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

My previous post took us back to the U.S. Open and reviewed the most and least clutch players on the WTA. This week I do the same review for the men. As before, the clutch performance represented here is the summary of the most important points won on serve (Figure 1) and return (Figure 2). These summaries include big points like break points, of course, but also factors in other important points – like tiebreak points or 30-all situations late in a set. In each case, the score situation is weighed by its relative importance, which is its expected influence on a win or loss.

One of the interesting things that was found in the review of the women’s clutch performance was the characteristic pattern of top players. For some of the most winning players, it was found that they tended to have high performance on clutch and relatively small evidence of a ‘pressure’ effect. To measure the pressure effect I simply compare the overall average (ignoring point importance) points won on serve and return to the respective clutch points won. A player who is unaffected by the scoreline should have a difference near to zero.

Do we observe the same pattern for ATP players?

To help, I have added labels for a subset of the players, including top players and several players with more extreme values in the clutch summary. We see that Nadal, Del Potro and Wawrinka (especially) did follow this pattern, as they were above average on overall clutch points won on serve and had a similar percentage of all points won on serve. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic was less impressive on serve than we might expect, which could support opinions that this year’s Open was a great tournament for him.

Even more interesting in the serve summary was the performance of Andy Murray. While Murray won 65% of service points overall, his performance on the biggest service points was only 50%! We would have to expect that he made up for that gap on the return. Let’s have a look…

Figure 2 does the same breakdown for return performance. As expected, Any Murray’s performance is nearly the reverse as what we found on serve. At Flushing, he was one of the match clutch return performers of the tournament.

And Murray wasn’t alone in getting fired up on the biggest return situations. Kei Nishikori and Paolo Lorenzi—who both had impressive runs at the US hardcourt slam— and Stan Wawrinka, who took the title, were also unusually strong on the return game: going beyond their average return performance when it mattered most.

Djokovic was closer to the coolheaded performance the WTA review lead us to expect of the champions, but still lower than expected overall big return points won. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, we see that several of the most clutch players on serve— Ivo Karlovic and John Isner—struggle to perform under pressure on the return side.

While these reviews help us to see the frequency that players perform well on big points, they leave out differences in the opponents faced. Without accounting for player difficulty, we could be mislead by the overall averages. Winning 50% of big service points against Wawrinka, for example, might actually be a more impressive feat than winning 70% of big service points against an unseeded player.

So how can we account for opponent difficulty? More on that in my next post…

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