Numbers confirm Djokovic is the best

The other day, offseason boredom (yes, it sets in that quickly) compelled me to screw around with some of the numbers churned out by the ATP's Ricoh Match Facts. To wit, I was curious to see if the top 10 men would finish in roughly the same order if they were ranked on the basis of statistical performance.

To that end, I took nine of the 10 RMFs that the ATP tracks, discarding only the "aces" category (on the grounds that the ability to whomp out an ace, while impressive, is a bit like a parlor trick; besides, big servers surely would be amply rewarded in the "first serve points won" category). I tracked first-serve percentage, first-serve points won, second-serve points won, service games won, break points saved, break points converted, first-serve return points won, second-serve return points won and return games won.

I assigned points for performance for the nine other categories, in reverse of the order of finish. That is, if a player finished No. 1 in any give category, he received 10 points; if he finished 10th in the stat, he was awarded 1 point. That way, it was just a simple matter of who earned the most points, or at any rate more points than his rivals.

Naturally, I fantasized about hitting a home run with this experiment. What if I tallied up the numbers and discovered -- egads! -- that ATP No. 8 Mardy Fish would actually rank No. 1 in a stats-based order? Alas, it didn't really work out that way.

But Fish did figure in the only discrepancy between the ATP top 10 and the top 10 based on statistical excellence in my nine categories. He actually fell one spot to no. 9 (swapping places with ATP No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic), due largely to Tipsarevic's excellent success rate in returning second serves.

This was a somewhat sobering exercise for me, given that I've always been suspicious of statistics. You know, I'm the guy who liked to point out that the number of double faults you hit mattered much less than when you hit them. But the reality suggests that you can't really run from the numbers.

ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic, compiled 54 points in my survey; No. 2 Rafael Nadal garnered 45 and No. 3 Roger Federer collected 35. That Andy Murray earned just three points less than Federer seemed to confirm that the stats really do tell an accurate story, in that Murray snatched away the No. 3 ranking from Federer for a period this fall, only to see Federer grab it back at the end of the year.

And, just as telling, there was a noticeable drop-off below No. 4 Murray. No. 5 David Ferrer, who unlike Murray has never even made a Grand Slam event final, collected just 24 points. Below there, No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga held his own, with 19 points. But then No. 7 Tomas Berdych was way off the pace with 10 total points, and nobody else earned more than seven -- which is three fewer than Juan Martin del Potro would have earned as the tour leader in break-points saved percentage.

The numbers provided a number of interesting lessons. The top performers (Djokovic and Nadal) were very strong in three key returning categories: first- and second-serve return points won, and return games won. Djokovic was the tour leader in both second-serve return points won and return games won. He racked up 29 of his points with his return game. By contrast, Federer accumulated 19 points with his success rate on service games and first- and second-serve points won. But he reaped just five points in those three key return stats where Djokovic and Nadal did so well.

And that was the biggest takeaway in this little exercise. If you want to dominate on the ATP Tour today, you don't do it with explosive aces, or an aggressive, high-flying service game. You do it with your return, by hurting the high-flyers and ace-makers. Just ask Nadal or Djokovic.