Who dominated each surface in 2017? This post breaks down the best clay, hard, and grass performers on the men’s tour this year.
Recently, I introduced a serve and return Elo rating system that updates with every point played by players on the professional tour to track the ups and downs in their service and return abilities.
Looking across all surfaces in 2017, Kevin Anderson, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal achieved the 3 highest serve ratings. On the return side, the top 3 spots went to Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, and Fernando Verdasco.
The appearance of Nadal and Thiem— players known for bringing their best game on clay— among the best all-surface performers begs the question of how much each player’s serve and return strength depends on surface? In other words, who dominates across surfaces? And who rises to the top for only a fraction of the calendar?
The best way to answer these questions is to make our player ratings surface-specific. In what follows, I summarise the peak hard, clay, and grass serve and return Elo ratings achieved by ATP players in 2017.
Beginning with hard court, the surface that makes up 60% of professional events, the story already gets interesting. The highest hard court serve rating goes to Rafael Nadal, who earned a +1666 rating during his title-winning run at the US Open. With Nadal and Federer chasing each other throughout the 2017 season, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Federer was just points away from Nadal, earning a peak serve rating of +1662 during his home event in Basel where he took his 8th title.
In the throwback year that was the 2017 ATP, it is impressive to see that Nadal and Federer three of the most recognisable big servers— Kevin Anderson, John Isner, and Milos Raonic— who took the 3rd, 4th, and 5th highest serve ratings on hard court.
On the return side, the top two performers once again go to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But, as might be expected for the fierce defender than Nadal is, he surpassed the rest of the field much more in his peak return rating than on serve, getting ahead of Federer by +32 points. The next 3 in line were David Ferrer, Diego Schwartzman, and David Goffin.
Looking at the overall spread in peak performances, it is interesting to see how tight the cloud is. All of the clustering among the ATP players reinforces how narrow the differences in talent are on hard court at the elite level.
With Federer opting out of the clay season in 2017, there was room for some new names to appear among the best performer list. One of the surprises to emerge from the serve ratings is the dominance of Nadal. Much of the reign of he king of clay has to go to his top serve rating, which he earned against Stan Wawrinka in the finals of French Open. While Nadal just edged out Federer on his peak serve on hard court, he was +29 points of the 2nd highest rated serve on clay, Alexander Zverev. Dominic Thiem makes the number 4th spot, just behind John Isner.
Thiem also makes the top 5 returners on clay, coming in third behind Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, confirming Thiem’s strong preference for clay. A second place for Djokovic on return, an achievement he earned during the Rome Masters, is one positive sign for fans wondering about a Djokovic comeback in 2018. Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray, two players who will also be coming back from injury at the start of 2018, were also among the top 10 returners on clay.
As the shortest part of the season, the grass court swing doesn’t give much time for players to make an impression. But who on the ATP made the most of the time they had?
With Federer taking the 2017 Wimbledon title, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he also earned the highest serve rating on grass. With a peak rating of +1655, Federer nearly equalled himself on hard court and surpassed the next highest serve, Kevin Anderson, by +9 points.
Perhaps most interesting when looking over the top servers is what isn’t rather than what is there. For the first time in our surface review, Nadal didn’t take the highest rating. In fact, the offensive paradise that is grass, dropped Nadal all the way to 13th on serve.
Turning to return, we find a twofer for Federer, who also ends up in the No. 1 position. Wimbledon finalist, Marin Cilic, earns the 2nd spot, followed by Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Nadal returns to the top 5 on his defensive performance, but this still has to come as a disappointment for a former Wimbledon champion and two-slam winner in 2017.
No discussion of surface effects in tennis can finish without a debate on “specialists”. There are a lot of opinions about surface specialists, but it is actually not that easy to pinpoint. If we think of the term literally, it should be someone who excels on one and only one surface.
If we can accept that definition, then we should look for players with highly variable peak ratings across surfaces. Among servers who feature in the top 10 once and only once, the most variable in their ratings in 2017 include Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov, and Gilles Muller. Muller and Cilic were at the height of their game on grass, while Dimitrov dominated only when he was playing hard court in 2017.
|Player||Surface||Peak Serve Elo||Minus Best|
When we look at variable return performances, Thiem stands out as the most obvious specialist in 2017. Thiem’s return performance on clay was 74 points or more higher than his peak ability on any other surface. Mischa Zverev and David Ferrer both had their best performances when returning on hard court this year, creating a gap of 65 points in their surface-to-surface peak return abilities.
So if any one tells you that Nadal is a clay specialist, you can tell them that Thiem put specialty to shame.
|Player||Surface||Peak Return Elo||Minus Best|
The data and code for this post can be found here.