Laver Cup has redefined what a tennis event can be, and so far, the new definition seems to involve fast courts. Last year, we saw nine tiebreaks out of eighteen traditional sets, plus a pair of match tiebreaks that went to 11-9. This year’s edition wasn’t quite so extreme, with five tiebreaks out of sixteen traditional sets, but it still featured more tight sets than the typical tour event, in which tiebreaks occur less than once every five frames.
As usual, teasing out surface speed comes with its share of obstacles. Yes, there were lots of tiebreaks and yes, there were plenty of aces, but the player field featured more than its share of big servers. John Isner, Nick Kyrgios, and Roger Federer each contested two matches each year, and in Chicago, Kevin Anderson represented one-quarter of Team World’s singles contribution. No matter what the surface, we’d expect these guys to give us more serve-dominated matches than the tour-wide average.
Let’s turn to the results of my surface speed metric, which compares tournaments by using ace rate, adjusted for the serve and returning tendencies of the players at each event. The table below shows raw ace rate (“Ace%”) and the speed rating (“Speed”) for ten events from the last 52 weeks: The four 2018 grand slams, the fastest and slowest tour stops (Metz and Estoril, respectively), the two Laver Cups, and the two events that rate closest to the Laver Cups (Antalya and New York).
The speed rating metric ranges from about 0.5 for the slowest surfaces to 1.5 for the fastest, meaning that the stickiest clay results in about half as many aces as the same players would tally on a neutral surface, while the quickest grass or plexipave would give the same guys about half again as many aces as a neutral court would.
Last year’s Laver Cup, despite a whopping 17% ace rate, was barely among the top ten fastest courts out of the 67 tour stops I was able to rate. The surface in Chicago was on the edge of the top third, behind the speedy clay of Quito and considerably slower than the Australian Open.
These conclusions come with the usual share of caveats. First, surface speed is about more than ace rate. I’ve stuck with my ace-based metric because it’s one of the few stats we have for every tour-level event, and because despite its simplicity, it tracks closely with intuition, other forms of measurement, and player comments. Second, we’re not exactly overloaded with observations from either edition of the Laver Cup. Last year’s event featured nine singles matches, and this year there were eight. It’s even worse than that, because third sets are swapped out for match tiebreaks, leaving us even less data. That said, while we don’t have many matches to work with, we know a lot about the players involved, which isn’t as true of, say, Newport or Shenzhen, where a larger number of matches are contested by players who don’t make many appearances on tour.
The two Laver Cup surfaces rate as speedy, but not out of line with other indoor hard courts on the ATP tour. There will be tiebreaks and plenty of aces wherever Isner and Anderson go, no matter what the conditions.