Serena Williams counts the five stats, 2013
So you want to know which statistics you need to master to be a professional women's tennis player?
Better get your return game going.
As Reeves Wiedeman of The New Yorker wrote in 2012: "The serve is tennis’s slam dunk, home run, and Hail Mary." He would later go on to praise Serena Williams' serve as threatening to overshadow the entire game of women's tennis.
He couldn't have been more wrong on either count.
In fact, Williams wins no more service games than the other players in the top five of the tour. She manages 64.4 percent, while the others succeed up to 71.6 percent (in this case, world No. 3 Maria Sharapova).
Although it is vital to win service games as a whole, it appears that the mere threat of the big stick is irrelevant.
So what makes a winner, then? Mostly the return game.
For comparison's sake, the top five women on the WTA, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Li Na, will be compared to each other and to No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova and No. 49 Stefanie Voegele. The results are clear.
The best offense is a good defense.
Victoria Azarenka powers a return, 2013
It would seem obvious that players who barely win half of the points on their first serve will struggle.
The top women take away much of the advantage from servers. They do not wait until the second serve to pounce. Each of the top five win over 40 percent of the first-serve return points. By contrast, the lower-ranked players are nearly 10 percent lower.
A prime example of this came at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships. Winner Marion Bartoli won 47.6 percent of Sabine Lisicki's first serves. This is even more than the year's averages.
Here's the breakdown:
Na Li steals another service game, 2013
It's not enough just to threaten an opponent's first serve. Closing the deal by breaking serve is what the top players do best.
That is, it's what they do best if breaking almost half of the time is best.
Only Agnieszka Radwanska is close to bucking this trend. Still, at over 43 percent, she is not really bad. That only leaves a slight majority of the games for her opponents. That doesn't offer much of a margin for error.
Players outside of the top just do not achieve this record. Contrary to Charles Bricker's 2011 article for Tennis Magazine, breaks in the women's game are not "commonplace." Those ranked below No. 10 break less than 40 percent of the time, by and large.
This gives up game after game to their opponents every match. Pressure on their own service games builds, and a vicious cycle begins.
Here are the vitals:
Serena Williams celebrates a break, 2013
When players like Serena Williams are returning well, they create many break-point opportunities. Then they do not squander the opportunities.
At a clip of 50 percent or so, the top five pressure their opponents' serves literally to the breaking point.
This statistic radically shapes matches and tournaments. It cannot be overestimated how an early break in a set squeezes the lower players right out of contention.
Here are the results:
Agnieszka Radwanska looking for more points, 2013
Here is an intriguing statistic that has much to do with the top female players' success: They win over half of the points all the time.
This means, they are breaking into their opponents' service games while winning their own.
The combination is crucial. Fifty percent appears to be the tipping point. While lower-ranked players, like Dominika Cibulkova and Stefanie Voegele. struggle to stay near that percentage, the top five in the world breeze into numbers three to five percent higher.
That is significant and explains again why the return game is important to women's tennis.
Without breaks, these numbers wouldn't show:
Maria Sharapova stretches to save a breaker, 2013
There is one statistic that is non-return related that does influence the game at the top. When they do face break points, the best players find a way out.
In fact, they find a way out the vast majority of the time.
None of them offer up breaks half of the time, or even 40 percent of the time. They hold on, tighten up, and break the opposing player at the earliest opportunity to shift the momentum.
At the 2013 French Open, the semifinal between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka showed what happens when this stat rings true.
According to SI.com Sharapova saved break points time and again by being bold. It worked for her, and it works for all of the top five.
Here are the examples: