What is the most abundant rally length in tennis?
For example, do players play more four-shot rallies, eight-shot rallies, or 13-shot rallies in their matches? The mathematical term is the mode, and it sheds light on the most misunderstood element of our sport.
Case in point: Daniil Medvedev at the 2021 Australian Open.
An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of Medvedev’s 2021 Australian Open campaign, during which he reached the final, shows exactly where the Russian played the vast majority of his points. The eye test finds Medvedev deep in the court to return serve and hitting backhands cross court ad nauseam to wear down opponents. It feels like he is part man, part machine as he patrols the baseline with his ungainly and unbreakable groundstrokes. Visually, you could easily form an opinion that Medvedev is a glorified grinder and plays more six, seven or eight-shot rallies than anything else. The eye test is wrong. Dead wrong.
Medvedev plays more one-shot rallies than any other, and it’s not even close.
Rally length in tennis is predicated on the ball hitting the court, not the strings. A serve lands in and the return is missed long. That’s a rally length of one (one ball in the court) even though the ball was struck twice.
Medvedev played 28.5 per cent (349/1226) of total points as a one-shot rally in Melbourne in 2021 through seven matches. That includes all the points where he served the ball in and it was either an ace or a return error, and likewise for his opponent. The next highest total was a three-shot rally, at 14.4 per cent (176). What’s eye-opening is that a one-shot rally occurs twice as much as a three-shot rally (28.5% to 14.4%). The curve is steep at the start of the point.
A three-shot rally occurs more than a two-shot rally due to the halo effect of the serve. It’s important to note that odd-numbered rallies can only be won by the server and even-numbered rallies can only be won by the returner. The graph below shows how our sport is incredibly front-end loaded when it comes to rally length.
Medvedev played considerably more one-shot rallies in Melbourne last year than any other. He also thrives on them. Medvedev won 62.8 per cent (219/349) of points where only one ball landed in the court. He also won 56.3 per cent (72/128) of two-shot rallies as well. He lost the three-shot rally length (43.2%) but dominated the four-shot rally length (66.7%).
The longest rally Medvedev played at the 2021 Australian Open was 43 shots against Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals. Rublev won it when Medvedev missed a forehand with both players standing at the back of the court. Medvedev played 26 points where the rally went 20 shots or longer last year. He only won 11 of them (42%). On the other end of the spectrum, he played 743 points when the rally was one, two, three or four shots. He won 57 per cent (427) of this huge slice of the competitive pie.
Long rallies are typically more spectacular and stick in our mind, even though there are very few of them. Short rallies tend to be directed to our short-term memory, and are somehow quickly forgotten. It takes a stats sheet to uncover how our sport is truly organised.
2021 Australian Open: Daniil Medvedev Rally Length Played
|Rally Length||Total Points||% Of Total Points|
|0 (double fault)||40||3.3%|