Why Does John Isner Win So Many Tiebreakers?

I had a couple of thoughts on why John Isner wins so many tiebreakers.

The main reason, of course, is he is a good player, and he keeps his nerve better than most. And, based on his play in 2015 Indian Wells and 2015 Miami Open, he’s healthier than last year and playing with his former confidence.

“Metrics” are the rage in baseball and basketball, but I don’t know enough to apply “metrics” to John Isner’s amazing record in tiebreakers.

The real puzzle in explaining John’s winning 65% of tiebreakers at the ATP World Tour level is that one would assume that, with both players winning 6 games, they both won a similar number of points. As heavytopsin.com points out, big servers don’t necessarily do well in tiebreakers. In addition, many great players have average tiebreaker records. And as one would expect after reading The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, many players have good tiebreaker records one year and poor ones the next.

I don’t know if there are stats which show the relationship between the number of points won in a set and winning a tiebreaker. Regarding Isner, I get the impression that he wins tiebreakers even when his opponent has won more points during the twelve preceding games.

So, without the benefit of actual statistics, here’s my theory about Isner’s tremendous tiebreaker record. John’s service return is not good enough to put servers on the defense, and once John is playing defensively, he’s going to lose most points. John knows this, so he does his best to get on the offense during a point at the first opportunity, no matter how low percentage that transitional shot is. For John to break serve, he has to win in this manner at least 4 points, with the added condition that his point total be 2 or more points greater than his opponent. It’s been a long time since I did college stats, but this Microsoft Excel spreadsheet illustrates how infrequently breaks of serve occur if the returner wins less than 30% of the points.

In the tiebreakers I saw this week against Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, it seemed that John Isner serves more aggressively on the both the first and second serves. In addition, when rallies began, both Grigor and Milos played one or more shots too passively, which enabled John to gain the offensive and eventually finish the point at the net. Isner increases his aggression, and his opponents don’t seem aggressive enough.

What do you think?

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