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The Curious Case of Maria Sharapova

Until three years ago, Maria Sharapova had never reached the final of the French Open and had just one major clay court title to her name. Since then, she has lifted two French Open titles, three Stuttgart titles, plus titles in both Madrid and Rome. In the same period, she has won just two hard court titles in Indian Wells and Beijing and no grass court titles. For a player that had won all three other Grand Slam titles, plus major titles in Indian Wells, Doha, Cincinnati and Tokyo, it is quite a change.


Sharapova famously described herself as feeling like a ‘cow on ice’ on a clay court, back in 2007 after beating Jill Craybas, but she is arguably now the standout clay-court player on tour. Given her results on the other surfaces, she is almost becoming a clay court specialist. Since her clay court rebirth at the start of 2012, she has compiled a clay court record of 54-4. The only players to have beaten her during this period are Ana Ivanovic and her nemesis, Serena Williams. At the same time, her record on all other surfaces is 58-12. Still not a bad record, but certainly worse than on clay.

In 2014, Sharapova went 31-12 on all surfaces other than clay, winning just one title and losing in the 4th round of all three Grand Slams. However, on clay, she has compiled an outstanding 19-1 record, winning three titles including the French Open. So, can we look at her statistics and try and see what is going on? We shall focus on 2014 and compare clay against hard courts.

Statistic
Hard
Clay
% Won on 1st Serve
65.3%
69.4%
% Won on 2nd Serve
45.2%
47.3%
% Won on Return
47.6%
49.0%
BP Created/Game
0.91
0.89
BP Conversion Rate
100.6
108.4
DF/Game
0.61
0.42
Aces/Game
0.29
0.27
BP Faced/Game
0.72
0.63
BP Save Rate
97.7
93.0

In general, return is more dominant on clay courts than on hard courts, so we would expect to see a player winning more points on return and fewer points on serve. Sharapova demonstrates the stronger return with 49.0% on clay as compared to 47.6% on hard courts. However, it is her service statistics that are peculiar. She wins 4.1% more points on her first serve on clay than she does on hard courts and 2.1% more on her second serve. Generally, the WTA average is to win 1.8% fewer points on first serve and 0.6% fewer on second serve. Clearly, Sharapova’s serve is working far better on clay than on hard courts for some reason.

Despite winning 1.4% more points on return on clay, this has actually converted to creating fewer break points on clay per game. There are a number of possible reasons for this that we shall investigate later. The first though is the much better conversion rate, suggesting she needs fewer break points to create the break on clay than she does on hard courts.

One of the strangest statistics is the double faults per game. Generally, there is virtually no difference between double faults on hard courts and on clay courts. If anything, there is a fractional increase on hard courts, but nothing compared to Sharapova’s figures. Her 0.42 on clay is a bit higher than the WTA average, but the 0.61 on hard courts is a huge figure. Why it is so much higher is a mystery, but it means that in an average match of around 11 service games, she is serving around 6.7 double faults per match – almost a game and a half worth of points for her opponent. As one might suspect, the lower service point win percentages, combined with the double faults, means that she faces significantly more break points on hard courts than on clay – 0.09 per service game in fact.

Winning points is all well and good, but it is games that are the most important. This is how the earlier figures translate into service and return games won:

Statistic
Hard
Clay
% of Service Games Won
68.6%
72.8%
% of Return Games Won
43.7%
47.3%

As we might expect, Sharapova wins more of both service and return games on clay courts. A difference of 4.2% and 3.6% respectively may sound small, but they are actually quite significant.
We noted that the double faults on hard courts are incredibly high – could this be a major part of Sharapova’s problems on the surface? The figures below can help us to look into this:

Statistic
Hard
Clay
% Non-Ace 1st Serve Points Won
62.7%
67.2%
% Non-DF 2nd Serve Points Won
59.0%
57.8%

Here, we finally see a statistic where her hard court performance is superior. If we exclude double faults, she wins 59.0% of second serve points on hard courts, compared with 57.8% on clay courts. As a comparison, in 2014, Serena Williams won 60.2% of non-DF 2nd serve points, so Sharapova is actually not far behind at all. The fact is though, once you include the double faults, this plummets down to 45.2%, compared to Serena’s 51.4%.

It is still interesting though that Sharapova is still winning significantly more non-ace first service points on clay than on hard – not a usual situation for a player such as Maria.

Break points are generally the most important points during a match. We noted earlier that, despite winning more points on return on clay, Sharapova actually creates fewer break points on clay. Let us look in more detail at her break point creation. The table below will help to analyse this:

Statistics
                       Hard
Clay
% of Service Games with BP Faced
42.7%
38.4%
% of Return Games with BP Created
55.6%
57.3%

Here, we can see that Sharapova actually creates break points in more return games on clay than on hard courts. Combined with the break point creation and conversion statistics from earlier, it would seem that Sharapova is struggling to convert break points on hard court, whereas she is more clinical on clay courts for whatever reason. Similarly, she faces break points in far more service games on hard courts than she does on clay. Going back to our average 11 service games, she faces break points in 4.7 service games on hard and 4.2 service games on clay.

So, can we go any further into testing our theory that Sharapova struggles to convert break points on hard courts. The table below looks in more detail:

Statistics
                       Hard
Clay
% of Service Games Facing BP and Won
                    26.6%
29.1%
% of Return Games Creating BP and Win
79.1%
82.5%

On hard courts, we can see that Sharapova breaks serve in 79.1% of the service games in which she creates break points, which is 3.4% fewer than on clay. We also see here that, despite having a lower BP save rate on clay, she actually holds serve in 29.1% of those service games where she faces break point on clay compared to 26.6% on hard courts.

To put these figures in context, Serena Williams in 2014 actually holds serve in 38.5% of those service games where she faces break points and breaks serve in 79.4% of return games where she creates break points.

It would seem that there are not too many problems with Sharapova’s ability to convert break points on hard courts, even though it is lower than on clay courts, where she is clearly exceptional. However, for a player that is supposedly known for being so mentally strong, she would be hoping to save break points more regularly.

The biggest concern for Sharapova really must be the double faults on hard courts, followed by the disappointing first serve win percentage. If she is able to cut down the double faults, even just to the level that she serves on clay, which is still a little too high really, this should massively help her. The non-DF second serve points won suggests that she is performing adequately in the rallies, but she just needs to ensure that she does not just donate points on her own serve. From the statistics, it is tough to really explain what she needs to improve on her first serve, but it is a clear area to work on.

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