Zverev's Winning Formula: Quick-Strike Tennis, Unbreakable Serving
The metrics behind Alexander Zverev’s 6-4, 6-4 victory over Dominic Thiem in the Mutua Madrid Open final on Sunday make you take a deep, hard look at where winning and losing really occurs in a tennis match.
It’s in the first two touches. And then daylight.
When Zverev and Thiem either struck the ball once, which was a serve and a return, or they added just one more shot each to the rally but no more, that counted for 65 per cent (70/108) of all points.
A maximum of two shots in the court for each player basically equalled two out of every three points in the match. This is where winning and losing really occurs – even on clay with two players born and bred on the surface. The match court is front-end loaded, while the practice court tends to focus more on the longer, extended rallies.
The practice court needs a make-over.
Consider this: When the length of the rally consisted of either one shot or two shots in the court by either player, Zverev crafted a substantial 41-29 point advantage. Those twelve points were the only separation that he was able to find in the match.
When a fifth ball or more landed in the court, Zverev and Thiem both won exactly 19 points each. This clearly illustrates a hidden dynamic in our sport. The longer the point extends, the more even it becomes. Globally, players are taught to develop a higher shot tolerance so that one more ball in play becomes their pathway to victory. It’s a smokescreen.
This match consisted of 20 games, but only two had any real significance – the opening service games of both sets in which Thiem was broken.
Following are the rally length of points in the opening games of both sets. It’s important to note that the ball must land in the court to be counted as a shot in the rally.
Opening Game 1st Set (5 points)
1. 6 shots - Thiem won
2. 2 shots - Zverev won
3. 2 shots - Zverev won
4. 2 shots - Zverev won
5. 0 shots - double fault / Zverev won
Average Rally Length = 2.4 shots
Opening Game 2nd Set (6 points)
1. 7 shots - Zverev won
2. 6 shots - Zverev won
3. 7 shots - Thiem won
4. 1 shot - Thiem won
5. 4 shots - Zverev won
6. 8 shots - Zverev won
Average Rally Length = 5.5 shots
Not one rally in either of these critical games was extended to double digits, which drives home another hidden dynamic about our sport. Short rallies are the norm – not the long ones.
Zverev is quickly eliminating any perceived soft spots in his game. His backhand has always been rock solid, and his forehand stood tall in the Madrid final with nine winners and just eight unforced errors for the match. Thiem, by comparison, had eight winners and 15 unforced errors.
Zverev is also starting to really key in on the important real-estate battle that occurs in a match. Up until the final, he had made contact with 22 per cent of his rally shots inside the baseline, which was considerably more than Thiem’s 14 per cent. That magnetism to the baseline carried over to the final as Zverev found his way to the net twice as much as Thiem, winning 11/14, compared to 5/7 for the Austrian.
Zverev’s serve was from another planet in Madrid. He was not broken for the entire tournament, and amazingly faced only one break point.
That improvement may very well be because of his improved toss. At Madrid in 2017, the spread of first-serve contact points when serving in the Deuce court was 65 centimetres. That shrunk almost in half to just 37 centimetres in 2018 leading into the final. In 2017 in the Ad court, the spread was 60 centimetres. That shrunk to just 44 centimetres in 2018.
A more consistent ball toss is creating an unbreakable first-strike weapon.