Best WTA Servers and Returners of 2017

2017 has been a wide-open year for the WTA. What do Elo ratings tell us about the standout serve and return performances of the season?

Having reviewed the best ATP servers and returners in 2017, this week’s post is all about the WTA. In some ways, summarizing the best performers on the women’s tour is the more interesting question given the unpredictable year the WTA has had. The four different women who won Major titles in 2017 are testament to the competitiveness of the season and the difficulty of choosing “bests”. Although there is no measure that can get around this difficulty entirely, point-based Elo ratings have the advantage of being the most comprehensive ratings system out there and can add an interesting dimension to other takes on season performances.

Peak Performances

Peak serve and return ratings tell us about the highest heights a player was able to reach during the season. The chart below summarizes the peak serve and return ratings for the WTA, accounting for all points played at tour-level events in 2017. The four quadrants denote where a player’s peak rating fell in contrast to the average. The strongest players are in the top right, having above average serve and return peaks. The weakest players, on the other hand, land in the bottom left, among the below average serve and return ratings.

Coco Vandeweghe takes the highest serve performance (1645) among all the women, reaching her peak during Stanford (which is now looking for a new home). Of the top 10 servers, Vandeweghe has the lowest peak return rating, playing almost exactly to the average level. Of the top 10, Elina Svitolina and Simona Halep are the only with peak return ratings over 1600.

In 2017, Alize Cornet was the Diego Schwartzman of the women’s tour. Cornet was the 5th strongest returner overall but served below average compared to her peers.

The struggle with injury was evident among a number of the weaker performances this year, which included Belinda Bencic and Nicole Gibbs.

Most Improved

When we consider the players who raised their level the most over the season on serve, no one rivals Venus Williams. Williams reached three finals over the season, two of which were at Grand Slams. Though she didn’t take a title, she was one of the strongest players throughout the year. And her serve ratings backs up that distinction. By the second half of the year, Williams’ was averaging a 1570 serve rating, +80 points of where she began the year.

Three players in the top 10 most improved, began the year at an already high level on serve. These were Sloane Stephens, Coco Vandeweghe, and Karolina Pliskova. Each had a more than 50 point improvement in their serve performance over the course of the year.

It is also a positive sign for the tour to see several of youngest generation on upward trajectories. Some of the youngest players among the top 15 most improved include Anett Kontaveit, Elise Mertens, Ash Barty, and Jelena Ostapenko.

Quarterfinalist at the 2017 US Open Anastasija Sevastova takes the No. 1 spot of most improved on return, adding 70 points to her rating by the second half of the year. Coco Vandeweghe and Sloane Stephens were right at Sevastova’s heels, being only a few points behind in total improvement.

Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, and Venus Williams are the three players among the most improved who began with the highest return ratings at the start of the year. Although none of them improved as much on return as on serve, it is impressive that they all raised both their serve and return performances from strong to even stronger by the end of the year.

Trends like this should make all tennis fans anxious for 2018.

The data and code for this post can be found here.

Stephanie Kovalchik avatar
About Stephanie Kovalchik
Blog Founder, Senior Data Scientist at the Game Insight Group at Tennis Australia, and researcher at the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University.
Graeme Spence avatar
About Graeme Spence
Data Scientist in the Game Insight Group at Tennis Australia and researcher at the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University.
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