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Return Leaders Among ATP's Top Contenders for French Open Title

Yesterday, I took a look at the clay-court serve performance of four of the ATP players most in contention for the 2017 Roland Garros title— Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. That analysis showed that Rafael Nadal has so far separated himself on serve by 5 to 15 percentage points on average. An impressive stat next to anyone but especially when compared to the players who are some of his toughest rivals for another Major win.

But looking only at serve gives an incomplete idea of a player’s Grand Slam form. This is particularly true on clay where play is inherently more defensive and return ability arguably more important than at any other Major.

What does return performance tell us about which of these four has had the best clay court season so far?

Below are the return performance stats for each player on all of their 2017 clay court matches (excluding retirements and walkovers). Unsurprisingly, Nadal comes out on top with a miraculous 51% for his average adjusted return points won.

The adjusted refers to my attempt to account for opponent difficulty and make these numbers more comparable across matches. With this approach, for example, a player gets more credit for their return ability against a tough server, like John Isner, than an average server.

More surprising is that Novak Djokovic, who has had a fairly lackluster clay court run (until Rome, anyway) is second in this group with an average adjusted return performance of 44%. Still far behind Nadal, but a positive sign that Djokovic could still find his 2016 form in the coming days, or at least have the edge over competitors aiming to deny the defending champion another title.

Murray and Thiem have been neck-and-neck so far on their average clay-court return performance. Murray, however, has been on a clear downward spiral, with return ability declining with each new clay court event. Thiem on the other hand has been more steady and even shown flashes of brilliance, performing over 50% on return in three of his past clay matches in 2017. One of those was against Andy Murray in Barcelona and the other was against Nadal at the Rome Masters that just completed.

By contrast, Andy Murray has had no clay matches in which he has performed at or above 50% on the return. And Novak Djokovic has only had one, which was against Thiem after his dominant defeat of Nadal at Rome. All in all, these have to be strong indicators for Thiem’s chances at the French and for his continuing rise up the tennis echelon.

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