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November 2, 2014 5:16 pm

Surface tension in tennis

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Each of tennis’s three surfaces favours one of the current top three players. Grass, the fastest, favours Roger Federer’s big serve, whereas clay – the slowest – gives an advantage to Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest returners of the modern era.

The last surface, hard court, sits between the two in terms of speed, suiting more of an all rounder. Cue Novak Djokovic, whose overall points-won percentage shows less variation between surfaces than that of either of his rivals.

The ATP Tour Finals see the eight highest ranked male players of 2014 go head to head, though this year third placed Rafael Nadal misses out to undergo surgery. The tournament is played on hard court, which makes sense for a tournament ostensibly aimed at establishing who is the best player on the tour, rather than simply the strongest server or returner.

But while it sits somewhere between the two, the surface cannot claim to provide a completely even playing field.

On hard court, the share of points won on serve drops by 1.7 percentage points compared to grass, and is boosted by 2.6 compared to clay, based on every match played by one of the top 100 since 1991, when the tour began collecting detailed statistics.

When returning, the average player wins 2.7 percentage points fewer in the transition from clay to hard, compared to a gain of just 1.6 in the move from grass.

So rather than perfectly bisecting the relative advantages of grass and clay, a hard court provides conditions slightly more favourable to grass specialists than clay experts.

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