It’s middle Sunday, which means a day off for Wimbledon, but not for those who write about the tournament and, while there are no matches today, I can’t get Saturday’s Nadal-Muller match off my mind.
Specifically, the statistical summary of the match, in which the official Wimbledon number cruncher for that match, gave Rafa zero unforced errors in both the second and third sets, and just three for the match.
When I first saw those numbers, I gave myself one of those can-that-be-right quizzical looks. We all know that because of the nature of grass-court tennis, there are fewer unforced errors in general — the points being shorter. But zero UEs in both the second and third sets?
Hold it. Didn’t I remember a Nadal unforced error early in the second set.
I got a tape of the match and fast forwarded to the second set and began viewing. Yep. Second point of the set, Nadal serving. Gilles Muller returns fairly deep to Nadal’s forehand side. Rafa takes one step to his left with plenty of time to measure and hit the ball, and he walloped it long.
If you know anything about tennis stats, you know it’s a complete mess. There are no guidelines. There is no regularity to it. There are certain empirical stats, like aces and double faults, that the ATP and WTA produce and which you can trust.
But with forced and unforced errors, it’s a bit like a baseball statistician deciding whether something is a hit or an error. There’s no hard and fast rule. You’re simply supposed to just know a hit or an error when you see it.
Now, I’ll acknowledge that there is a fuzzy line at times between forced and unforced errors. But on this point, no reasonable person would call Nadal’s out-ball a forced error.
You can make up your own guidelines, and apparently the guy doing this Wimbledon match did, but mine are pretty fundamental. If you commit an error while being forced into a defensive position or have to hit a ball on the dead run or you’re at net and you have to lunge wide to get a racket on a volley, it’s a forced error.
But if you’ve got time to set up, you’re on balance and it’s a shot that any competent player can hit inside the court, and you hit out or choose to try to hit some low-percentage shot and miss, it’s an unforced error.
And that’s what this was on the second point of the second set. Nadal did not go without an unforced error in the second set, as officially noted by Wimbledon, and I’m not sure about the third set because after viewing another unforced Nadal error at 30-15 and 4-all in the second, I decided there wasn’t any point in viewing further.
So, what’s this all about? In the big picture, it’s about kicking professional tennis into the 21st Century, statistically.
In the last few years, both the mens’ and women’s tours have given us some key statistics, which say a lot about how well players are doing and highlighting their weaknesses.
If you’ve long suspected Andy Roddick doesn’t have a good service return, for example, you can quantify that by going to atptennis.com and you can see, statistically, what his numbers are for (a) service breaks and (b) converting break points. And you can compare him to the rest of the tour.
But we need more. Not so much more that this turns into the sort of idiotic statistics you get from baseball (Joe Doakes is hitting .290 with men on base when he bats third in the daytime on the road when his wife is five months pregnant). But tennis fans deserve to know how many winners and unforced errors, for example, a player hits match by match.
You can get this information at the Slams, but it’s not readily available at regular ATP and WTA tour stops and, obviously, it would entail some expenses. Someone has to be designated to record these statistics for each match and there would have to be guidelines so that while, like the baseball statistician, there is inevitably going to be some subjectivity involved, at least the basic ingredients will be there on which to make a decision.
Should we be able to get these numbers? Yes. Are we going to get them? Not unless someone at the ATP and WTA care enough to, at the very least, put a committee together to example how to make this sport more statistically friendly for the people who support the game.
And not until the ITF sets some real guidelines for determining forced and unforced errors, instead of simply letting amateurs at each major do it their way.