goffin has been one of the most efficient closers in the top 30, winning 80 per cent of his matches with one match point.

A player’s chances of closing out a match on any given match point depends greatly on whether the player is serving or returning. Even among the top 30, the average match in one percentage on return was only 39 per cent, nearly half the match in one rate on serve (67 per cent). Among the top 10, the three players who have been the best match in one ratio on return are Rafael Nadal (57 per cent), David Ferrer (56 per cent), and Novak Djokovic (48 per cent).

Closing skill in the top half of the men’s quarters
The four quarterfinalists in Novak Djokovic’s half of the draw have enjoyed varying levels of success in closing out recent Grand Slam matches. Tomas Berdych has been the most efficient closer on serve, with a match in one percentage of 84 on serve, needing an average of just 1.2 match-point chances to win. On the return, Novak Djokovic has been the most effective closer, getting wins in with one match point 48 per cent of the time; a 50 per cent better ratio than any of the other players who remain in his half of the draw.

Best closers in the women’s game
The top 30 women have a slight edge over the top men in closing out Grand Slam matches. In the past five years, only eight of the current top 30 have dropped a match after earning a match point. Of those, only Caroline Wozniacki – who has lost two matches in the majors when she had match points – is in the top 10.

However, top women have tended to need more opportunities to close out a match than the top men. The average match in one percentage for the top 30 women at the Grand Slams was 55 per cent overall, 60 per cent on serve, and 49 per cent on return. Thus, the advantage of serve for closing out matches is less significant for the women’s game than the men’s.

Closing skill in the top half of the women’s quarters
Among the women in the top half of the quarterfinals (Serena Williams’ side of the draw), the most effective closer on serve is No.4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who has an impressive match in one percentage on serve at Grand Slams of 90 per cent and needs just 1.5 points on average to finish out match point chances on serve. On the return side, Maria Sharapova has been the best at closing out matches in one match point, doing so 59 per cent, which is about 20 per cent better than the other quarterfinalists in this half (Radwanska, Williams, and Carla Suarez Navarro).

Although world No. 1 and title favourite Serena Williams has been the second most effective closer on serve in this group, with a match in one rate on serve of 73 per cent, she has been the least effective on return, winning only 47 per cent of matches on her return in one point. These numbers suggest some disparity in how ruthless Serena is when closing out matches on serve than on return. But, perhaps with Williams being so dominant in all other aspects of the game, she can afford to take a little extra time to close out some matches.

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