In women's tennis, like in the ATP tour, the return is becoming more relevant than serve in predicting players' successes. This season, all the Top 4 in the WTA year-end rankings, Simona Halep, Daria Kasatkina, Sloane Stephens, and Angelique Kerber, and six of the Top 10 ranked players feature among the ten best returners of the year.
On the contrary, only four of them are among the ten most effective servers. The world No.1 Simona Halep made this link even stronger as she won a tour-leading 49.6% of her return points and broke almost once every two return games (48.5% of the time, 6% more than in 2017).
Even excluding aces and double faults from her opponents, she would remain the most effective returner on tour “[I'm] very confident [in my serve],” she said in Cincinnati. “Okay, I don't say that and doesn't matter I will break now.
But I feel confident and I feel secure there. So also now I improved in serve, so I don't feel a big difference between those two. But I'm pretty confident when I return, and I feel like if I stay there, focused and concentrated on every point, I can win games”.
This year, notably Halep won 50% or more points against first serve in 19 matches and collected 19 victories. According to the data collected by Tennis Abstract, her dominant ratio, the percentage of return points won divided by the percentage of serve points lost was the highest among the Top 50 this season (1.22).
Her competitive spirit brought the Romanian to play 6.9 points on average per return game, the most among the Top 50, winning 3.4 of them. Halep, one of the three players alongside Jelena Ostapenko and Naomi Osaka to convert over 50% of breakpoints in 2018 at WTA level, celebrated this season as the best campaign of her career.
“Winning a Grand Slam and finishing No. 1, I think it's the most that I could ask for. I had also tough moments because in Melbourne it was really tough to go over and to come back stronger. Also, I'm proud that I could come back stronger and I could make a better result.
So I think definitely, actually, is the best year of my career”. Right behind Halep in return points won (48,3%) and return games won (46,3%) we find 21-year-old Daria Kasatkina. "I feel more confident in the return, just from my nature," WTATennis.com quoted Kasatkina to say.
“I never work, like, hours and hours on the return. Of course, I'm working on it, but not crazy, like I said, like hours per day. I just feel where to go, how to go. That's it”. Surprisingly, neither Halep nor Kasatkina leads the field for second serve return points won.
In this specific district of the game, in fact, Elise Mertens registers the highest performance among the Top 50 as she won 61,3% of points against second deliveries. The Belgian ranks ninth in terms of return points and sixth for return games won in 2018 at WTA level.
So, it comes as a surprise to nobody that she's the tour leader on clay where she won 16 of her 18 tour-level matches played. “At the beginning, 2017 was already a good year for me. I just wanted to do the same or better.
I was very thankful it was better than 2017,” she said in Zhuhai during a press conference. “I think just the belief in yourself that I can consistently reach this level. Because it's not easy to just maintain this level and be better.
So I'm very happy that I reached Zhuhai and then Singapore in doubles. I think I'm consistent and that was the key for me this year, too”.
No.2 Angelique Kerber, WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen noted http://www.wtatennis.com/news/behind-numbers-halep-kasatkina-kerber-rule-return, struggled through her return games last season, but her efficacy in her return games improved over 12% in 2018.
She also won 10% of breakpoints more than in 2017 and gained 12 Top 20 victories more than the single one she got last season. If Kerber came back to the WTA Finals for the fifth time, it was due massively to these clear improvements.
The German, the oldest qualifier in Singapore this year, owned 46 match wins in 2018, the sixth time in the last seven seasons she has eclipsed the 40-match win plateau. The former world No.1 ended the campaign with two titles this season, in Sydney (d.
Barty) and Wimbledon where she claimed the third Grand Slam crown of her career. In Australia, she completed a 27-tournament drought (dating back to 2016 US Open), while her triumph at the All England Club made her the first German woman to win there since Graf in 1996.
Kerber hit only five unforced errors in the final against Serena Williams in just 67 minutes and moved back into the Top 5 after a near-11 month absence. Kerber, whose record in tour-level finals stands at 12-16 (her 28 final appearances is the joint tenth-most among active players, level with Agnieszka Radwanska), claimed her last victory of the season to Sloane Stephens, one of the best returners on tour who ranks fourth for return points won (47,3%, +11% compared to the shortened 2017 season) and third for breaks completed (44,2%).
Women's tennis is a country for aggressive baseliners.