Australian Open introduced new advanced statistical metrics

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Ah, so you think you know tennis?

Quick, who has the fastest reaction time to an incoming serve?

Conventional wisdom says it's Novak Djokovic, widely regarded as the best returner in the game.

But the good folks at Tennis Australia would beg to differ. Their newly created Game Insight Group (GIG) has crunched the numbers and the answer is ... mercurial Aussie Nick Kyrgios.

Based on data from his Australia Open matches from 2014-16, Kyrgios average reaction time is a scintillating .614 seconds, marginally ahead of the great Roger Federer. Djokovic, for the record, is seventh at a relatively tardy .638.

Who knew?

Tennis has always been a sport of incremental change, and its analytics are no different. Break points saved, winners, unforced errors, aces -- those are the typical numbers you see in the coverage of the sport. But with GIG leading the metric charge, that is changing.

"There was an appetite within Tennis Australia, and it's been a passion of mine, to challenge the status quo, test out conventional wisdom," explained the GIG director, Dr. Machar Reid, whose official job title is innovation catalyst. "We've landed on a bunch of questions that are unresolved.

"That's the charter of GIG, going where others don't, trying to understand the sport from different perspectives."

GIG analyzed the Australian Open data from 2012-16 and, factoring in human behavior, equipment and the dimensions of the court, came up with rankings in a number of compelling categories.

The tournament rolls out these statistics daily, in general categories as well as match-specific data. The results, which can be found on the Australian Open website, are fascinating.

"The challenge for us," Reid said, "is how we translate that information, for players and coaches, for fans and policy makers. We are working with the ITF [International Tennis Federation] in looking at the structure of the professional game."

The ultimate goal is to gain insight that will improve training methods and allow tournaments to be more player-friendly.

But for our purposes?

Let's consider the eye-catching categories of fastest forehand and backhand, speediest on the court, and who works the hardest on every point.

An 86 mph fastball

Donald Young, still sweating from his second-round loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber, smiled in his interview chair when a quiz was proposed.

Who possesses the fastest average forehand in the game?

"Uh, maybe del Potro?" said Young, tentatively.

The answer, it turns out, is fellow American Jack Sock, whose extreme Western grip and superior torque gives him a blazing 86.33 mph fastball. Reid was quick to point out that these numbers don't account for spin, so the flatter (and closer to the net) the ball flies, the faster it goes.

There's no sign of Rafael Nadal on the top-20 list, but Stan Wawrinka is seventh, at 81.31, with Tomas Berdych 11th at 80.47 and Milos Raonic 18th at 79.94.

Who's the fastest woman on the forehand side?

That would be another American, 21-year-old Madison Keys, who comes in at 81.29 mph.

"Whoa," said Young. "She really gives it a good ride."

The surprising thing? Keys is ranked eighth overall -- ahead of most men.

Serena Williams, surprisingly, is not among the top 20 -- outhit by fellow Americans Christina McHale (ninth, 77.3), Coco Vandeweghe (16th, 76.0) and Nicole Gibbs (17th, 75.91).

Sock himself was not overly impressed.

"I think everyone who I play knows I look to hit a forehand and it has a lot of spin on it and RPMs," Sock said after a second-round win over Karen Khachanov. "I don't really look at the specifics, ever.

"I'm not a technical person like that at all. I don't know, maybe some people it can help. I don't think if I change a couple of RPMs on my forehand it's going to make or break anything."

The fastest active backhands go to Lukas Rosol (75.2) and Keys (74.62), who ranks seventh among all players.

"Everyone looks at the Keys numbers and in some respects is taken aback," Reid said when asked if any results surprised him. "It's amazing how close she approximates what men do, the ball flight and how close to net it is. Madison's balls skid through the court more than most."

How about sheer speed around the court?

"Hmm," said Young, grimacing. "Maybe Monfils? Ferrer?"

The unexpected answer: Djokovic, who isn't seen as a speed merchant, but who does have extraordinary anticipation.

Simona Halep is the fastest on the women's side.

"Yeah, it's nice to hear that," Halep said. "Maybe because I'm not that tall, that's why I'm fast. It's my advantage, I can say -- the speed during the matches, during the game."

Said Young, "That is super-cool. Tennis doesn't have those stats like basketball and baseball."

Well, it does now.

Breaking conventions

And now for something a little more advanced.

The GIG created a "clutch" statistic that attempts to capture how players perform under pressure. From the GIG primer: "The clutch serve index shows the percentage of important service points a player wins on average. This number represents how often we could expect a player to win on serve when the pressure is on. A high percentage on this stat highlights a player who can serve effectively, even when the pressure is on -- whether in a tiebreak, facing break point, or trying to close out a match."

Your predictable men's clutch leaders: No. 1, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; No. 2, Djokovic; No. 3, Berdych. Among the women: No. 1, Johanna Konta; No. 2, Williams; and No. 3, Garbine Muguruza.

Another less conventional category is something called work rate.

"Hawkeye has made available data on distance, but that doesn't capture the actual work the players do -- the distance, speed, directional changes, which aren't all equal," explained Reid. "We take all that and distill it into one thing."

Intuitively, this one makes sense. Andy Murray is ranked first in per-point energy expended, followed by the eternally hustling David Ferrer and Gilles Simon. The hardest-working woman is Barbora Strycova, followed by Caroline Wozniacki and Yulia Putintseva.

The individual match reports are intriguing, too.

In Nadal's 4-hour, 6-minute victory over German teenager Alexander Zverev last week, Rafa won almost one in every two clutch points on second serve. Zverev was merely one-for-five. After the second set, Zverev didn't win a single rally that lasted 10 shots or more. Nadal's work rate was 9.5 percent more than the 19-year-old's, which might explain why Rafa took an average of 27.7 seconds between serves, while Zverev was just under the loosely enforced maximum of 20 seconds at 19.4.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the No.1-ranked doubles player, clearly had fun taking the quiz. She failed to guess the leader in numerous categories but was usually in the top 10. Admittedly, she is not a big fan of statistics -- particularly her own.

"If I have to find out my first-serve percentage again, I might strangle somebody," she said, laughing. "I know if I'm serving good or bad. Got that one."

Still, she was intrigued by some of the off-the-grid numbers.

"I feel like other sports have so many metrics," Mattek-Sands said. "You know statistic after statistic after statistic. To the detail of won-loss records in 20-degree weather or under a roof.

"Give me the record when it's over 95 degrees and somebody in the top 10 is playing. Why not bring that to tennis?"