Pinpointing the serve. Who missed, and by how much.

(Part 3 of 3)

In the final part of this three part series, I determine who picks up the most free drinks as a result of hitting the centre of the USTA target zone, and by how much. I also extend the analysis to see how much each player missed the ‘optimum’ serve locations.

Who picks up the most free drinks?

For a bit of fun let’s see who would have picked up the most free drinks by hitting the ‘imaginary’ cone in the center of each target zone. We know coaches run this drill with their players, so let’s see how well each player fared in a match environment. Let’s assume the cone is 20 cm in diameter.

Federer Murray Serve Map Spider DiagramFigure 1. Federer v Murray. Mapping spatial serve patterns from the centre of each target zone. (click to enlarge)

The results show us that Federer picked up 4 free drinks, while Murray picked up only 3.   I don’t feel too bad since each player hit 100 or so serves each. That’s a pretty poor strike rate given these guys are best players in the world!

Each player missed the target by almost the same amount. Federer was on average     0.76 m from the centre of the each target  zone, while Murray was out by an average of 0.82 m.

Let’s take a look at the School Boys…

NCAA Tennis Serve Spider DiagramFigure 2. School Boy A v School Boy B. Mapping spatial serve patterns from the centre of each target zone. (click to enlarge)

The results show us that School Boy A picked up only 1 free drink, while School Boy B went thirsty not hitting the center of any of the targets! Ok, so now I’m feeling really good.

School Boy A on average missed the centre of the target zone by 0.94 m, while School Boy B was only out by an average of 0.80 m.

As discussed in part 2 of the blog, it’s reasonable to assume that perhaps the players weren’t targeting the centre of each zone. What if they were aiming for a ‘optimum’ but higher risk serve position? In part 2 of the blog we argued that the corners and lines were the ‘optimum’ positions to land your serve. So let’s see how far each player was from these ‘optimum’ serve positions.

Federer Murray Serve Map Spider Diagram 2Figure 3. Federer v Murray. Mapping spatial serve patterns from the ‘optimum’ serve locations. (click to enlarge)

Figure 3 shows us that Federer missed the ‘optimum’ serve locations on average by     0.88 m, while Murray missed on average by 1.04 m.

NCAA Serve map Spider DiagramFigure 4. School Boy A v School Boy B. Mapping spatial serve patterns from the ‘optimum’ serve locations. (click to enlarge)

Figure 4 shows us that School Boy A missed the ‘optimum’ serve locations on average by 1.15 m, while School Boy B missed on average by 1.22 m.

What can we learn from this?

Well we know that Federer takes home as many free drinks as the other three put together! We also know that Federer was on average serving closer to the ‘optimum’ locations than Murray which supports our analysis in part 2 of the blog, where we found Federer to target the high risk zones more than any other player.

We all expected the spread of the School Boy serves around the ‘optimum’ zones to be greater than the Big Boys due the results in part 2, where the Big Boys landed more balls in these ‘optimum’ areas. When we changed the target position back to the centre of each zone the School Boys and Big Boys numbers pretty much evened up, again supporting the results in part 2.

Spider Diagrams: The spider diagrams allowed us to visually link the serves to their target points and see the spread (length and direction) around each point. The spider lines for each zone allow us to very quickly see any bias in direction and distance towards the spread of serve around the points.  Without the lines it would be difficult to identify the serve clusters, and which central point they belong to.

Outliers: There were a couple of serve outliers for the Big Boys but these didn’t affect their averages enough to remove them from the calculations. The School Boys certainly had some big misses, but because there were multiple instances of these so they were left in the calculations.

More Data: With a larger dataset across different players we would be able to determine what is the expected norm, and whether these results are above or below that. Unfortunately, large serve datasets that are easily accessible to the players, coaches or analyst do not exist in tennis (hint hint ATP and WTA).

0.75 m: Let’s think back to part 2 of the blog for a minute. The size of the USTA target zones are 0.75 m square. Perhaps this tells us something. On average the four players missed by 0.83 m. Maybe the USTA set their targets knowing these missed averages and that is the reason for the particular size of the boxes?

To Summarize…

Over the course of the three blogs I have presented an alternative way of assessing a player’s serve accuracy using the USTA defined serve zones, and an additional two ‘higher risk’ zones. When comparing serve accuracy around the USTA zones there was very little difference between the four players. However once we started to analyze the serve towards the higher risk zones (the ‘optimum’ serve areas) the results started to lean in favor of the Big Boys, Federer and Murray.

I also set out to determine whether serve location really matters in tennis. The results suggest that it depends on what level of tennis is being played. The Big Boys clearly had more outright success on serves that landed in the USTA zones, and the higher risk zones than if they missed these zones. It was a different story for the School Boys however, as it didn’t appear to make any difference to their outright success rate whether they served in or outside the zones.

There is much work to be done in expanding the analysis of serve accuracy, serve success, and general serve patterns. Let’s hope we start to see more meaningful statistics from broadcasters and commentators about the serve in order to better understand who really are the best servers in the game!


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