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Tennis: TOPSPIN - Break-point stats reveal why Agassi has stayed a major force.

Byline: James Pyman

WHEN players are asked to divulge the secrets of how they emerged victorious from a close match their standard response is simply that they played the big points better than their opponent.

Key points can play an instrumental role in the evolution of matches as they are mechanisms by which momentum can shift back and forth between players and one of the more obvious examples of a key-point situation is when a player holds or is facing, a breakpoint.

Returning games are usually much harder to win than serving games - last season the top 150 won 73.6 per cent of service games but just 19.1 per cent of receiving - so the impact of a player converting a breakpoint chance can often turn the fate of a match firmly in their favour.

Consequently, being aware of who is more likely to stave off, or take, break-point opportunities can increase your chances of landing a touch in-running by forecasting a break of serve before it actually happens.

Two statistics document how players react to breakpoint situations, the percentage of break-point chances they convert, and the percentage they save.

During 2005, the average number of break points converted by the top 150 was 39.4 per cent while 59.4 per cent were saved, and these averages give some meaning to the records of the players in the table (it lists this year's break-point conversion and saved stats alongside players' 2005 averages in these categories).

Last season Ivan Ljubicic and Andy Roddick were the most stubborn when faced with the prospect of losing their serves as when facing break points against them they won the exchange 72 per cent of the time.

Big Ivan and the A-Rod are heavy servers and possessing a huge first delivery is a major bonus in these situations as the pressure tends to be skewered towards the returner who is aware that if they fail to take a breakpoint chance against a big server they may not get another one.

Conversely, the server is the one who feels the heat when needing to save a break point against a top returner as he knows that unless he delivers a heavy and accurate serve his slick-returning rival will punish him and consequently classy returners convert more break-point chances.

So the ultimate performer in break-point situations is one who saves and converts a high percentage, and adding the two percentages together gives us a breakpoint rating for each player by which we can compare and contrast their performance in these situations.

Players with high breakpoint ratings tend to be top returners or possess big serves, some even have both of these attributes, but their rating can also reveal clues about their mental strength and strategic prowess in tense periods of contests.

THE table shows that Andre Agassi recorded the highest break-point rating on the tour last season of 113.

Now perhaps in the early part of this millennium you could conclude that a rating of this magnitude is a reflection of him being the best returner in the game and a pretty good server.

However, surely Roger Federer was superior in those departments to the American veteran in 2005, even though Agassi remains a top-class returner.

Federer achieved a breakpoint figure of 108, which is the tenth highest in the table but five points shy of Agassi's.

So Agassi's ability to deliver a telling serve, or blistering return, his mental toughness and his shrewd shot selection in break-point situations probably account for his massive break-point rating.

And it's these qualities that are allowing him to stay at the summit of the game despite cracks appearing in his ageing frame.

Dmitry Tursunov, despite finishing 59th in last year's Champions Race, also has the joint second highest break-point rating of 112 and anybody who witnessed him taking out Tim Henman in the Australian Open will realise why as this attack minded Russian goes for broke on every point and therefore enters break-point situations without fear.

In fact most of the players who reside towards the top of the table like to attack, and their high levels of success suggest it is advantageous to be brave and go for your shots in break-point situations.

Robby Ginepri (98) and Tommy Robredo (96) are the only two players who finished inside the top 20 of the 2005 Champions Race who have ratings below 100.

The pair are very infrequent title winners both have won two career titles, and their inability to stay calm in break-point situations could explain why.
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 6, 2006
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