Return Impact Head-to-Heads

Head-to-heads are one of the most fascinating aspects of tennis. While it’s easy to look up who is ahead on one record or another, there are still many fundamental patterns of play that we can’t easily compare across players. This post goes a small (but I hope interesting) way towards remedying that by introducing a head-to-head visualization tool for comparing the return impact patterns of ATP players.

Which top player is the most defensive on the first serve return? Who is the most aggressive on 2nd? And how much do player serve return patterns vary by surface? or court side? The head-to-head mapping tool below is an effort to address these and many more questions about the serve return.

The maps you see here are model-based summaries of return impact patterns based on ATP match data from 2018 to 2020. The return impact is not the returner’s position but the width and depth of the ball when the racquet makes contact on the serve return. The model adjusts for the server so the patterns you see here can be interpreted as what a receiver is expected to do against an “average” top ATP player (I know that is a weird concept in this context, but basically, what we see here is a player’s tendencies over many matches).

I’ve used a contour density for easier summaries and comparisons. The density value can be tricky to interpret. The focus here is a comparative one and the contours should do a good job of showing areas of relative higher density. Regions where the contour lines are more tightly bunched together indicate a region where an impact is more likely to occur.

The list includes 141 receivers and you can select any two players to compare among them. The additional filters allow you to toggle the impact summaries by serve number, surface, and court side. Explore and let me know what you discover!