Andy Murray: Returning in the Age of the Returner

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Tennis – or more specifically men’s tennis – is currently in the ‘golden age of the returner’ according to the tennis analyst Craig O’Shannessy, and the world number two, Andy Murray, is amongst the very best returners the sport has ever seen. Before Murray faced ‘big server’ Ivo Karlovic in the fourth round of Wimbledon this year his returning prowess was discussed on Wimbledon Live by O’Shannessy, Mats Wilander and Annabel Croft.

The British number one is consistently in the top five in the ATP return statistic tables, jostling about with Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer, Rafa Nadal, along with Gilles Simon and Tomas Berdych, both of whom are consistently strong in converting break point opportunities. Throughout the year Murray has been returning his opponents’ serves with increased levels of attack; particularly notable has been how far into the court he has been stepping to return second serves.

The British number one’s returning has been at its most consistent in Davis Cup ties, but looking at key return statistics collectively – illustrated in the chart below – in ATP tour and Grand Slam tournaments, his best tournaments on return in 2015 have been the slams in Australia and France, and Masters tournaments in Miami, Madrid and Paris. At the Roger’s Cup in Montreal his returning was also extremely strong, particularly off second serves, however, Murray experienced a dip in break point conversions throughout the North American hard court season, dipping to damagingly low levels at Flushing Meadows, and again at the Shanghai Masters. There have been notable failures in Murray’s return game this season. Is it the first serve return that is breaking down under pressure or the second serve return – which he has highlighted as an area he wanted to further improve?

The table below shows the statistics for first serve in percentage and return points. Green highlighting shows statistics which are above career average, while yellow highlighting indicates figures below career average. In seven of the matches lost this year Murray’s first serve in percentage has been between 0.9% and 15.8% above his career average of 58%, but in all twelve of the matches lost his return points won in the match has been below his career average of 42%: the return points won have been as low as 13.5% in Dubai against Coric and as close as 40.2% in Miami against Djokovic.

The world number two has won above his career average of 34% of first serve returns in 33% of the matches he has lost in 2015: three against the dominant world number one Djokovic and one against Frenchman Simon on hard courts in the first quarter of the season. In three of those four matches Andy’s first serve in percentage was above his career average of 58%, while in the semi-final match against Djokovic in Indian Wells first serve percentage was 10.7% less than average. In all of those four matches Murray’s points won on his own second serve was between 3.7% and 25.1% less than his career average of 52%, while points won against his opponents’ second serve were down on his career average of 55% by between 9.3% and 24.7%.

But, what of the remaining 67% of matches lost where the world number two hasn’t achieved his career average of 34% first serve return points won? One was against Coric in Dubai. The result and the statistics speak for themselves: everything was poor that day. Then there are the five losses came in the second and third quarters of the year taking in the ‘natural’ surfaces of clay and grass and a move to the faster hard courts of the North American summer and the US Open series of tournaments.

Against Djokovic at Roland Garros the numbers show a clear issue on return. The first serve return points at 31.4% are closer to the career average of 34%, but actually down 5.6% on Murray’s career average of 37% on clay. The second serve return points won come in at 21.4% less than the career clay average of 54% -- 22.4% on all-surface career average – and an even more significant 24.4% less than Murray’s 2015 clay statistics on second serve returns. Djokovic served well in the first, second, and fifth sets in that match, but is it enough to say the opponent served extremely well and there was nothing more Murray could do?

That was certainly the sentiment following Murray’s straight-set semi-final loss to Federer at Wimbledon. By all accounts, his own admission, and in the opinion of analysts and legends of the game, Federer served the match of his life that day. Serving at 75.8% first serves in, Federer gave Murray little opportunity to attack second serves in the way he has been for most of the year. Murray himself served well for much of the match, and the semi-final became only the fourth match of his ten-year career where he served 70% first serves in or more but still lost.

The British number one won a mere 15.9% of points on the Swiss man’s first serve. At that point it was his second worst of the season after the Coric loss, but it would be all too swiftly followed by a miserable 14% won against Gabashvili’s first serve in Washington D.C. in early August. The rest of Murray’s serve and return statistics from that match were strong, with his own serve and second serve return statistics nicely situated above career averages. The then world number three made error after error off the Georgian’s first serve, however, and Gabashvili used it as a big weapon on a quick surface.

Next up was the semi-final against Federer at the Cincinnati Masters in mid-August. It is true that Murray was feeling the exertions of the matches he played, and scheduling issues he had faced, during the previous week and on the path to meeting Federer, but it is also true to say that his returning wasn’t really working in the way it had been in the two Masters tournaments he had won in 2015.

Madrid and Montreal demonstrate just how powerful a weapon Murray’s returning off both first and second serves can be – or indeed the Australian Open at the beginning of the year, where the Scotsman’s first serve return points won were above his career average in all bar his fourth round and semi-final matches.

Federer’s first serve in percentage was considerably less in Cincinnati than it had been at Wimbledon, and yet Murray batted second serve return after second serve return into the net or sent them long. Winning significantly less points off the shot he has been doing so well at attacking throughout this season than he did against Federer at Wimbledon is a concerning downward trend, all too easy to dismiss with reasonable points about tiredness on the one hand and Federer’s improved serve on the other.

It is clear that Federer’s switch to a larger racquet nearly two years ago has helped his serve. In turn the Swiss number one’s serve has become something of a conundrum for Murray in the last eighteen months, and his returning against the world number three has gradually become weaker, taking what is arguably a significant dive as Murray has attempted to be more aggressive on the second serve return, frequently resulting in return errors rather than return winners.

In his disappointing fourth round loss to Kevin Anderson at the US Open, the Scotsman served well enough to have scraped by the South African, but his returning of Anderson’s first serve left a lot to be desired and Anderson hit winners at will, particularly when attacking Murray’s second serve, leaving the Scot floundering and vocally frustrated.

Murray has a good chance to end the year ranked world number two for the first time in his career. It speaks volumes for his consistency in 2015, particularly at Masters tournaments, but Djokovic has been a thorn in his side all year. Their last two meetings – in Shanghai and Paris – have been one sided, with Murray unable to get a decent foothold in either match despite breaking the Serb’s serve in both matches. The world number two’s serving has been vulnerable and the returns which had been so piercing against other opponents at those tournaments barely scratched the Serb’s apparently impenetrable armoury.
During the last five years Murray has lost just nine matches when he achieves his career average or more on first serve return points won. Four of those matches lost have come in 2015 and three of the four have been losses to Djokovic: finals at the Australian Open and the Miami Masters, and the semi-final at Indian Wells. Murray served poorly in Indian Wells, but in Melbourne and Miami he converted early break points and lead in the opening sets, then dropping both in tiebreaks he also had a lead in, before taking the second sets, before falling away in the deciding sets. In both matches his second serve return was a specific weak point: in Miami he was 9.3% below career average on second serve return points won and in Melbourne an even more problematic 16.8% below his career average of 55% second serve return points won.

This slump in second serve return points won against the world number one is perhaps a significant reason for the references he has made to improving and becoming more aggressive on the second serve return. As the season comes to its close it feels as if Murray’s returning against Djokovic isn’t so much aggressive as it is error prone. That says as much about the Serbian man’s rock solid foundations as it does about the process Murray is currently going through to try and hone a traditionally strong part of his game into an even more penetrating shot: if Federer has his much discussed ‘sabr’ return on second serve perhaps Murray is seeking something more akin to an épée?

But has seeking an extra aggressive approach on the second serve return compromised Murray’s ability to get as many balls back into play as possible? That he has identified this as an area he wants to evolve suggests that blocking or chipping back returns is no longer a strategy that will bring rewards and a change is needed: changes take time to get right.

Returning against the improved serves of Djokovic and Federer is still a puzzle Murray is attempting to solve, putting the pieces together one by one, but what of the rest of the top eight who will be present at the season ending World Tour Finals at the O2 starting on Sunday 15th November 2015? Of the various top ten players this season Murray has only lost to Djokovic and Federer, there have been a couple of battles against the players ranked below him, but for the most part he has made strong showings.  

French Open champion – and world number four – Stan Wawrinka hasn’t played Murray since beating him in the quarter-finals of the US Open in 2013. At the time the Scotsman was edging closer to undergoing back surgery and Wawrinka was beginning the upward trajectory which has seen him win two slam titles in the last two years. On that day in New York Murray won a mere 11.9% of first serve return points – his worst at the time since the autumn of 2010 – and failed to create a single break point opportunity. Both are changed players since that last meeting. They have been drawn in the same group at the WTF and viewers could be in for an interesting match.

When they meet Murray’s returning will need to be much sharper than it was that day in 2013, and sharper than it has been against the likes of Djokovic and Federer, because even though the world number two has won 48% of his returns on break points this season, Wawrinka has been the epitome of ‘clutch’ when facing break points, saving 69.1% - the highest of anyone in the top eight. If the two were to reach a tiebreak the statistics would appear to favour the Swiss number two, who has won 73% of the tiebreaks he has played this season, while Murray currently sits at 67% of tiebreaks won, an unfortunate drop from the 78% he was recording prior to the US Open series. Wawrinka has morphed into a formidable player in the last two and a half years, but he is still given to lapses and error strewn matches: he has a 77% win rate this season, compared to Murray’s 85%. Winning a minimum of 39% of return points and 70% of first serve points seem to be the statistics Murray needs to maintain to defeat Wawrinka.

Murray and the current world number five Rafa Nadal have met only once in 2015, on Nadal’s favoured clay courts on Spanish soil, when the British number one routinely defeated him to lift his second clay title in as many weeks, and his first Masters on clay in Madrid. Murray’s returning was strong that day, but perhaps the most influential factor in that win was that Murry won 81% of his second serve points. It was the first time in his career that he had won that many of his second serve points against someone ranked inside the top thirty, let alone the top four.

It is four years since the Murray and Nadal have played each other on a hard court on the ATP tour. It was midway through Murray’s incredible win streak during the 2011 Asian swing when the two clashed in the Tokyo final. Nadal gained an early break and from there the first set went on serve as both men played entertaining tennis of a high quality. The tables turned in the second set as Murray powered through to a 6-2 lead and then played what remains, arguably, the greatest deciding set of his career, overpowering and outwitting Nadal – who won just four points in the decider – to take the third set 6-0.

Since then the only tour level matches they have played have been on clay, a competitive quarter-final in Rome followed by a one sided semi-final at Roland Garros in 2014 – both won by Nadal – and the aforementioned Madrid final this year. The two played a competitive exhibition match at the start of the year on a fairly quick outdoor hard court in Abu Dhabi – the Spaniard’s first match since undergoing an appendectomy and treatment for a back injury in late 2014 – in which he pressed Murray’s defences but ultimately lost 6-2 6-0.

The energetic world number seven David Ferrer is the final player in the Ilie Nastase group. Ferrer has played Murray twice this year, both times in Paris, in June on clay and last week on indoor hard court. Ferrer is himself one of the best returners of the game but Murray has been pummelling the Spanish number two’s second serve and has won at least 53% of his return points, and converted at least 50% of break points, in their last two matches.

Matches against Ferrer are often gruelling encounters in which he forces opponents not only to run all over the court, but also to think a lot while they are running. When Murray defeated Ferrer in the semi-finals of the ATP 500 tournament in Valencia in 2014 his team openly celebrated, at the time it was a key turning point in a difficult season. Murray vs Ferrer will be the first singles match played in their group on the afternoon of Monday 16th November.

The Stan Smith group at the WTF contains the only two men in the top ten to have beaten Murray this year, along with two players to whom he has dropped just one set in twelve played in 2015. Due to the round robin format at the WTF, the second seed can only meet one of these four players in the semi-finals and another in the finals if he were to reach it. The expectation is that the two he is most likely to meet in the knockout stages are either Djokovic or Federer. The unexpected can happen and either Berdych or Nishikori could escape the group stage if the numerous qualifying variables are in their favour.

Only world number six Tomas Berdych truly knows what he might of done or said to spark Murray’s targeted, on-court, offensive against him. The Czech man once led their head-to-head, but he has lost three meetings in a row this year, each one a tougher beating than the previous match, the most recent of which saw him clobbered 6-1 6-3 in Shanghai, with Murray dominating on return winning a total of 50% of return points: a very appetising 40% on the first serve return and an even more satisfying 61.5% on the second serve return. Indeed at the end of the first set when Murray gained a set point on return, and a second serve was offered his way his face lit up and he smiled as he waited to gobble it up. If Berdych was left disappointed after the semi-final loss in Melbourne, having truly believed he could win it, he was left increasingly bewildered in Miami, referring to Murray’s increased aggression against him as a change in their matchup. On the main court in Shanghai he was reduced to seeming utterly clueless, even if he did conjure up a couple of impressive down-the-line shots.

Last year Murray began his WTF campaign against Kei Nishikori, who was at the time ranked one place above him in fifth, but who has now slipped to eight in the world rankings. Nishikori won the match routinely against and nervous and tired Murray. Murray’s first serve return was lacking that afternoon and on return Japanese man persistently attacked Murray’s oft-criticised second serve. Since then Murray has re-established his supremacy in this matchup: in the five matches he has won against Nishikori, Murray has typically won over 40% of his first serve returns and at least 56% of his second serve return points. Nishikori is a dynamic player who likes to dictate from the baseline and take the ball on the rise. Ultimately, however, when the Scotsman is fit and well he has proved too solid and has too much variety for the world number eight, who seemed to hit a wall against Murray in Montreal and has not been quite the same since.

Murray has played eleven singles matches since his US Open exit: two at the Davis Cup semi-final, four in Shanghai and five at Paris-Bercy. At each he has displayed some very strong returning, but at the last two Masters tournaments of the season those blistering and clever returns seemed to abandon him against the world number one. Hit an extremely aggressive shot and you take the risk you make an error, hit something too passive and Djokovic bats it away as if it is an insult. How to approach beating Djokovic: patience or aggression? Variety or power? It is all about finding the right pattern, the right balance.

Winning the Davis Cup with the rest of the Great Britain team is undoubtedly the British number one’s primary goal for what remains of the 2015 tennis season. Looking beyond a historic win in Ghent in a fortnight’s time to the 2016 season, he has already pointed towards the ‘massive’ goal of defending his Olympic gold medal in the summer, but more recently he has been talking about closing the cavernous gap between him and Djokovic on the rankings tables. There are two ways this could happen: Murray wins more matches against the Serb, or Djokovic’s level drops dramatically. The players on the tour might be relieved if the latter happened, but Murray seems to posses the sort of outlook and determination that means he might only be satisfied if the former happened. While Davis Cup looms large on the horizon Murray’s immediate sights are set on the WTF, where ESPN reported that he would not be adverse to having another crack at the world number one on the closing Sunday of the tournament. After all, to beat the best you have to play the best, and to be the best you have to beat the best.
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Thank you atl very interesting .
November 15, 2015, 10:13 pm
By deb

Sorry this article is much too long.
November 16, 2015, 01:09 pm
By iamabritt

Well researched ATL, good effort, detail appreciated.
November 16, 2015, 08:38 pm
By althusser

Thank you atl very interesting .
Well researched ATL, good effort, detail appreciated.

Thanks both for your comments. Glad it was of interest and I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

Sorry this article is much too long.

I made an effort to make it shorter than the last column which was around 1000 words longer but well received. Sometimes it just isn't possible to cover everything needed in a few hundred words. It took me a long time to gather the data and to write this up.
November 22, 2015, 09:05 pm
By amongsttheleaves

ATL    Mozart was told by the emperor that there were too many notes in The Marriage of Figaro so you're in good company.
November 23, 2015, 03:02 pm
By Iluvandy

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