BREAK POINTS OR BREAK GAMES

by Karikadai Boy     

The boy from Basel turned 34 days earlier. He rolled through the Masters before the last Grand Slam of the year winning it without dropping a set or serve! A truly remarkable achievement where more and more serves are being put back into play thanks to new strings and ever increasing athleticism. That too for a 34 year old with more than 1200 matches on the odometer. He went from strength to strength and rolled through the US Open dropping serve just once in reaching the final. Opposite him stood the man, the best player in the world, who was on the hottest streak of his career.

He had beaten the rubber man in Cincinnati fairly comfortably in straight sets. A first set tiebreak where he dropped just 1 point and a sole break in the second set gave the Swiss his 7th Cincinnati Masters and 24th Masters title of his career. He even added a new wrinkle in his repertoire, now named SABR, by rushing and taking the serve almost near the service box and surprising the Serb. Confidence could not have been higher.

After a three hour rain delay, the final began. Federer created a million break point opportunities. He took only 4. He was strangely nervous and even passive at times. Djokovic won his 2nd US Open and his 3rd slam of the year in four sets. The story of the final was not Djokovic’s dominant year but the choking of Federer from creating 23 break points but taking less than 20% of them.

Break points make or literally break the set. Take one more than your opponent and you win the set. Win 3 (or 2) of them sets you win the match. The break points stat is not very intuitive though. Lets say there is a game which sees 10 deuces with 5 advantages to each player. From a statistical viewpoint it is useless if the server saves all but one break point in the game. Effectively, 1/5 is same as 1/1. It is how many “break games” one creates and not break points.

The recent Australian open final between the Gladiatorial Rafa Nadal and the Regal Roger Federer is a fine example of break games created. In the most dramatic fifth set, Federer created a massive 11 break points and converted just 2. That is just an 18.2% conversion rate. This is a very disingenuous way of reading things. It completely hides the fact that Federer was putting Nadal under heavy pressure in every single service game of the Mallorcan. Immediately after being broken, Federer created 3 break opportunities but failed to take them.

  Federer Nadal Federer Nadal
  BP Created BP Won BP Created BP Won BG Created BG Won BG Created BG Won
Set 1 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 0
Set 2 3 1 5 2 2 1 2 2
Set 3 5 2 5 0 3 2 2 0
Set 4 0 0 3 1 0 0 1 1
Set 5 11 2 4 1 4 2 2 1
Total 20 6 17 4 10 6 7 4
Conversion % 30.00 23.53 60.00 57.14

Out of the four service games, Federer put Nadal under heavy pressure. After missing out on the 1st game, Federer created 1 in the 2nd game, 2 in the 3rd and a massive 5 of them Nadal’s last service game of the final. The strain of facing so many break points was telling on the Mallorcan. He buckled in his last two service games. Though he saved 4 break points in what ultimately proved to be the decisive game of the final, it proved insufficient when he misjudged a Federer backhand flick service return and hit the net.

Lets take a look at some numbers from the 2 semifinals of this Australian Open. We were lucky to witness, including the final, 3 fantastic matches, all of which went the distance. The first semifinal was between friends and compatriots: Federinka.

Federer Wawrinka Federer Wawrinka
BP Created BP Won BP Created BP Won BG Created BG Won BG Created BG Won
Set 1 4 1 3 0 1 1 2 0
Set 2 2 1 0 0 1 1 0 0
Set 3 0 0 3 2 0 0 2 2
Set 4 2 1 4 2 1 1 2 2
Set 5 1 1 2 0 1 1 2 0
9 4 12 4 4 4 8 4
Conversion % 44.44 33.33 100.00 50.00

Clearly, it is evident that Federer’s serve was under more pressure than Wawrinka’s but if we go by the standard stat of break points won it doesn’t seem by how much. Federer gave up 33% more break point opportunities but won the same number of points. It doesn’t seem like much but if we take a look at break games created, Wawrinka created break points in 8 Federer service games whereas Federer could only do so in 4 Wawrinka service games.

Federer made every break game count and won all of them. A 100% success rate. When serving he was exactly under twice as much pressure as Wawrinka was when he served but cracked only half as many times. Stanimal could convert only 50% of the opportunities. 4/4 and 4/8 are much more intuitive than 4/9 and 4/12. They evince the same thing but break games give a much better idea about the return game that break points.

In the other semifinal, possibly the match that heralded the arrival of the Bulgarian, often derided as Baby Fed for the stylistic similarities, Grigor Dimitrov created 16 break points to Nadal’s 13. Nadal won 5 and Dimitrov 4 which makes it seem Nadal had been much more efficient than the young Bulgarian. The 38.46% conversion is much closer to Nadal’s 45% career conversion rate whereas Dimitrov’s 25% was much less than his career rate of 38%. Clearly, both players were playing lights out tennis and underperformed.

Nadal Dimitrov Nadal Dimitrov
BP Created BP Won BP Created BP Won BG Created BG Won BG Created BG Won
Set 1 2 1 2 0 1 1 1 0
Set 2 3 2 7 3 2 2 4 3
Set 3 3 1 4 1 2 1 1 1
Set 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Set 5 5 1 3 0 3 1 2 0
13 5 16 4 8 5 8 4
Conversion % 38.46 25.00 62.50 50.00

4/16 & 5/13 don’t give us a very pristine picture. If we take break games, it is clear that Dimitrov was much closer to Nadal than it seemed. Both players created break points in exactly 8 games each. Nadal won one more break game. The match was on a knife’s edge throughout the 300 minutes the players were on court and Nadal just crept past the finish line by a hair’s breadth if we look it through the prism of break games.

BONUS TABLE: NADAL & FEDERER’S BP & BG CONVERTED FOR AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2017

Nadal
BP Created BP Won BG Created BG Won
Federer 17 4 7 4
Dimitrov 13 5 7 5
Raonic 3 2 3 3
Monfils 17 6 10 6
A Zverev 16 5 7 5
Baghdatis 16 6 8 6
Mayer 12 3 5 3
94 31 48 31
Conversion % 32.98 64.58
Federer
BP Created BP Won BG Created BG Won
Nadal 20 6 10 6
Wawrinka 9 4 4 4
M Zverev 15 6 7 6
Nishikori 18 7 9 7
Berdych 5 4 4 4
Rubin 8 3 4 3
Melzer 9 7 8 7
84 37 46 37
Conversion % 44.05 80.43

In 46 games he had break point opportunities Federer converted them into breaks a stunning 37 times! He missed out on just 8 games! Whereas Nadal created nearly the same number of break games but missed out on 17 games. 31/94 & 37/84 do not give us as clear a picture as 37/46 & 31/48 do.

The sample size of break games/break points is small but we can already see how natural break games converted are than break points converted. It also gives an idea of how the points are spread over games. It is better to create 5 break points over 3 games rather than in just 1 game. It gives us a much clearer picture of how much pressure the returner is putting on the server. Early indications point that break games are better than break points.

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