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Clutch Review of the WTA at the 2016 U.S. Open

The 2016 U.S. Open might now be a faint memory of the news cycle but there are still plenty of stories about player performance that were never told. This week, I have been digging into the point-by-point data from this year’s matches at Flushing to find out how players handled the biggest moments of the tournament.

I have talked before about how we can use a point’s importance to identify who are the most clutch performers in the sport. Typical stats on serve and return tell us how often players win no matter the score. The idea of clutch averaging is to give players more credit for performing well on bigger points.

What do the clutch stats at this year’s U.S. Open reveal about the WTA?

The figure below shows the percentage of big points won on serve for WTA players against the difference in their clutch and overall percentage of points won. You can find the player associated with each point by hovering your cursor over the point.

In order to get stable estimates of performance, I have only included players who had 30 points or more that were above an average level of importance (i.e. 30 or more big points). The size of the points reflect the total number of clutch points played.

How can we think about the difference between the clutch and overall stats? This difference gives us insight into how sensitive a player is to the score. Players with a positive differential (right-hand side of plot) are most likely raising their game when it matters most, while those with a negative differential are more likely to choke under pressure. The players who hover around a zero difference, however, are the least affected by the score: these are the hallmarks of the steady player who plays every point as though they were all equally important.

The players who seemed to thrive under pressure on serve but were less effective on other service points were Americans Vania King and Cici Bellis. King had an impressive when over Antonia Lottner, winning 80% of clutch service points, before losing to Serena Williams in the next round. Although King generated only 8 clutch points against Williams, she converted 7 of 8.

Interestingly, many of the top players at the Open were also some of the steadiest with a slight edge on bigger points: Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Ana Konjuh, for example.

Johanna Konta had an above average clutch conversion rate but a large negative gap from her overall service performance. A steadier performance would have put her clutch profile closer to the tournament finalist, Karolina Pliskova.

When we look at how players handled pressure when receiving (Figure 2), we find a similar steadiness among the most winning players. Some of the players who showed big swings between their clutch and overall performance were Anastasija Sevastova (with +8 differential) who had the surprise upset over Garbine Muguruza. On the negative side, Coco Vandeweghe and Vania King both underperformed on the big points on the return (with -9 differentials). King’s lopsided clutch performance on serve (where she had a large positive differential) and return (where she had a large negative differential) suggests that a player’s perception of pressure could be influenced by their role.

Serena Williams had a surprisingly low conversion rate of big points on the return, winning just 39% of the biggest points win receiving. That level of clutch performance was 9 percentage points under the clutch ability of the two players who beat her to the final, Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova.

And what about the men? I’ll take a look at their clutch numbers next week.

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