A New Playstyle Meta Approaches
Medvedev dismantles the servers in Toronto, big serving counterpunchers, serve and return trends
After watching Opelka upset Tsitsipas followed by Medvedev defeating Isner in Toronto, I tweeted this:
Medvedev followed up that win over Isner by routining another giant in Reilly Opelka in straight sets in the Toronto final last night. Medvedev moves to a 9-1 head to head winning record against the triumvirate of big servers — Isner, Raonic & Opelka. Tsitsipas, who comparatively struggles with his return of serve on a hard court, has a 5 wins and 5 losses record against those same three players.
The reasons for the above are multiple, but primarily Medvedev has solid returns on both forehand and backhand on a hard court, and is helped by his double hander and lanky, octopus-esque limbs allowing him to smother and cover an unusually large area deep in the court a la Nadal. Whereas Tsitsipas’ backhand return in particular is weaker, partially because the Greek doesn’t have much of a blocked return on that wing (apparently because he’s more confident in his topspin backhand than the slice1). On clay it’s a different story, with Tsitsipas having more time to wind up those shots and take full swings rather than block.
But back to the beginning: is the return a more precious and meaningful competitive advantage than the serve these days at the very top of the game? Last week I posted the serve performance trends for the past decade, with the summary being that most service performance categories had improved steadily over the last ten years. Top ranked players have gotten taller, they’re hitting faster 1st and 2nd serves, and they’re holding serve more often now on average than ten years ago.
So what’s happened to the return performance over the past decade?
Notes: These are all year end rankings apart from 2021 which is the current ranking. I’ve combined some of the 2020 and 2021 figures because the pandemic screwed up some of 2020’s numbers. Federer isn't included in the Top 10 for 2020 or 2021, despite being in the official rankings, because he hasn't played enough matches (there simply wasn’t enough performance data for him). He’s replaced by the next best player in each of those years.
As serve performance has trended up over the past decade, return performance has trended down. You can do some interesting stuff overlaying and comparing these but perhaps the most satisfying is the inverse height to return performance rollercoaster:
So, as serve performance has mostly gotten better over the past decade, and return performance has gotten worse, it would make sense that a good returner would be able to find more of a competitive edge as long as his serve kept pace with the improving pack.
The only two players in the top 10 in both 2011 and 2021 are Djokovic and Nadal (Federer technically is still in the top 10 this year but entirely because of frozen COVID rankings and he hasn’t played enough to be included in this due to lack of performance data). Nadal and Djokovic are two of the best returners to ever play the game and both have upped their serve speeds and overall serve performances in recent years to keep pace on that front. But guess who ranks at number three behind Nadal and Djokovic in the 2019 and 2021 (so far) seasons when it comes to return games won in the top 10?
Update: Medvedev actually finished the 2021 season with the best overall return performance on hard courts out of the top 5:
Along those lines, Opelka came up with an apt description for Medvedev:
Opelka is essentially describing an emerging play-style meta that hasn’t really existed in this way until quite recently. Medvedev and Zverev can both embody it, and it centres around (aside from being very tall) having a huge 1st serve, to fit in with the decade trend of bigger and better serving, combined with excellent athleticism and return game stickiness.
Medvedev has the tools to blend in with, or even occasionally surpass, the other elite servers at the top of the game…
1st Serve Points Won: Medvedev 88%, Opelka 63%
2nd Serve Points Won: Medvedev 62%, Opelka 38%
Unreturned 1st serves: Medvedev 54%, Opelka 33%
Unreturned 2nd serves: Medvedev 58%, Opelka 29%
Points Won Under 5 Shots: Medvedev 43, Opelka 42
Points Won Over 5 Shots: Medvedev 29, Opelka 14
… but perhaps his biggest edge comes in having an unusually (at least historically) good return performance for such a tall, big server. The Russian absolutely dismantled arguably the two best servers in the game over the last 48 hours in back to back matches, creating giant killing break points in 11 of the 18 return games he played against Isner and Opelka.
A new playstyle approaches…
Daniil Medvedev is a threat in ways which have, historically more often than not, been inverse areas of skill for tall (6ft6+) players. If you were going to plot these evolving skills like video game characters you’d get something like this:
The ‘Big 3’ of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, especially the latter two, have built much of their kingdoms on ruthlessly exposing the weak spots of those who challenge them. Perhaps in some strange form of natural selection, the response from part of the next generation is to plug some of those holes by becoming more balanced in these ways mentioned above — evolution towards simultaneously great servers and great movers & returners (more on this here). It’s going to be fascinating in the coming years to see whether the ‘big serving counterpunchers’ of Medvedev and Zverev will outperform the slightly more strength specific, but less balanced in terms of serve and return performance, players like Tsitsipas, Berrettini & Shapovalov.2 Perhaps once the Big 3 retire, areas of weakness won’t be exploited so easily.3
Medvedev certainly has weak spots of his own, and the arguments above start to fall apart a bit on the clay as I’ve written about here and here. But considering 60-65% of the elite calendar is played on Medvedev’s preferred hard court surface, the Russian is bringing an extremely interesting and effective combination of skills to the table.
Serve or return? Why not both says Daniil.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
See you on Thursday.
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Top: Vaughn Ridley/Getty
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This has always been my hunch about Tsitsipas’ backhand, that he grew up (on clay) playing mostly topspin drives instead of slices and so became much more confident in the former than the latter. Whether or not that’s a good thing on balance (his backhand topspin is better than most but his slice/block is worse than many other single handers) is a question I’ll try to answer in another issue. My guess is probably not, but it only really presents as a problem on hard courts rather than his beloved clay.
Lumping Medvedev and Zverev into one bucket and Tsitsipas, Berrettini & Shapo into another is extremely simplistic. But it fits the purpose of the piece i.e the focus on serve and return skill balance.
This is another reminder that the competitive landscape, ie what it takes to win the biggest events, is going to be completely different pre and post Big 3 retirement. Those three represent different Slam final roadblocks compared to next gen playing against each other in those big finals.