Clay Court Performance Trends of French Open Title Men's Top 4

The French Open draw is out and Round 1 is only hours away. Four of the names that will be watched closely on the men’s side are 9-time champion Rafael Nadal, defending champion Novak Djokovic, defending finalist Andy Murray, and aspiring title-contender Dominic Thiem.

I’ve taken a look at the clay court performance of each of these four so far in 2017. In this post, I want to take a bigger step back and bring more context to each player’s clay court performance as they prepare for their first matches in Paris.

Nadal won his first title at Roland Garros in 2005, so that seems like a good place to start. The chart below looks at the serve performance on clay of the four top contenders from 2005 to 2017. For a given year, I summarize a player’s clay-court serve achievements by calculating the median, minimum, and maximum across all of their matches in that year. As I’ve described earlier, the serve performance is adjusted for the difficulty of the receiver so that player’s get more credit for serving well against the toughest opponents and vice versa.

What do the trends show?

All of these four have been steadily improving during this period. Andy Murray and Dominic Thiem have had the steepest increases in their clay-court serve performance. Between 2007 and 2016, Murray increased his average serve performance by 2 percentage points per year. This year, however, Murray has had a near catastrophic lapse, serving at an average of 60%, which puts him at per-2007 performance levels.

Thiem, the newbie among the group, has surged over the past 3 years. In that time, Thiem has gained 2 percentage points per year, as well, with no sign of a slow down.

It is intersting to see such a strong parallel in the steadily increasing trends for Djokovic and Nadal. Nadal has managed to edge Djokovic out by several percentage points on average for most of his career, until 2015 and 2016 when Djokovic was performing at a level equal to 2012-2013 Nadal. The dominance shifted back to Nadal this year, when he has performed at phenomenal average of 75% as Djokovic has hit a slump at dropped to 67%, his lowest average serve performance since 2010.

On the return, Murray is interestingly the only player of the four to show an upward trend in his performance, though the improvement per year has been less, on average, compared to his serve performance improvement.

Between 2008 and 2016, Djokovic was extremely consistent on return, maintaining an average between 49 and 50 percent in nearly every year. In light of his past performance, 2017 stands out for two reasons. First, Djokovic has had an average of only 44% return points won on serve, which is a recent low for him. Also, the range in his return performance has been massive, hitting lower lows and higher highs than at any other time in his career.

We can see from this chart why Nadal is the undoubted king of clay. Not only has Nadal maintained the highest average performance on return among these four, but he has rarely had a match where he has dropped below 40% on return. A claim none of the other four can make. Also, Nadal has had numerous matches over the years where has won the majority of return points. Though there has been a slight downward trend, his return stats this year put him right in line with his performance in 2010 thru 2012, all years in which he took the title at Roland Garros.

Thiem, on the other hand, will have a big gap to close on return to be on par with Nadal, though he has hit some Nadal-like heights this year.

Considering these year-by-year trends on clay should reaffirm our admiration for Nadal’s dominance and consistency over such a long period of time. It also adds to the concerns about the form of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic going into Roland Garros. The first having few positives to draw on in 2017, while Djokovic has had his most up-and-down performance on clay in his career, which could explain why he has expunged his old team and started to work with Andre Agassi. Whether Murray and Djokovic can make a strong run in Paris will be two of the most interesting storylines at this year’s event.