Breaking down the surface diversity in pro tennis tournaments

Tennis is defined by its 3 main surfaces: clay, grass, and hard courts. Here is a breakdown of some of the game’s surface diversity in Grand Slams and how the top players have fared.

In the modern era, tennis has been played primarily on 3 surfaces. These are the clay courts, the grass courts, and the hard courts. In the pre-2000s era, there used to be a 4th surface, namely carpet, which favored the fast attacking style of the game.

As tennis entered into the mid-2000s, the carpet courts were done away with to reduce the risk of injuries and to standardize the indoor season to the hard courts. The surfaces were made slower to favor longer rallies and not the supposedly boring one-strike tennis of the yesteryears.

The slower surfaces worked as the officials had hoped, majorly due to the baseline brilliance of the Big 4. The Modern Era tennis has since been played majorly on the baseline- a stark contrast to the net-rushing game styles of the previous eras.

The early-to-mid 2000s then brought about the homogenization of the surfaces to literally and figuratively “level the surfaces”. This homogenization ushered in one of the most competitive eras of tennis characterized by players with good serves and a strong baseline game. This led to longer and, as was observed, more interesting matches.

Here, we take a look at how the records of different players stacked up on different surfaces. The numbers are based solely on Grand Slam tournaments and we take the year-end top 8 players of 2010-18 as our sample size.

Here, we define a surface as non-favorable for a player if:
(a) his winning percentage is less than 70% on that surface and
(b) (win percentage on his worst surface – win percentage on his second-worst surface) > 5%

To take an example, Kei Nishikori has a 66% win record on grass. That is 6% less than his second-worst surface(hard). Hence, we say that Grass is not a favored surface for Nishikori.

The link is embedded here where we see the results of the year-end top 8 players of the last decade.

The names highlighted in red have their non-favored surface as clay and the names highlighted in green have their non-favored surface as grass.

Using this, from the given samples, we can draw some conclusions(although I hasten to suggest that this might not be true for all decades across the Open Era):

  1. There have been more players who don’t prefer playing on the grass in the top 8 than any other surface.
  2. The win percentage of the players, on average lies between 60-70%.
  3. There are 5 players whose winning percentage on their best surface is no greater than 5% of their winning percentage on their worst surface— we will call them surface-neutral players.
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What does all this mean?
The simple point is that even with the homogenization of the surfaces, the results of the players still vary quite a bit depending on where they play. Stan Wawrinka has the best win percentage on hard courts but on the courts of Wimbledon where the speed of courts are similar, he struggles and has his worst record, presumably due to the odd bounces of a grass court.

Alexander Zverev seems to like the slow courts more and that can be seen from his win percentage at the French Open but his tall physique means he struggles on grass with less true bounces.

The Big 4 are surface-neutral players while having a win percentage of more than 75% on all 3 surfaces in slams. That is a record matched by very few players(only Andre Agassi in the last 2 decades).

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The larger picture is that dominating on these surfaces isn’t as easy. There are different adjustments required to play and win on all 3 surfaces. It simply adds to the legend of the Big 4 that they have managed to consistently dominate on all 3 surfaces for such a long period.