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An Australian Stats Story


Through the analysis of eight tennis Australian stars, TennisProfiler will trace the evolution of our sport during the last sixty years. This statistical journey will start at the beginning of the seventies where tennis was totally dominated by the Australians. Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Tony Roche & John Newcombe's game style will be first analyzed in a general way and then specific to each one. IIn the second part of the seventies the Australian hierarchy collapses to give way to a new generation of players including Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. We will see from a statistical point of view what these players had more than their elders. Although Peter McNamara narrowly finished 1981 in the top 10 (10), it was not until 1984 and then 1987 to see a new Australian star: Pat Cash​. We will see how a new Australian could win against the world tennis majors of the eighties. At the end of the nineties Patrick Rafter became briefly world number one and won two grand slams. The end of the Australian's career will no doubt mark the end of an era: the serve & volleyers. At this point in history, it will be interesting to understand why this game style was able to win in the seventies, how it evolved in the eighties and why it finally died at the end of the nineties. From the new millenium Lleyton Hewitt will be the worst nightmares of the serve & volleyers and will strongly contribute to its extinction. From the history of Australian tennis, he will be one of the few players to almost never play the serve & volley. The comparisons between Lleyton Hewitt and other Australian stars will allow us to understand this radical change of game style. Finally, in 2003 Mark Philippoussis will finish in the top 10 and give a last breath to the serve & volleyer but this almost exclusively thanks to the quality of his serve.

26 Grand Slams Won with 1 Game Style

Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Tony Roche all had one thing in common: their style of play. Indeed, the four played in an ultra-offensive way and this allowed them to win 26 Grand Slam tournaments together (11 titles for Rod Laver, 8 for Ken Rosewall, 6 for John Newcombe and 1 for Tony Roche).

As we can see, between 48% and 68% of the total points of these players were won at the net (with or without a volley to play). John Newcombe won the most points at the net (68%) and was closely followed by Tony Roche (64%). What explains a lower ratio of points won at the net for Rod Laver was his quality of return and pass which allowed him to earn extra points without coming in. As for Ken Rosewall, he was the player of the four who liked from time to time to challenge his opponents from the baseline.

In general, we can see how much the serve & volley was dominant among these players. Roche, Newcombe and Laver won almost only points at the net with this type of approach. Ken Rosewall, for his part, was the player who varied the most his types of net approaches (1-2 punch or baseline approach and chip & charge). However, 71% of his points at the net were won playing the serve & volley.

What were the Small Differences between these four Players?

At that time, the quality of the volleys was generally higher than that of the serves and it is logically that Rod Laver took his biggest advantage against his opponents with this shot (40% more points). However, unlike Newcombe and Roche, he could count on a second shot of exceptional quality: his backhand. This topspin left-handed backhand allowed him to excel in receiving & passing. With these two shots he could make the difference in his return games. He averaged almost double points with his backhand and this explains why he had dominated the world tennis so much for years.

As mentioned before, Ken Rosewall was the player of the four who liked the most stay on the baseline. So, unlike Laver, Newcombe and Roche, he took almost no advantage with his volley against his opponents. He made points with this shot but 20% less on average than his rivals. Rosewall was also the worst server of the four (2 times less aces / service winners than his rivals). When his first was in, 13% of the time it was an ace or a service winner against 29% for Roche, 32% for Laver and 37% for Newcombe. Rosewall's great strengths lay in his return (50% more points) and his general consistency (half as many double faults, 30% less return errors, 20% less forehand's errors, 40% less backhand's errors and half as many errors with the volley).

Tony Roche was the pure serve & volleyer with an excellent volley (30% more points than his rivals) and also a good service (60% more aces / winning services). On the other hand, his baseline performances were not as good as those of Laver, Rosewall and Newcombe. His ratio of points with the return, the forehand and the backhand was 60% lower than the one of his opponents.

Finally, John Newcombe was in the same register as Tony Roche (pure serve & volleyer) with an excellent volley and especially an exceptional service for the time. It was with this shot that he dominated his opponents the most (60% more aces / service winners), then came the volley (30% more points). Like Roche, the quality of John Newcombe's return and backhand was inferior to that of his opponents (30% less points). However, his forehand was top class and he dominated his rivals by his passings but also by his shots in touch. Of the four Australian stars, John Newcombe was the player with the best touch and he was having fun placing the ball either in the feet or over the heads of his opponents.

The End of Laver, Rosewall, Roche & Newcombe

In the second part of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties the tennis hardens. Power and consistency take over the touch of the serve & volleyers. Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas overthrow Australian stars and in turn dominate world tennis. Other baseline players like Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander will also come at that time. There will still be serve & volleyers like John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis or Yannick Noah, but they will not dominate the game as the Australian serve & volleyers once did. According to a search of 647 points analyzing this change of patterns, the main difference would be mainly the quality of the passing and return. It is obvious that the appearance of the two-hand backhand made both shots more efficient. It is on their second serve that the Australian serve & volleyers would have had the biggest drop in efficiency, winning only 45% of the points.

Previously, we saw that Rod Laver had dominated world tennis thanks to his volley but also thanks to the quality of his backhand. Future generations are still learning from the best current players and it is surely in this register that they made the difference to overcome their seniors.

Pat Cash Restores Hopes to Australian Tennis

It was not until 1981 to see an Australian appear again in the top 10 (Peter McNamara). But it was only in 1987 that an Australian could once again put his hands on a Grand Slam Trophy. Indeed, Pat Cash wins in 1987 at Wimbledon dominating in final Ivan Lendl. Pat Cash remained in the Australian tradition and played a wonderful serve & volley. He made the difference against his opponents with his volley (2.5 more points on average) and his service (2 times more points). Of all the Australian legends discussed in this article, he is the player who earned the most points at the net (73%). In addition to playing the serve & volley, he used absolutely every opportunity to rush to the net including the chip & charge.

One of Pat Cash's hidden strengths was his first serve return. His reflexes and his ability to block powerful passings at the net allowed him to put back in play more serves than average helping him to get a very high first serve return won points (35%). Thus, it reduced efficiency to the serve of his rivals and he could dominate them more strongly with his number of aces / service winners. I remind you that Pat Cash served on average twice as many aces / service winners as his rivals without having a first serve effectiveness so high (34%).

What Pat Cash lacked to win more Grand Slam titles and really have a chance to dominate world tennis was a weapon from the back of the court. His forehand and backhand were below the level of the best baseline players of the moment. He could not really make any winners and he tended to crack before his opponents when the rallies went on. That's one of the reasons he was rushing to the net whenever he had the opportunity.

Two Grand Slam titles and world number one spot for Patrick Rafter

After Pat Cash and his victory at Wimbledon, Australia will have to wait another ten years to see one of their win another grand slam. Indeed, Patrick Rafter won the US Open in 1997, then in 1998 and became world number one briefly in 1999. Just like his predecessors Australian, he plays the serve & volley. However, two things are different from Pat Cash: the effectiveness of his serve and the strength of his game from the back of the court.

First of all, we must put the Australian back in his time. In the eighties, there was a strong fight between the baseline players (Borg, Lendl, Connors, Vilas, Wilander, Gomez, Mecir) and the serve & volleyers (McEnroe, Noah, Gerulaitis, Edberg, Becker, Cash). The nineties see the same type of combat (Sampras vs. Agassi, Becker vs. Chang, Ivanisevic vs. Muster) except that the overall quality of the serve increased considerably. In other words, the serve & volleyer of the nineties became better servers than volleyers when it was still the opposite in the eighties.

Then, the baseline quality of Pat Rafter's was better than the one of Pat Cash. Both averaged 40% less points with the forehand and backhand than their rivals. However, Pat Cash made on average the same amount of errors but Patrick Rafter 40% less than his opponents. In the end, Pat Cash was strongly dominated from the back of the court by his rivals and Patrick Rafter, thanks to his consistency, only slightly. Once again the new generations learn from the old and the serve of volleyers of the nineties, in addition to better serves, have strengthened their baseline game.

The last breath of the serve & volleyers: Mark Philippoussis

With two Grand Slam finals lost (US Open 1998 vs. Rafter and Wimbledon 2002 vs. Federer), Mark Philippousis is the second to last Australian to date in the closed circle of the top 10 (1999). Although 45% of his total points were won playing the serve & volley, he was much more of a server than a volleyer. Of all the Australians who figured in the top 10, it was the one who had the best serve.

When his first service was in the service box, 62% of the time it was an ace or a service winner. We can see on this chart that Patrick Rafter is right behind him. At the end of the nineties beginning of the two thousand years, the only way to be successful in playing the serve & volley was to finally play the least possible volleys!

The end of the Serve & Volleyer and the emergence of Lleyton Hewitt

Some describe Lleyton Hewitt's victory over Pete Sampras in the 2001 US Open final as the end of the serve & volleyers. Although Pete Sampras will win his last grand slam in 2002 in New York, I am completely of this opinion. Lleyton Hewitt and his entire generation (Federer, Ferrero, Kuerten, Roddick, Coria, Moya, Kafelnikov) have become excellent receivers and baseline players as much capable of defending as attacking. There was still Tim Henman who was resisting as a serve & volleyer but in 2002, and finally in 2005, no more serve & volleyer will finish the season in the top 10.

Lleyton Hewitt was the first Australian to enter the top 10 without playing the serve & volley. When compared to all the Australian legends of this article, his statistics are completely opposite.

As you can see, only 16% of all Lleyton Hewitt points were won at the net (with or without volley) compared to 61% for other Australian stars. On the other hand, during baseline rallies, he earned on average 17% more points by the mistakes of his opponents. It must be said that the Australian was an exceptional counterpuncher who averaged 10% less errors with the service, two times less with the return, 30% less with the forehand, 40% less with the backhand and even three times less with the volley. The last real serve & volleyers hated to play against him because the quality of his return and his passings was outstanding.

Who will be the next Australian star?

Now, it's been thirteen years since any Australian has finished a season among the top ten players in the world. However, an Australian player is likely to appear soon and why not even this year: Alex de Minaur. His game style is much closer to Lleyton Hewitt's style than Laver, Rosewall, Roche, Newcombe, Cash, Rafter and Philippoussis. This is probably one of the reasons that Lleyton Hewitt is also his mentor. Otherwise, apart from Alex de Minaur, I do not see who could be in the top ten players in the world. Nick Kyrgios would have the talent for sure and could be ranked top 10 for a short period of time but the years pass for him without seeing a real change in his attitude and game. However, he remains a showman that the ATP tour needs!

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