As the debate about equal pay for men and women in tennis invariably bubbles to the surface at the United States Open, the last Grand Slam event of the year, consider the metrics, not the money.
Women’s tennis regularly comes under attack for attracting smaller crowds, generating less revenue, playing shorter matches and having fewer big stars.
It’s a conversation the WTA would be wise to reframe. Women’s tennis has a perfect counterargument to show it is on equal footing with the men: analytics.
The stat sheets display much parity between the men’s and women’s games. It’s clear to see that the product that the men and the women put on the court is very similar.
U.S. Open Match Metrics
At the United States Open over the past three years, covering 127 men’s and women’s singles matches each year, there is undeniable equality in three big analytical markers: baseline points won, net points won, and serve-and-volley points won.
The only category in which there is a more than 1 percent difference between men and women was in serve-and-volley points won in 2015, when men won at a 68 percent clip and the women were at 59 percent. But in the past two years, those numbers were nearly even.
Here’s the difference in those markers in 2017, narrowed down to a hundredth of a percent:
At the 2015 Open, Serena Williams hit a 126-miles-per-hour serve. That was 1 m.p.h. faster than the fastest serve from the men’s champion, Novak Djokovic.
Williams also served faster at the Open that year than Fabio Fognini (124 m.p.h.), Kei Nishikori (123 m.p.h.), Lleyton Hewitt (120 m.p.h.) and David Ferrer (117 m.p.h.).
This is not new on the women’s tour. At Wimbledon in 2008, Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in one of the best men’s finals ever. On the women’s side in 2008, Venus Williams defeated her sister Serena in another outstanding final.
The fastest serve in the men’s final: 129 m.p.h. by Federer. The fastest serve in the women’s final: 129 m.p.h. by Venus.
In the 2018 Cincinnati Masters 1000 final last week, Djokovic defeated Federer, 6-4, 6-4. Djokovic’s fastest serve was 122 m.p.h., and Federer topped out at 127 m.p.h., still under what Venus hit at Wimbledon 10 years ago.
Yes, there are more men who can put more heat on their serve, but the leading women can hold their own.
Groundstrokes and Rally Length
Two knocks on women’s tennis that typically go hand in hand are that it is a backhand-dominated game, and that the rallies are a lot longer — bordering on boring.
Neither assumption is true.
Men and women hit far more winners on their forehand, and the percentage of backhand winners is in the same ballpark: 30.2 percent for men and 35.7 percent for women.
Long rallies in tennis are defined as nine shots or longer. At last year’s Open, rallies of at least nine shots accounted for 12.2 percent of the points in women’s matches, compared with 11 percent for men.
Craig O’Shannessy is the strategy analyst for Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the ATP World Tour, and runs Brain Game Tennis, a website specializing in tennis strategy.