The ATP has, finally, provided better access to tennis stats. That allows those of us who are interested in the stats to dive deeper into them and try to find hidden and not so hidden meanings in the numbers. I've already written one article, where I discuss the importance of the hold and return game.
This article's focus is on the best returners of the last 20 years. So, who's the best returner?
Most tennis fans wouldn't even need stats to come up with the answer to that question, it's Andre Agassi of course, owner of the game's best return ever.
While that may be true, the statistics indicate that the race about who's the best return game player over the last 20 years is a lot closer.
Needless to say, there's a difference between return game and return of serve. A player can be excellent at reading and reacting to serves, but lacking in terms of general game. As to the former, no one was probably better than Andre Agassi, but he wasn't as clear-cut a No. 1 in the latter as we might expect.
A player can also just be pretty good at reading and reacting to serves, but have a game that is so excellent that the player wins more return games than most. Nadal is probably the most prevalent example of the latter, especially on clay.
So, who tops the list of return games won?
Here's the top ten, found here, the first number being percentage of return games won, the second being number of matches from which it is calculated:
It seems as if there's no difference between No. 3 and No. 10 in percentage, so I've just calculated the first decimal for some of them. Rafa is 32.7 percent, Filippo Volandri is 31.9 percent, Andy Murray is 31.7 percent and Michael Chang is 31.6 percent.
Two things stand out on the list:
1. the presence of non-household names such as Alberto Berasategui, Filippo Volandri and Jordi Arrese.
2) the overwhelming majority of great clay courters on the list.
The two things are correlated. Guilermo Coria, Berasategui, Volandri, Arrese and Thomas Muster all have one thing in common: they've played more, in some cases far more, clay matches than hard court matches.
As hard court tournaments are roughly twice as present on the ATP tour as clay tournaments are, playing purely or mainly on clay gives you an advantage on a list over the top returners.
While that shouldn't be held against them, clay is a legitimate surface, the list clearly doesn't paint an accurate picture of who the best returners in the game are, when a guy like Arrese, who's never been ranked inside the top 30, can be above Agassi in return games won.
Arrese is there for one reason only: he's played 398 of his 434 matches on clay. Muster and Coria have also both played more than half their matches on clay.
Why is that a problem?
Because clay is, by far, the most benevolent surface to the player returning serve.
By contrast, Andy Murray has only played 74 of his 426 matches on clay and Andre Agassi has played 209 of his 899 matches on clay, making their return statistics more impressive.
What this tells us is that we cannot view the return of serve in isolation, we need to view the return of serve by surface.
First a note as there is a bit of a causation problem here. Great returners and grinders tend to do better on clay, because the surface suits their game, whereas the big servers do worse as the surface doesn't allow them to dominate as much with their serve.
Nevertheless, viewing the surfaces in isolation should give us a hint as to who's a good return game player and who's simply playing a lot on clay (i.e. Arrese).
So, here's return on serve on clay:
Not many surprises here though Bart Wuyts, whose highest ranking was 68th and who never won a tournament may be called a decent surprise. What's to say his hold game cannot have been good.
The king of clay is also the king of the return game on clay. Novak Djokovic has made it to the top 10 and Andy Murray is to be found 11th at 36 percent, whereas Andre Agassi is down at 15th with 35 percent.
Note the difference in percentage from the numbers above. Everybody on this top 10 list is better percentage wise than the all-surface list because clay is more benevolent to the returner.
In what many regard as Rafa's most dominant clay season, 2008, he won an amazing 51 percent of his return games. In 2010 he won 41, in 2011 he won 44 and in 2005 he won 46.
In Muster's best years, 1995-96, he won 43 and 40 percent respectively as collected a 111-5 record on clay for those two years.
Let's take a look at the hard court top 10 for the past 20 years:
The difference between the top three is negligible as Chang is at 32.6 percent, Murray is at 32.5 and Agassi is at 32.4. Hewitt is at 31.2 and Djokovic is at 30.3.
Further down on the list we find Ivan Lendl at 11th (30 percent), David Ferrer at 12th, Nikolay Davydenko at 15th, Rafael Nadal at 17th (all three at 29 percent) and Roger Federer at 27th (27 percent).
By contrast to the list above, there's only one non-household name here at No. 9, Christian Bergstrom with a high-rank at 32.
What stands out is one name in particular, Jimmy Connors, who was already 38 years old when the data for this list started being collected. That says something about how a tremendous returner Connors really was even at a late age.
John McEnroe was on the downward slope of his career and was no longer in the top 10 in the world, Ivan Lendl was also at the rear-end of his career.
Finally, we have grass, a surface not exactly suited for the returner. Here's the top 10 with percentages and matches played.
Further down, we have Hewitt at 11th (27 percent), Agassi at 16th (26), Murray at 23rd (25), Chang at 24th (25), Federer at 30th (25) and Nadal at 52nd (23).
Both grass and clay features a number of non-household names. And grass is the surface least played on.
Edberg is fourth on hard court and grass, but falls a bit through on clay, where he's 42nd with 32 percent.
Michael Chang is leading hard court, but down at 28th on clay (33 percent) and 24th on grass.
Rafael Nadal is leading clay by quite a bit and is second overall, when all surfaces are put together. He's 17th on hard court and a meager 52nd on grass.
Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are not in the top 20s of any of the categories, but are among the leaders when it comes to best hold games, regardless of surface. Clearly, they build their empires on their hold game aided by a decent, but not great return game (Federer's being slightly better than Sampras').
This year's best returner and best player, Novak Djokovic, is 10th on hard court, 10th on clay, 34th on grass and 15th measured on all surfaces.
Lleyton Hewitt is fifth on hard court, 11th on grass, 16th overall and 23rd on clay.
David Ferrer is seventh on clay, fifth overall, 12th on hard court and 25th on grass.
Andy Murray is second on hard court, sixth overall, 11th on clay and 23rd on grass.
Finally, we have Andre Agassi who's third on hard court, eighth overall, 15th on clay and 16th on grass.
Who's the best return game player of the last 20 years?
On clay, it is definitely Rafa, but elsewhere he's not in the mix. On hard court, it's pretty much a tie between Chang, Murray and Agassi.
The two latter seem to be more and less neck and toe, with Murray leading Agassi on clay and Agassi leading Murray on grass.
Michael Chang, David Ferrer and Lleyton Hewitt are the runners up with Rafa getting an honourable mention for his outstanding clay return game.
Can we say that Agassi is better than Murray or that Murray is better than Agassi as return game players?
Both have hard court as their preferred surface and the difference between them on the other surfaces is negligible (Murray leading Agassi by one percent on clay while the reverse holds true on grass).
So, let's compare their hard court abilities. Murray's been in the top three on hard court every single year since 2006, where he turned 19 years old and played his first year ranked inside top 70.
His two best years have seen him win 38 percent (2011) and 35 percent (2009) respectively.
While Agassi has had more fluctuation over a longer career, sometimes even being just outside the top 10, his high has also been higher than Murray's.
In 1993, Agassi won an amazing 40 percent on hard court followed by 37 in 94 and three years at 36 percent. Because Agassi's high is higher than Murray's, I lean towards giving the crown of the best returner of the last 20 years to him.
The three best return of serve years on hard court in the last 20 years goes to Agassi in 1993 at 39.9 percent, Chang in 92 at 41.3 percent and finally, the single best return year goes to Novak Djokovic 2011, with mindblowing 44.4 percent—and remember, that's on hard court!
It could be interesting to see what kind of stats, especially Connors, but also Lendl and McEnroe had in their primes. When they can still make some of the lists in their last years on tour. If any reader happens to have stats from their period, please share.