It is an old cliché in tennis to speak of the importance of first-serve percentage, yet every once in a while, there will come along a match where players will depend on it so much that not only can you not avoid discussing it, but you feel compelled to use that particular match to rehash its importance. Such was the match pitting the 29th-ranked Croatian Ana Konjuh against the 64th-ranked Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu.
Let’s begin by numbers alone. Begu won 80% of her first-serve points, but only 29% of her second-serve ones. For Konjuh, the discrepancy between the two numbers was not that large. She won 66% of her points when she put her first serves in versus 53% when she had to settle for a second serve. However, when you look beyond the sheer numbers, it is not hard to see that Konjuh needed first serves just as badly as her opponent did. In fact, I will go a step further and say that, in a match where she served only 58% first serves and gifted 8 double faults to her opponent, the timing of her first serves played a central role in the outcome of the match.
For starters, this match did not feature any long rallies, not that anyone expected it. Konjuh hits the ball hard, very hard. Her baseline shots are rarely intended for merely extending the rally. She will occasionally produce a drop shot to surprise her opponent or sparingly attempt an off-speed slice if extended on her backhand side. Otherwise, her game is driven by power, with her backhand being flatter than her forehand. If you have weathered the storm of a few shots by Konjuh in a rally, there is a good chance that the next ball will either be a winner or an error, with the ball traveling at warp speed 9 in either case. Begu, for her part, is craftier. She can vary her spin, change pace, or generate power if necessary. Both players’ have solid first serves that can produce aces or at least set them up for the second shot.
From the first few minutes, the strategies of both players became fairly clear. Konjuh would seek to mostly go for winners and overwhelm Begu with her power. Knowing that, Begu would look to take charge as early as possible in the point (read that “on the serve or return”) and keep Konjuh in the unfamiliar position of chasing balls and defending. Begu has big backswings, especially on the forehand, so if Konjuh managed to unleash a few shots in a row in, she would eventually pressure Begu into an error.
Begu put herself in a position to take the first set, more than once. In the always-crucial seventh game, Konjuh had to first save two break points (the second one at 30-40 with an exquisite backhand drop shot). At deuce, we witnessed one of the rare long points of the set. At one point in the rally, Konjuh approached and had Begu fully stretched to her forehand. Irina came up with one of the best defensive and high lobs of the day, pushing Konjuh back behind the baseline to reset the rally, and eventually win the point on a forced backhand error by her. In the ensuing break point, Begu produced a mid-pace, floating slice out of nowhere, throwing Konjuh off, and earning a forehand error from the Croatian, one that bounced off the tape and went wide. I know this went down in the stats as an unforced error, but I bet that earning an error from her opponent by feeding her the type of pace and spin that she had not yet seen so far in the match, was precisely what Begu had in mind when she sliced that backhand. Chalk one up for the high-IQ decision by Irina, even if the stats will just remember it as an unforced error by Ana.
Begu eventually served for the set at 5-4. Unfortunately for her, she played her poorest serving game of the set. She began the game with two forehand unforced errors and followed them up with a double fault to find herself down 0-40. Two points later, Konjuh equalized at 5-5. Begu once again had an opportunity to take a commanding lead. She went up 0-40 on Konjuh’s serve game, and should have completed the break in four points had it not been for the unexpected forehand error on a shot that she would probably make 8 out 10 times. Subsequently, Konjuh tallied 5 points in a row to force the set into a tiebreaker, in which she took the early lead and never looked back (7-3).
Thus, the first set ended 7-6 in favor of Konjuh, and Begu was probably left feeling that she should have pocketed it 15 minutes earlier. In fact, I would argue that winning the first set, after playing “survival” during most of it, ultimately played the most important role in Konjuh’s three-set victory. The next two sets were more clear-cut in that each player outperformed the other once and split the last two sets.
Now, would be good time to get back to what I underlined in the beginning of my analysis. At that 5-5 game, in which Konjuh went down 0-40, only to come back and hold, she missed her first serve in the first four points of the game. That is when she went down 0-40, and only won the fourth point thanks to the above-mentioned unexpected unforced error from Begu. However, after 15-40, Konjuh made all her first serves. Those four points finished in an ace, a service winner, a forehand winner set up by a big first serve, and a forced return error by Begu. Those four first serves came at a point in the match where she desperately needed them. The same can be said for the 3-5 game, in which Konjuh got 4 out of 5 first serves in and held easier than in any other serving game in the set.
When the match resumed in the second set, Begu broke Konjuh’s serve on the fifth game. Konjuh started that game, when Konjuh started it with a double fault and lost the other two points in which she had to resort to second serve. This is also when Ana’s forehand began to falter. Other than the double fault, she also committed two unforced forehand errors. She would add two more forehand unforced errors in the next game, one more in the 8th game, and throw in a double fault to end the set.
There was going to be a final set.
It was clear that if Konjuh was to defeat her opponent, she needed to cut down the number of double faults and unforced errors, especially on her forehand, and be able to count on her first serves when it mattered.
Whatever momentum the Croatian garnered when she hit a stunning sharp-cross-court forehand winner to break her opponent’s serve in the opening game of the final set, was negated when Begu produced her best return game of the match in the second game. Two games later at 2-2, things got further complicated for Konjuh when her forehand faltered again when she was leading 15-30 on Begu’s serve. Later in that game, Begu served two clutch aces, both wide on the deuce side, at 30-30 and deuce, that helped her propel to a 3-2 lead in.
Nobody could have guessed it at that moment, but that would be the last game that Begu would win for the rest of the match.
At 3-3 and 30-15 up, she threw in an untimely double fault (one of her two in the set). She would miss her first serve three more times in a row. On one of those, at deuce, Konjuh unleashed a big return on a second serve that forced Begu to miss her backhand. One point later, Konjuh was up 4-3 serving. In that game, she would win 4 out of the 5 points that she started with her first serve, two being aces, helping her to build a 5-3 lead. Konjuh would break Begu one more time to end the match 7-6 2-6 6-3.
In the last 4 games, Konjuh only made two unforced errors and one double fault, consistent with her match-long trend of cutting down on her unforced errors – 19 in the first set, 14 in the second, and 10 in the third. There were three keys to the final set, which I have mentioned above, and Konjuh managed to get them done. She cut down on her double faults (only one in the final set), she cut down her overall number of unforced errors (particularly in the last four games), and she put her first serves in when she needed them.
In the next round, Ana Konjuh will seek to reach the 4th round of a Major for the first time in her career by taking on the 8th seed Dominika Cibulkova.