Racket Science: Federer the ace-maker

Understanding the meaning of tennis statistics isn’t an undertaking that merits comparison with rocket science. Nevertheless, racket science has its own challenges, rewards and revelations. So let’s delve right into some of the more striking numbers generated by the sport last week and see where our speculations take us.

In hot pursuit of Ivo Karlovic: Two men hurtled toward the 9,000-ace mark during the first few weeks of the new year, Ivo Karlovic and Roger Federer. Karlovic, the 36-year-old Croatian ace-maker, got there first; at Doha, he passed Andy Roddick for No. 2 on the all-time list. But Federer was not far behind. He got to 9,000 last week in Dubai. It seems the desert is conducive to blasting aces.

The top four as of Monday are Goran Ivanisevic (10,183 aces), Karlovic (9,375), Roddick (9,074) and Federer (9,007). The top three ace-makers accounted for a total of two Grand Slam titles (Ivanisevic and Roddick each won one major). The fourth man on the totem pole has a mere 17. It’s ironic, but can anyone think of three players less like Federer than his peers in the top four? What’s he doing in this group anyway?

Federer undeniably has an excellent, versatile serve. But his ace count is more of a tribute to his consistency and longevity than his power.

Federer hit his 9,007 aces in 1,189 matches, an average of 7.57 aces per match. No. 3 Roddick hit his aces in 780 matches, for an average of 11.63. Karlovic accumulated his aces in just 499 matches -- an average of 18.78 per match. Ivanisevic, the all-time volume champ, broke the 10K mark after 895 matches for an average of 11.3.

Thus, if Karlovic had been good enough to play (which really means win) as many matches as Federer, he would now have 22,329 aces -- almost twice the number drilled by ace king Ivanisevic.

(Bad) Luck of the Irish: When James McGee scored a prized wild card for Dubai, he became just the third Irish player to take part in an ATP main tour event since 1990. Can you name the other two?

Louk Sorensen made his ATP debut at Chennai in 2010, while Conor Niland first played Houston in 2010.

McGee is currently the highest-ranking Irishman at No. 211, but the 27-year-old Dubliner lost to Joao Sousa in the first round of Dubai. He’s probably hearing footsteps. Sorensen is No. 226.

Sorensen’s father, Sean, made the main draw at Wimbledon in 1977 and lost in the first round to Rod Laver. When Louk qualified for the Australian Open in his best year, 2010, he became the first man from Ireland to play in the main draw of a Grand Slam event since his father in 1980. Louk, now 30, hit his career-high ranking of 175 in 2014. He’s 5-6 in main tour matches for his career and still plugging away.

Niland, now 33 and no longer playing, won nine of 24 ATP matches in his career. He reached a career-high ranking of 129 -- the highest attained by an Irishman since Matt Doyle hit No. 65 in 1982.

The Irish had a national tennis career moment in 2011, when both Niland and Sorensen qualified for the U.S. Open -- with Niland drawing Novak Djokovic as his first-round opponent. The bum luck of the Irish was further exacerbated when Niland had to quit the match on Arthur Ashe Stadium down 6-0, 5-1 because of a bad case of food poisoning.

The semi-importance of being Ernests: In a line destined to go down in tennis lore and legend, ATP No. 15 Ernests Gulbis said of his 0-5 start this year: “It’s the calm before the storm.” Droll guy, that Ernests. Who said today’s top tennis players have all the personality of an IRS tax auditor?

If history is any indication, Gulbis can continue to enjoy the calm that has descended on his game. Vince Spadea lost 21 consecutive main tour matches (the ATP record), the final 17 of them in 2000, before “the storm.”

Spadea, now 40, was once ranked as high as No. 18. (Gulbis hit No. 10 in June of last year.) Gulbis has six titles to his credit, while Spadea won just one, at Scottsdale (he defeated Nicolas Kiefer). But Spadea, whose pro career spanned 17 years, had wins over Federer (that one included a bagel set), Rafael Nadal, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi -- pretty much everyone who was anyone.

When the storm broke after those 21 losses, it was in spectacular fashion. Spadea outlasted British hope and former US Open finalist Greg Rusedski at Wimbledon in 2010. Spadea won the first-round battle 9-7 in the fifth.

You have a long way to go, Ernests.