Men Rally Length: 2016 - 18 RG vs. US Open

Question everything...

Once you put everything on the table for examination, once you begin the quest for data over myths and guesswork and folklore and other people's opinions, then your mind is open to exploring new ideas that others may think flat-out ridiculous.

Just the very thought of stacking clay court rally length up against hard court seems like a colossal waste of time. We all know that points on clay are always much longer. Don't dare challenge the idea that grinding and consistency is omnipotent on clay. There are methods and systems and ideologies that form the pillars of very influential "coaching systems."

Question everything. 

Which leads us to... one of the most shocking pieces of data I have ever researched.

2015 Australian Open was where it all started

The first time I was able to get any data from Roland Garros data was in 2016. I gathered all the rally length data together and stared blankly at the results. My jaw hit the ground. At first, I didn't believe the numbers were correct. Surely I had made a mistake. The first data set that I saw focused on rally length is the 2015 Australian Open. Those numbers were:

2015 Australian Open: Men's Rally Length

  • 0-4 Shots = 70%
  • 5-8 Shots = 20%
  • 9+ Shots = 10%

That's the yardstick. That's where the conversation starts.

So you can imagine my utter disbelief to discover that Roland Garros in 2016 was right in the same ballpark. The way we talk about clay, the way we romanticize about long, grinding, grueling, lactic-acid-inducing rallies, I thought there was no possible way that it could be anywhere close to hard court metrics. But. They. Were.

This was when I first knew the clay court myths didn't match the metrics.

Rally Length Variables

What makes rally length rise and fall each year?

The truth is, there are several variables, but the leading three areas that have the most influence are:

  1. The style of the players going deep in the tournament. Typically, players like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Gilles Simon, Gael Monfils, etc. have a tendency to play longer points, but not by as much as you would think.
  2. The weather. Hotter weather promotes a faster ball, and a little help for the server, therefore potentially helping the 0-4 rally count rise a touch. Keep in mind, 2016 at Roland Garros was wet and cold and damp and miserable. 2017 was much hotter.
  3. The court surface. If the court is playing slower then longer rallies have the potential to become more abundent as players find it tougher to put the ball away.
  4. The balls. There are a few different balls used on tour. How they fluff up, how heavy they can become after a few games is also something players talk about when analyzing match conditions.

Roland Garros 2016/17/18 vs. US Open 2016/17/18

This is the first time I have done a straight up, head-to-head comparison between clay and hard. Between Roland Garros and the US Open. Let's see just what went down in 2016.

2016: Roland Garros & US Open Rally Length

Rally LengthRoland Garros 2016US Open 2016
0-4 Shots66.9%68.0%
5-8 Shots21.2%21.3%
9+ Shots11.9%10.7%
These numbers blew me away. One of the wettest, coldest, heaviest Roland Garros tournaments on record produced right at 67% points in 0-4 shots. Slightly more than two out of every three points at Roland Garros ended with either player hitting a maximum of just two balls in the court. Amazing!!!

Right around the same time, the US Open was in the process of slowing their tournament down by making sure the paint that they resurfaced the courts with had a very healthy supply of sand. The amount of sand in the paint definitely has an effect on the ball, making the court surface feel like sandpaper when you rub your hand on it.

Both tournaments were within 0.1 percentage points of each other in the 5-8 shot rally range (21.3% to 21.2%), and Roland Garros had 1.2 percentage points more points in 9+ (11.9% to 10.7%).

This data was a huge wake-up call for me. All was not what it seemed in the world of clay court tennis.

2017: Roland Garros & US Open Rally Length

Rally LengthRoland Garros 2017US Open 2017
0-4 Shots70.7%67.8%
5-8 Shots19.4%21.1%
9+ Shots10.0%11.0%
This is where the bomb drops on traditional clay court thinking. This is where match analytics from the biggest clay court tournament in the world is in direct conflict with the traditional clay court mantra.

0-4 Rally Length

There was a significantly higher percentage of 0-4 rallies at Roland Garros in 2017 than at the US Open in 2017. Wow! "First Strike" tennis surged to 70.7% of all points in Paris - an increase of 2.5 percentage points. What caused that? My guess is the hot weather and players such as Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic and Dominic Thiem playing in the second week of the tournament.

At Roland Garros in 2017, there were 46 matches where the 0-4 shot rally length was 70%+. There were only 41 matches at the 2017 US Open that were 70%+.

At the very top end, there were 20 matches at Roland Garros in 2017 where the 0-4 shot rally length was at least 79% of all points played. There were only three of those at the US Open in 2017.

It's night and day really...

2018: Roland Garros & US Open Rally Length

Rally LengthRoland Garros 2018US Open 2018
0-4 Shots68.2%68.2%
5-8 Shots21.5%21.1%
9+ Shots10.3%10.7%
In 2018, Roland Garros and the US Open looked basically identical - either even or within half a percent in all three rally lengths. As shocking as 2017 is, this is equally so if you saw this data first.

This flies in the face of traditional clay court thinking. The old mantra says there is a massive difference in rally length between clay courts and hard courts. Nope. Maybe at some stage in the past, but not anymore.

3 Years Combined:  Roland Garros & US Open Rally Length

Rally LengthRoland Garros 2016/17/18US Open 2016/17/18
0-4 Shots68.6%68.0%
5-8 Shots20.7%21.2%
9+ Shots10.7%10.8%
When you combine 2016, 2017 and 2018 into one spreadsheet, you get an even clearer picture of the behavior of clay and hard court tennis. Here's the fact...

0-4 Rally Length

For the past three years at Roland Garros, there have been more shorter rallies than at the US Open. WOW!!!! Three years is a big data set, minimizing as much as possible the effects of weather and playing style.

Repeat after me... "CLAY is a First Strike Surface"

5-8 Shots Rally Length

The US Open had a slightly higher percentage of rallies in the mid-length 5-8 shot rally length than Roland Garros. As you are about to see, once a rally gets past four shots, the US Open had more action overall than Roland Garros. That's stunning, to say the least...

9+ Shot Rally Length

There were slightly more extended rallies of nine shots or longer in New York than Paris.

Who. Would. Have. Thought. That????

Clay court tennis is not about grinding... any more than hard court tennis is.

Clay court tennis does not require more patience than hard courts.

It is wrong to assume clay court tennis needs more repetition work than hard courts.

Clay court tennis is a "First Strike" surface because all surfaces are. That's the nature of starting a point with a serve and a return. It's rough. More errors in 0-4 than 9+.

Welcome to the new rules of clay court practice and competition!

The Bottom Line

Welcome this new data with open arms! This is our first look at how clay stacks up against hard, and it's definitely not what the traditional clay court coaching mantra would have us believe. The 0-4 rally length happens just as much on clay as it does on hard.

This is the only free lesson in Dirtballer. To see more strategy and match analysis for clay, purchase Dirtballer by clicking below.