Serve Leaders Among ATP's Top Contenders for French Open Title

Now that the dust has settled at the Rome Masters, the tennis world is turning its focus to the French Open, where main draw play is nearly upon us. With Roger Federer skipping Roland Garros when not injured for the first time since he first played the event in 1999, the four names that will be most in the discussion for the win are Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. In this post, we look at the clay court season so far and what it tells us about the form for each of these top contenders going into the second Major of the year.

Having won three of his clay court warm-ups going into the French, Rafael Nadal is, deservedly, the strong favorite for his 10th title at Roland Garros and 53rd title on clay overall. Nadal’s only loss on clay was to Dominic Thiem in Rome. Interestingly, among these four, Thiem has the second-most match wins on clay this season. Those two facts together could make him a surprising top threat to Nadal.

At the start of the clay court season, there were high expectations for Murray and Djokovic, the official No. 1 and No. 2 in the World. But after three clay Masters events, there is not a single title among them. The disappointment of that stat is even greater when we consider that Murray hasn’t faced Nadal yet on clay in 2017 and Djokovic only faced him once (the semifinal in Madrid).

Djokovic will be the defending champion at Roland Garros. Yet, this year, we have only seen flashes of the 2016 Djokovic on dirt. Still, some of his best play was in Rome this past week. Considering that his performance in Rome came after what must have been a tumultuous transition with the purging of his team, it could be a good sign for how he has adapted to the change. Also, news has just come out that Andre Agassi will coach Djokovic during the French Open, and what boost that could bring to his game remains a matter of speculation.

But even with the uncertainties circling Djokovic, Murray has to be the biggest question mark of the group. Murray’s win percentage on clay in 2017 has been just 50%. There has been only one of four events that he has survived past his second match. That’s shocking for the man who reached the finals of French Open last year and is currently ranked the best player in the world. Murray is definitely in a deeper hole than Djokovic going into the French Open and the reasons for his slump are also more mysterious.

Wins are one thing. But when we move to the best of 5 format of a Grand Slam it is important to go deeper into how players have won if we want to understand their prospects for the Major title. In the chart below, I’ve taken a look at how each of the four contenders have performed on serve during the clay season so far. Since serve performance will be influenced by the quality of the receiver, these stats are adjusted for the return ability of the opponent, which attempts to remove the effect of opponent when comparing the serve performance among players.

Nadal leads the charge with an average adjusted serve win percentage of 75%, while Murray is at the bottom of the group with a dismaying average of 60%. Thiem takes the second spot with an average of 71% on serve and Djokovic is second to last with 67%.

Nadal has not only distinguished himself on serve by several percentage points on average, he has also been extremely consistent. There have been only three matches where he has performed at 60% or less on serve, what has been the average for Murray. However, Thiem beats Nadal when it comes to serve consistency, with only one match where he performed at 60% or less, that match being his loss to Djokovic in Rome, his last match after several grueling weeks of high-level clay tennis.

Both Thiem and Djokovic have shown signs of building momentum as they have gotten deeper into the clay court season, which could given them more of an edge going into the French than their average serve performance would suggest. Murray, on the other hand, hasn’t had a good result on clay yet.

Serve is only one aspect of the game, but it is one of the most critical ingredients for stringing together seven wins at a Major. Nadal and Thiem are in the best position among these four, with Nadal still far in the lead. There are signs that, if Djokovic can pick up from his form in Rome, that he could also be a threat to Nadal and Thiem. Murray, on the other hand, will have a steep uphill battle to not repeat the early round loses he has already suffered on clay this year. All the signs suggest it will take a 2016 Cavs-like comeback to see Murray in the finals this year.