Why Agassi, one the greatest returners of all time, struggled with Sampras serve?

HBK4life

Professional
He handled it pretty well. Pete disguised his serve well leaving Andre to guess. Who returned it better? Not chang. Courier no. Hewitt maybe?
 

GuyForget

Rookie
On slower surfaces like French open or Australian open Agassi was good enough against Sampras i think.
he's 3-0 against Pete at French and AO, and it's 14-16 if u remove the US open, Sampras just had a huge pschological hold over him there. in this era, he'd do a lot better against Samps, it wasnt that he couldnt handle his serve (he did better than anyone), he just wasnt as clutch
 

NonP

Hall of Fame
He didn't. Of course everyone "struggled" against the greatest server in history, but as I like to point out Dre is the only one who limited Pete to under 50% of 2nd-serve points won in his 7 Wimby finals, not to mention he owned just about every other big server/S&Ver of his generation and beyond.

And I see the canard that Agassi wasn't all that great against 1st serves remains in vogue, so let's review the actual numbers. At first glance it seems to hold a grain of truth, as Dre stands at a mere #91 in all-time (since '90) % of 1st-serve points won. But that ranking alone leaves out two crucial facts:

1) The vast majority of players above him are dirtballing specialists, and while I won't pretend to have the exact breakdown it's a sure bet that their %s are disproportionately boosted by their predominance on clay where the 1st serve is likely to do the least damage.
2) For most of the '90s GS editions the ATP counted aces (and double faults) twice, which significantly distorts Agassi's and other non-dirtballer's career % of 1st-serve points won.

Now let's compare Agassi with two non-CC specialists who are widely (and justly) celebrated for their 1st-serve return. Per the ATP Dre won 31.5% of his 1SPs, vs. Fed's 32.6% and Hewitt's 32.1%. Not much of a difference to begin with, and if you remove Dre's double-counted aces from his Slam matches his adjusted % likely matches if not exceeds Rusty's and possibly Fed's. But how can this be? We all "know" the quicker-footed Hewitt handled big 1st serves so much better than Agassi! Just look at their matches vs. Sampras! Never mind Pete was gassed in the '01 USO final and couldn't give a fig about non-majors at that point in his career, or that he was extra motivated to bring his best against his main longtime rival. The numbers "prove" it, amirite?

Of course here's where they point to a fellow '90s stalwart in Chang who boasted superior #s (32.3%, FYI) despite the same caveats/distortions, or to Djokovic and Murray who likely can claim the same even after the necessary adjustments for Dre. But this is where we need to distinguish between return and return game. You'd be hard-pressed to find many contemporaries of Agassi's and Chang's who feared the latter's return in itself more than the former's, and while I do think Andy handles big 1st serves better than Dre (or Novak for that matter) if purely by virtue of getting more balls back I say Dre inflicts even more damage on the balls he does get his racquet on, hence his superior % of 2nd-serve points won (yes I understand this is also distorted by said double-counting of double faults).

And let's remember we're talking about the very greatest returners in history (yes including Chang), and among this group who's "better" depends as much on matchups and types of play or surface as on the player's actual returning prowess. If you say Agassi wasn't as great as some of these ATG returners on 1st serves you won't get much argument from me, but spare me the nonsense about his return being not so effective against big 1st serves. If the Agassi return is an "overrated" shot, so is just about every other shot not considered the absolute best in its class.
 

boredone3456

G.O.A.T.
Well seeing as Pete had one of the absolute best serves of all time, its not surprising that even Agassi didn't deliver to his usual level against Pete that he brought against everyone else. That being said Agassi stilled faired better against Pete's serve than a whole lot of other people did.
 

vandre

Hall of Fame
sampras' serve had no "tells". pete could hit it out wide or go down the t off the same toss.
agassi gambled when returning serve. he wasn't trying to block it back and start the point. he was looking to either win the point outright or take control of the point. aa would guess a bit from time to time and that lead to him getting aced.
 

urban

Legend
Sampras played Agassi aleady as a junior, and knew him pretty well. Agassi couldn't read his serve, especially on fast courts. To stay in the match, Agassi often overhit his own first serve, instead of going for a high first serve percentage. Against all other serve and volleyers, (Stich, Becker and al.) Agassi was a nightmare. Todd Martin could do well against Agassi, because he himself had a very good return. In Beckers case, Agassi wrote, that he could see by his tongue, in which direction he was serving.
 

King No1e

G.O.A.T.
Sampras played Agassi aleady as a junior, and knew him pretty well. Agassi couldn't read his serve, especially on fast courts. To stay in the match, Agassi often overhit his own first serve, instead of going for a high first serve percentage. Against all other serve and volleyers, (Stich, Becker and al.) Agassi was a nightmare. Todd Martin could do well against Agassi, because he himself had a very good return. In Beckers case, Agassi wrote, that he could see by his tongue, in which direction he was serving.
Name: Urban
Status: Legend
Claim about Agassi vs Becker: Urban Legend

Just djoking, I've heard about it too.
 

2ndServe

Hall of Fame
because the guy with the ball makes the first move and the other guy has to react and if your delivery is that good everyone has trouble with it.
 

KG1965

Legend
I agree with the comments here.
I just point out that h2h between the two great champions is 20-14 (the ratio is 10-7) and that in Melbourne and Paris Agassi was a big problem for Pete.
A detail of some matches would be needed, perhaps also taking inspiration from Waspsting's stats.
 

KG1965

Legend
(***) Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi 7-6(7), 6-4 in the Cincinnati semi-final, 1999 on hard court. Pete's Serve is unplayable.

Serve Stats

Sampras...
- 1st serve percentage (32/59) 54%
- 1st serve points won (29/32) 91%
- 2nd serve points won (17/27) 63%
- Aces 8 (1 second serve), Service Winners 3
- Double Faults 6
- Unreturned Serve Percentage (27/59) 46%

Return Stats

Agassi made...
- 25 (15 FH, 10 BH)
- 17 Errors
, comprising...
- 2 Unforced (2 FH)
- 15 Forced (10 FH, 5 BH)
- Return Rate (25/53) 47%

 

KG1965

Legend
(***) Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi 6-2, 6-3 in the San Jose final, 1996 on indoor hard court. Pete's Serve is unplayable.

The winner of the match was to become world number 1
, replacing Thomas Muster. Agassi was the defending champion

Serve Stats
Sampras...
- 1st serve percentage (24/54) 44%
- 1st serve points won (21/24) 88%
- 2nd serve points won (17/30) 57%
- Aces 5, Service Winners 1
- Double Faults 1
- Unreturned Serve Percentage (24/54) 44%

Return Stats
Agassi made...
- 29 (12 FH, 17 BH), including 1 return-approach
- 3 Winners (3 FH)
- 18 Errors, comprising...
- 8 Unforced (4 FH, 4 BH)
- 10 Forced (4 FH, 6 BH)
- Return Rate (29/53) 55%
 

KG1965

Legend
(***) Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 in the Year End Championship (now known as the World Tour Finals) final, 1999 on carpet in Hanover, Germany.
Here Agassi seems to have suffered less from Sampras' serve.

Serve Stats

Sampras...
- 1st serve percentage (48/79) 61%
- 1st serve points won (41/48) 85%
- 2nd serve points won (14/31) 45%
- Aces 12 including 2 off second serves, Service Winners 2
- Double Faults 10
- Unreturned Serve Percentage (26/79) 33%

Return Stats

Agassi made...
- 43 (18 FH, 25 BH)
- 1 Winner (1 BH)
- 11 Errors, all forced...
- 11 Forced (3 FH, 8 BH)
- Return Rate (43/69) 62%
 

KG1965

Legend
(***) In 1998, Agassi beat Sampras 6-2, 6-4 in the final to San Josè.
Great return of Andre.

Serve Stats

Sampras...
- 1st serve percentage (39/66) 59%
- 1st serve points won (29/39) 74%
- 2nd serve points won (10/27) 37%
- Aces 17, Service Winners 1
- Double Faults 6
- Unreturned Serve Percentage (25/66) 38%

Return Stats

Agassi made...
- 35 (12 FH, 23 BH), including 1 return-approach
- 4 Winners (1 FH, 3 BH)
- 7 Errors, comprising...
- 1 Unforced (1 FH)
- 6 Forced (4 FH, 2 BH)
- Return Rate (34/60) 57%
 

KG1965

Legend
It's obviously difficult to trace all the available statistics, it's not as easy as now, but I have the feeling that the return of Agassi v Sampras was a big problem.
They seem much better Courier and Chang.
Then I would have to study other match-ups but I could be wrong but the return was not Andre's best shot.
I think that Agassi's problem v Sampras was the return, once Agassi won them, then most of the changes won them.

I think that the return could have been a serious defect of Sampras.

They are only sensations.
 

NonP

Hall of Fame
He didn't. Of course everyone "struggled" against the greatest server in history, but as I like to point out Dre is the only one who limited Pete to under 50% of 2nd-serve points won in his 7 Wimby finals, not to mention he owned just about every other big server/S&Ver of his generation and beyond.

And I see the canard that Agassi wasn't all that great against 1st serves remains in vogue, so let's review the actual numbers. At first glance it seems to hold a grain of truth, as Dre stands at a mere #91 in all-time (since '90) % of 1st-serve points won. But that ranking alone leaves out two crucial facts:

1) The vast majority of players above him are dirtballing specialists, and while I won't pretend to have the exact breakdown it's a sure bet that their %s are disproportionately boosted by their predominance on clay where the 1st serve is likely to do the least damage.
2) For most of the '90s GS editions the ATP counted aces (and double faults) twice, which significantly distorts Agassi's and other non-dirtballer's career % of 1st-serve points won.

Now let's compare Agassi with two non-CC specialists who are widely (and justly) celebrated for their 1st-serve return. Per the ATP Dre won 31.5% of his 1SPs, vs. Fed's 32.6% and Hewitt's 32.1%. Not much of a difference to begin with, and if you remove Dre's double-counted aces from his Slam matches his adjusted % likely matches if not exceeds Rusty's and possibly Fed's. But how can this be? We all "know" the quicker-footed Hewitt handled big 1st serves so much better than Agassi! Just look at their matches vs. Sampras! Never mind Pete was gassed in the '01 USO final and couldn't give a fig about non-majors at that point in his career, or that he was extra motivated to bring his best against his main longtime rival. The numbers "prove" it, amirite?

Of course here's where they point to a fellow '90s stalwart in Chang who boasted superior #s (32.3%, FYI) despite the same caveats/distortions, or to Djokovic and Murray who likely can claim the same even after the necessary adjustments for Dre. But this is where we need to distinguish between return and return game. You'd be hard-pressed to find many contemporaries of Agassi's and Chang's who feared the latter's return in itself more than the former's, and while I do think Andy handles big 1st serves better than Dre (or Novak for that matter) if purely by virtue of getting more balls back I say Dre inflicts even more damage on the balls he does get his racquet on, hence his superior % of 2nd-serve points won (yes I understand this is also distorted by said double-counting of double faults).

And let's remember we're talking about the very greatest returners in history (yes including Chang), and among this group who's "better" depends as much on matchups and types of play or surface as on the player's actual returning prowess. If you say Agassi wasn't as great as some of these ATG returners on 1st serves you won't get much argument from me, but spare me the nonsense about his return being not so effective against big 1st serves. If the Agassi return is an "overrated" shot, so is just about every other shot not considered the absolute best in its class.
Didn't have time to delve more into the numbers earlier so let's now peruse the % of 1st-serve points won by surface. Here are Agassi's (distorted) %s followed by his all-time ranks since 1991:

Clay - 35.8%, 24th
Grass - 27.7%, 57th
Hard - 31.5%, 31st

So he is ranked no lower than 57th on any surface, in fact his highest place coming on clay (go figure). That is incontrovertible proof that his 91st all-surface ranking is a mirage and that most of his "superiors" do owe their higher rankings in large part to their predominance on clay where they didn't even best him in this stat but also where they played more often leading to its disproportionate impact on the all-time rankings. And let's not forget, this is before we correct for the double counting of aces and double faults in most of the GS rounds in the '90s.

Now let's look at the %s for some of the other outstanding returners of the past three decades:

Chang
Clay - 35.6%, 29th
Grass - 28.4%, 34th
Hard - 32.7%, 10th

Davydenko
Clay - 36.3%, 20th
Grass - 27.2%, 76th
Hard - 31.7%, 26th

Djokovic
Clay - 36.3%, 16th
Grass - 31.0%, 3rd
Hard - 33.2%, 6th

Edberg (a criminally underappreciated returner)
Clay - 37.0%, 9th
Grass - 30.0% 9th
Hard - 33.6%, 2nd

Federer
Clay - 35.0%, 52nd
Grass - 30.8%, 6th
Hard - 32.5%, 13th

Ferrer
Clay - 36.4%, 14th
Grass - 28.7%, 26th
Hard - 32.1%, 20th

Henman (another overlooked all-court threat)
Clay - 35.4%, 42nd
Grass - 29.8%, 15th
Hard - 32.0%, 22nd

Hewitt
Clay - 35.9%, 22nd
Grass - 30.8%, 5th
Hard - 31.6%, 29th

Korda (who returned the Sampras serve as well as anybody)
Clay - 35.5%, 35th
Grass - 27.4%, 68th
Hard - 32.2%, 19th

Murray
Clay - 36.3%, 19th
Grass - 30.3%, 8th
Hard - 33.5%, 3rd

Nadal (not really known for his return per se but again included for completeness' sake)
Clay - 39.9%, 1st (big surprise, eh?)
Grass - 27.7%, 59th
Hard - 31.6%, 30th

Nalbandian
Clay - 35.7%, 25th
Grass - 30.0%, 10th
Hard - 30.4%, 64th

# of the 12 players who exceed Agassi's % of 1st-serve points won by more than 1 percentage point (before correcting for the double counting)
Clay - 2
Grass - 7
Hard - 4

As you can see many of these elite returners don't pass Agassi or do so just barely in this stat on any surface except grass, and while you might jump on that as an illustration of Agassi's supposedly biggest weakness the high # of aces that passed him by on this fastest of surfaces is in fact a point in his favor... because grass is where players hit the most aces and they play at most two events for the whole grass-court season!

So what's Agassi's actual % of career 1st-serve points won on grass? Well guess what, I've actually done the yeoman's work of removing all the duplicate aces and DFs from the ATP's stats for Dre. (Yes, really. You're welcome.) And the revised totals amount to 1315 out of 4276, or 30.8% for his career*. That's the same % as Fed's and Hewitt's and superior to Murray's. In fact among the above dozen only Novak's 31.0% is higher by all of 0.2%. This is the same Agassi who supposedly "struggled" against big serves on the old unpredictable, low-skidding grass. Pretty much any player would give his left arm to have an "overrated" return like that.

If anything, and contrary to common wisdom, it's actually in 2nd-serve points won where Agassi falls short of some of these ATG returners. After the corrections I've got 1488/2841 or 52.4% on grass for Dre, higher than Fed's (51.1%) and Davy's (48.3%) but lower than everyone else's (of course the likes of Chang, Edberg, Henman and Korda would also see a decrease in their %s after being subjected to the same revision process). Now does that mean his 2nd-serve return is inferior by that margin? No! Back in the '90s almost every non-dirtballer but him S&Ved even on 2nd serves, and then as now it's practically impossible to pass your net-rushing opponent more than half the time day after day. Put these guys on the same old courts against the likes of Sampras, Ivanisevic, Krajicek, Philippoussis and Martin and you'll almost certainly see their numbers drop accordingly.

And get this: '95 Dre averaged 35% and 62% in 1st- and 2nd-serve points won. Out of these GROAT candidates '02 Hewitt is the only one who achieved the 35%-60% milestone, and even he won "only" 60% of 2nd-serve points. This even though he faced no server of Becker's or Wheaton's caliber, and despite those caveats I added earlier. Which is hardly surprising to anyone who has witnessed this very Agassi making a mockery out of the field that year (at least before the momentous USO final) or, as @zagor once put it, made his opponents look like WTA players. And which is also why I'm among the handful of fans who insist that while Connors, Djokovic and several others might boast a longer sustained excellence 1995 Agassi might well have been the best returner of 'em all.

You may disagree, of course, but one thing is clear: the currently fashionable canard about Agassi being not that great against big servers does not pass scrutiny. Giving up more aces isn't necessarily a bad thing if you end up winning as many if not more points, and these revised numbers show exactly that.

*Granted these numbers aren't 100% accurate. The ATP no doubt screwed up some of their stats even before the double counting,, there must have been at least some 2nd-serve aces along the way, and Dre's stats from his 2nd-rounder vs. Pereira at '94 Wimby are missing, but I've double-checked their stats for at least half a dozen notable matches against ours or official box scores to eliminate as many of these discrepancies as possible.

A couple more observations:

- I knew Edberg was up there but Holy Batman!!! And the bulk of those numbers come from after his peak! How in the hell is he excluded from almost all GROAT discussions?
- Chang is another underappreciated returner, one who fully merited Sampras' shout-out at the end of his book along with Dre and Rusty.
- Fed wasn't wrong to tout Ferru as the best returner on tour, but only before Novak and Ahn-dee came into their own.
- Rafa doesn't quite belong in the top tier of ATG returners, but for someone who gets such grief for standing so far back he's done pretty well for himself.
 

KG1965

Legend
Didn't have time to delve more into the numbers earlier so let's now peruse the % of 1st-serve points won by surface. Here are Agassi's (distorted) %s followed by his all-time ranks since 1991:

Clay - 35.8%, 24th
Grass - 27.7%, 57th
Hard - 31.5%, 31st

So he is ranked no lower than 57th on any surface, in fact his highest place coming on clay (go figure). That is incontrovertible proof that his 91st all-surface ranking is a mirage and that most of his "superiors" do owe their higher rankings in large part to their predominance on clay where they didn't even best him in this stat but also where they played more often leading to its disproportionate impact on the all-time rankings. And let's not forget, this is before we correct for the double counting of aces and double faults in most of the GS rounds in the '90s.

Now let's look at the %s for some of the other outstanding returners of the past three decades:

Chang
Clay - 35.6%, 29th
Grass - 28.4%, 34th
Hard - 32.7%, 10th

Davydenko
Clay - 36.3%, 20th
Grass - 27.2%, 76th
Hard - 31.7%, 26th

Djokovic
Clay - 36.3%, 16th
Grass - 31.0%, 3rd
Hard - 33.2%, 6th

Edberg (a criminally underappreciated returner)
Clay - 37.0%, 9th
Grass - 30.0% 9th
Hard - 33.6%, 2nd

Federer
Clay - 35.0%, 52nd
Grass - 30.8%, 6th
Hard - 32.5%, 13th

Ferrer
Clay - 36.4%, 14th
Grass - 28.7%, 26th
Hard - 32.1%, 20th

Henman (another overlooked all-court threat)
Clay - 35.4%, 42nd
Grass - 29.8%, 15th
Hard - 32.0%, 22nd

Hewitt
Clay - 35.9%, 22nd
Grass - 30.8%, 5th
Hard - 31.6%, 29th

Korda (who returned the Sampras serve as well as anybody)
Clay - 35.5%, 35th
Grass - 27.4%, 68th
Hard - 32.2%, 19th

Murray
Clay - 36.3%, 19th
Grass - 30.3%, 8th
Hard - 33.5%, 3rd

Nadal (not really known for his return per se but again included for completeness' sake)
Clay - 39.9%, 1st (big surprise, eh?)
Grass - 27.7%, 59th
Hard - 31.6%, 30th

Nalbandian
Clay - 35.7%, 25th
Grass - 30.0%, 10th
Hard - 30.4%, 64th

# of the 12 players who exceed Agassi's % of 1st-serve points won by more than 1 percentage point (before correcting for the double counting)
Clay - 2
Grass - 7
Hard - 4

As you can see many of these elite returners don't pass Agassi or do so just barely in this stat on any surface except grass, and while you might jump on that as an illustration of Agassi's supposedly biggest weakness the high # of aces that passed him by on this fastest of surfaces is in fact a point in his favor... because grass is where players hit the most aces and they play at most two events for the whole grass-court season!

So what's Agassi's actual % of career 1st-serve points won on grass? Well guess what, I've actually done the yeoman's work of removing all the duplicate aces and DFs from the ATP's stats for Dre. (Yes, really. You're welcome.) And the revised totals amount to 1315 out of 4276, or 30.8% for his career*. That's the same % as Fed's and Hewitt's and superior to Murray's. In fact among the above dozen only Novak's 31.0% is higher by all of 0.2%. This is the same Agassi who supposedly "struggled" against big serves on the old unpredictable, low-skidding grass. Pretty much any player would give his left arm to have an "overrated" return like that.

If anything, and contrary to common wisdom, it's actually in 2nd-serve points won where Agassi falls short of some of these ATG returners. After the corrections I've got 1488/2841 or 52.4% on grass for Dre, higher than Fed's (51.1%) and Davy's (48.3%) but lower than everyone else's (of course the likes of Chang, Edberg, Henman and Korda would also see a decrease in their %s after being subjected to the same revision process). Now does that mean his 2nd-serve return is inferior by that margin? No! Back in the '90s almost every non-dirtballer but him S&Ved even on 2nd serves, and then as now it's practically impossible to pass your net-rushing opponent more than half the time day after day. Put these guys on the same old courts against the likes of Sampras, Ivanisevic, Krajicek, Philippoussis and Martin and you'll almost certainly see their numbers drop accordingly.

And get this: '95 Dre averaged 35% and 62% in 1st- and 2nd-serve points won. Out of these GROAT candidates '02 Hewitt is the only one who achieved the 35%-60% milestone, and even he won "only" 60% of 2nd-serve points. This even though he faced no server of Becker's or Wheaton's caliber, and despite those caveats I added earlier. Which is hardly surprising to anyone who has witnessed this very Agassi making a mockery out of the field that year (at least before the momentous USO final) or, as @zagor once put it, made his opponents look like WTA players. And which is also why I'm among the handful of fans who insist that while Connors, Djokovic and several others might boast a longer sustained excellence 1995 Agassi might well have been the best returner of 'em all.

You may disagree, of course, but one thing is clear: the currently fashionable canard about Agassi being not that great against big servers does not pass scrutiny. Giving up more aces isn't necessarily a bad thing if you end up winning as many if not more points, and these revised numbers show exactly that.

*Granted these numbers aren't 100% accurate. The ATP no doubt screwed up some of their stats even before the double counting,, there must have been at least some 2nd-serve aces along the way, and Dre's stats from his 2nd-rounder vs. Pereira at '94 Wimby are missing, but I've double-checked their stats for at least half a dozen notable matches against ours or official box scores to eliminate as many of these discrepancies as possible.

A couple more observations:

- I knew Edberg was up there but Holy Batman!!! And the bulk of those numbers come from after his peak! How in the hell is he excluded from almost all GROAT discussions?
- Chang is another underappreciated returner, one who fully merited Sampras' shout-out at the end of his book along with Dre and Rusty.
- Fed wasn't wrong to tout Ferru as the best returner on tour, but only before Novak and Ahn-dee came into their own.
- Rafa doesn't quite belong in the top tier of ATG returners, but for someone who gets such grief for standing so far back he's done pretty well for himself.
I really like this job.
Even the observations.
There are many interesting points.
 

Dolgopolov85

G.O.A.T.
sampras' serve had no "tells". pete could hit it out wide or go down the t off the same toss.
agassi gambled when returning serve. he wasn't trying to block it back and start the point. he was looking to either win the point outright or take control of the point. aa would guess a bit from time to time and that lead to him getting aced.
The greatest shot in the game. A simple and beautiful serve that produced venom every time. I would really like Sampras detractors to explain how else they would like his serve mechanics to be if they think it is 'overrated'.
 

Gary Duane

G.O.A.T.
Cutting to the chase:

But this is where we need to distinguish between return and return game.
Let's go there first:


This is probably pretty close to correct. #7 and so close to Murray that it's really a tie. But that's with clay factored in, which gives the dirtballers a stats advantage because they play so much on clay.

#3 ain't bad on HC


You have to start there because that's probably the most solid data, and you can guesstimate how players of the past compare by looking at total game % and then figuring it out. For instance, old Connors, obviously hugely declined, is still #9 on the HC list. That's only about a point down from Edberg, so we can pretty well figure out what Jimmy could do at his peak. Andre is only down about 2%, and with his 2nd serve return it's pretty obvious why he was probably the most feared player returning on HC.
If the Agassi return is an "overrated" shot, so is just about every other shot not considered the absolute best in its class.
Yup. But one other point: I keep hearing his movement was never great. If anything - if you consider this to be accurate - you have to think about how much court position trumps so-called superior movement.
 

tonylg

Legend
1. Courts and balls weren't as slow as they are now
2. Sampras serve was amazing and impossible to pick
3. Sampras net game meant chip returns were dealt with harshly
4. Agassi didn't have the luxury of poly to make him look good

The combination of those things made it tough, but Agassi still did incredibly well against the Sampras serve.
 

ChrisG

Professional
I also believe that a lot of the great return players shown in your stats are people happy to send the ball back. Andre, and more so against Pete, was willing to hit winners from his returns. That’s changes everything. Sampras was intimidating his opponents with his serves, Agassi, with his returns.
In others words Agassi was taking more risks than any other player on this particular shot.
I’m pretty sure that you can find an obscure Spanish clay courter with a better serve % than Ivanisevic from the same era.
Stats are so not enough to explain our beautiful game, it amaze me every time.
Not saying they are useless, but in a game where INTENTION is so important, i’ll never let stats have the final word
 

KG1965

Legend
Didn't have time to delve more into the numbers earlier so let's now peruse the % of 1st-serve points won by surface. Here are Agassi's (distorted) %s followed by his all-time ranks since 1991:

Clay - 35.8%, 24th
Grass - 27.7%, 57th
Hard - 31.5%, 31st

So he is ranked no lower than 57th on any surface, in fact his highest place coming on clay (go figure). That is incontrovertible proof that his 91st all-surface ranking is a mirage and that most of his "superiors" do owe their higher rankings in large part to their predominance on clay where they didn't even best him in this stat but also where they played more often leading to its disproportionate impact on the all-time rankings. And let's not forget, this is before we correct for the double counting of aces and double faults in most of the GS rounds in the '90s.

Now let's look at the %s for some of the other outstanding returners of the past three decades:

Chang
Clay - 35.6%, 29th
Grass - 28.4%, 34th
Hard - 32.7%, 10th

Davydenko
Clay - 36.3%, 20th
Grass - 27.2%, 76th
Hard - 31.7%, 26th

Djokovic
Clay - 36.3%, 16th
Grass - 31.0%, 3rd
Hard - 33.2%, 6th

Edberg (a criminally underappreciated returner)
Clay - 37.0%, 9th
Grass - 30.0% 9th
Hard - 33.6%, 2nd

Federer
Clay - 35.0%, 52nd
Grass - 30.8%, 6th
Hard - 32.5%, 13th

Ferrer
Clay - 36.4%, 14th
Grass - 28.7%, 26th
Hard - 32.1%, 20th

Henman (another overlooked all-court threat)
Clay - 35.4%, 42nd
Grass - 29.8%, 15th
Hard - 32.0%, 22nd

Hewitt
Clay - 35.9%, 22nd
Grass - 30.8%, 5th
Hard - 31.6%, 29th

Korda (who returned the Sampras serve as well as anybody)
Clay - 35.5%, 35th
Grass - 27.4%, 68th
Hard - 32.2%, 19th

Murray
Clay - 36.3%, 19th
Grass - 30.3%, 8th
Hard - 33.5%, 3rd

Nadal (not really known for his return per se but again included for completeness' sake)
Clay - 39.9%, 1st (big surprise, eh?)
Grass - 27.7%, 59th
Hard - 31.6%, 30th

Nalbandian
Clay - 35.7%, 25th
Grass - 30.0%, 10th
Hard - 30.4%, 64th

# of the 12 players who exceed Agassi's % of 1st-serve points won by more than 1 percentage point (before correcting for the double counting)
Clay - 2
Grass - 7
Hard - 4

As you can see many of these elite returners don't pass Agassi or do so just barely in this stat on any surface except grass, and while you might jump on that as an illustration of Agassi's supposedly biggest weakness the high # of aces that passed him by on this fastest of surfaces is in fact a point in his favor... because grass is where players hit the most aces and they play at most two events for the whole grass-court season!

So what's Agassi's actual % of career 1st-serve points won on grass? Well guess what, I've actually done the yeoman's work of removing all the duplicate aces and DFs from the ATP's stats for Dre. (Yes, really. You're welcome.) And the revised totals amount to 1315 out of 4276, or 30.8% for his career*. That's the same % as Fed's and Hewitt's and superior to Murray's. In fact among the above dozen only Novak's 31.0% is higher by all of 0.2%. This is the same Agassi who supposedly "struggled" against big serves on the old unpredictable, low-skidding grass. Pretty much any player would give his left arm to have an "overrated" return like that.

If anything, and contrary to common wisdom, it's actually in 2nd-serve points won where Agassi falls short of some of these ATG returners. After the corrections I've got 1488/2841 or 52.4% on grass for Dre, higher than Fed's (51.1%) and Davy's (48.3%) but lower than everyone else's (of course the likes of Chang, Edberg, Henman and Korda would also see a decrease in their %s after being subjected to the same revision process). Now does that mean his 2nd-serve return is inferior by that margin? No! Back in the '90s almost every non-dirtballer but him S&Ved even on 2nd serves, and then as now it's practically impossible to pass your net-rushing opponent more than half the time day after day. Put these guys on the same old courts against the likes of Sampras, Ivanisevic, Krajicek, Philippoussis and Martin and you'll almost certainly see their numbers drop accordingly.

And get this: '95 Dre averaged 35% and 62% in 1st- and 2nd-serve points won. Out of these GROAT candidates '02 Hewitt is the only one who achieved the 35%-60% milestone, and even he won "only" 60% of 2nd-serve points. This even though he faced no server of Becker's or Wheaton's caliber, and despite those caveats I added earlier. Which is hardly surprising to anyone who has witnessed this very Agassi making a mockery out of the field that year (at least before the momentous USO final) or, as @zagor once put it, made his opponents look like WTA players. And which is also why I'm among the handful of fans who insist that while Connors, Djokovic and several others might boast a longer sustained excellence 1995 Agassi might well have been the best returner of 'em all.

You may disagree, of course, but one thing is clear: the currently fashionable canard about Agassi being not that great against big servers does not pass scrutiny. Giving up more aces isn't necessarily a bad thing if you end up winning as many if not more points, and these revised numbers show exactly that.

*Granted these numbers aren't 100% accurate. The ATP no doubt screwed up some of their stats even before the double counting,, there must have been at least some 2nd-serve aces along the way, and Dre's stats from his 2nd-rounder vs. Pereira at '94 Wimby are missing, but I've double-checked their stats for at least half a dozen notable matches against ours or official box scores to eliminate as many of these discrepancies as possible.

A couple more observations:

- I knew Edberg was up there but Holy Batman!!! And the bulk of those numbers come from after his peak! How in the hell is he excluded from almost all GROAT discussions?
- Chang is another underappreciated returner, one who fully merited Sampras' shout-out at the end of his book along with Dre and Rusty.
- Fed wasn't wrong to tout Ferru as the best returner on tour, but only before Novak and Ahn-dee came into their own.
- Rafa doesn't quite belong in the top tier of ATG returners, but for someone who gets such grief for standing so far back he's done pretty well for himself.
I looked at the statistics published on the ATP site and IMHO there are some reflections:
1) pre Open Era data will be impossible to recover and those up to 1989 are almost impossible to find;
2) we can see the data of some players who played in the early 1990s but now old (like Connors, McEnroe and Lendl .. who still have fairly good data);
3) the total data since 1990 are misleading because they add up the data on clay, on clay the serve is scarcely effective, it is almost as effective as a shot from the baseline, therefore the return is in practice a first shot of a series of changes is not to be understood as a real "apart" shot. Forced errors are very few;
4) the figure on grass is not very indicative as in substance it concerns only three tournaments each year (Queen's, Halle and Wimbledon);
5) the only significant data, indeed at this point very significant, decisive is that on HC.
In fact, the names that come out are those of the real return-men: Hewitt, Ferrer, Djokovic, Murray, Agassi, Chang ...
Huge figure for Edberg difficult to explain. I remember that he had a big bh but a little bit fh. Probably in the return phase the guy in addition to having a great positioning ability, also had a great capacity ahead of the fh.

Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Ferrer and Nadal are positioned very well and this explains a lot of their results.
Their opponents are behind in this shot and perhaps with a retrun they would have reduced their gap a bit.

It seems to me that besides Edberg the biggest surprises are the striking numbers of the olds Mac and Jimbo, Krickstein, Korda and Davydenko, Gilbert, Bjorkman, Rios.

Less well but still good Kafelnikov, Arias and Washington.

A little disappointing Jim Courier and Wilander, I thought better.

Bad... Sampras, Stich and Becker.

Disastrous Cilic, Wawrinka, Zverev, Rafter.
 
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bluetrain4

G.O.A.T.
I looked at the statistics published on the ATP site and IMHO there are some reflections:
1) pre Era Open data will be impossible to recover and those up to 1989 are almost impossible to find;
2) we can see the data of some players who played in the early 1990s but now old (like Connors, McEnroe and Lendl who still have fairly good data);
3) the total data since 1990 are misleading because they add up the data on clay, on clay the serve is scarcely effective, it is almost as effective as a shot from the baseline, therefore the return is in practice a first shot of a series of changes is not to be understood as a real "apart" shot. Forced errors are very few;
4) the figure on grass is not very indicative as in substance it concerns only three tournaments each year (Queen's, Halle and Wimbledon);
5) the only significant data, indeed at this point very significant, decisive is that on HC.
In fact, the names that come out are those of the real return-men: Hewitt, Ferrer, Djokovic, Murray, Agassi, Chang ...
Huge figure for Edberg difficult to explain. I remember that he had a big bh but a little bit fh. Probably in the return phase the guy in addition to having a great positioning ability, also had a great capacity ahead of the fh.

Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Ferrer and Nadal are positioned very well and this explains a lot of their results.
Their opponents are behind in this shot and perhaps with a retrun they would have reduced their gap a bit.

It seems to me that besides Edberg the biggest surprises are the striking numbers of the old Mac and Jimbo.
Krickstein, Korda and Davydenko, Gilbert, Bjorkman, Rios.

Less well but still good Kafelnikov, Arias and Washington.

A little disappointing Jim Courier and Wilander, I thought better.

Bad... Sampras, Stich and Becker.

Disastrous Cilic and Wawrinka, Zverev, Rafter.
Edberg was a great athlete with fast feet and great at setting himself. Plus good anticipation and fast hands, aided no doubt by his constant net play. He had very good chips/blocks off both sides - low and directed well. His drive returns were also very good - people make fun of his janky forehand, but he was comfortable with it and knew its limitations. In the context of his game, it really wasn't that bad of a shot. He was always moving into the return, hitting it out front
 
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KG1965

Legend
Chang is impressive because he has numbers that come close to leaders like Djokovic and Murray.
Ferrer, equally huge in performance, close to Chang.
Federer and Nadal are also good, though Rafa mostly on clay.
Agassi has a very important career total and having had a very discontinuous career suggests that in some years his data have been at the top.

So the most competitive players from these data seem to be:

1) in the period prior to the mid 80s: there is not enough data to approach a data-based discourse.
We can imagine that Connors was at the top and that Rosewall, Laver, Borg and others were also at the top but there could have been great returners (very often not equipped with a great serve) who added to the list as Dibbs, Ramirez, Gerulaitis Orantes , Fibak, Mecir, Vilas and Solomon but we have no data so we have to rely only on our perception based on the rare matches that we have been able to observe.
Jimbo would appear to be of another category, Tier 1
Borg et al. (Who?) In Tier 2 or 3.
But without certain data it is a gamble.

2) in the period following approximately the mid 80s - 2000:
Krickstein, Korda, Chang, Gilbert, Rios, Bjorkman, Agassi, Kafelnikov
Arias, old Connors, Lendl, McEnroe despite over the hill, Edberg, Washington.
Agassi, Chang and Edberg in Tier 1 certainly.

3) 2001-2020:
Tier 1: Murray and Djokovic
Tier 2: Davydenko, Federer, Ferrer,
Tier 3: Nalbaldian and Nadal?

I ask you for an opinion, thank you.

Pending your contributions, the groupings are temporarily these:
Tier 1: Connors, Chang, Agassi, Edberg, Djokovic, Murray
Tier 2 or 3: Borg, Davydenko, Federer, McEnroe, Ferrer, Rosewall, Laver, Dibbs, Ramirez, Gerulaitis Orantes, Fibak, Mecir, Vilas, Solomon, Krickstein, Korda, Gilbert, Rios, Bjorkman, Kafelnikov, Arias, Lendl, Washington, Nalbaldian and Nadal
 
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NonP

Hall of Fame
Will try to get to the replies later, but with @helterskelter's permission here's his roundup (from a group chat) of why Edberg was such a good (and underappreciated) returner:

1. He probably had the best compact backhand in the game at the time. As a rallying shot, Lendl and Becker could sometimes generate significantly more power than he could, but that would be less helpful on return because it required longer swings that they wouldn't have time for. So, Edberg's ability to get decent power on a blocked return, allied to his quick reflexes (otherwise most prominent at the net), helped him a lot here.
2. Similarly, Edberg's forehand, fugly though it was, and ineffective as a rallying shot, was not all that bad as a return because of its compactness. Edberg could use the power of the server against them.
3. Importantly, on second-service return, Edberg was by far the best player in the recent game at chip and charge. Perhaps McEnroe was equally good here. Certainly nobody since Edberg has been remotely as good. I want to note in particular how Edberg used this tactic at the Australian Open 1993, when he injured his back in round 3 against Amos Mansdorf, and so had to play with a back brace that significantly impaired his lateral movement. This made it incumbent on him to keep rallies short, so he focused a lot on chip and charge. In the final against Courier, who was on outstanding form, Edberg was initially overwhelmed, but once Courier's first serve percentage dipped a bit in set 3, he was able to use chip and charge to very nearly turn the match around, getting to within a game of taking the match to a fifth set. For chip and charge, Edberg's sliced backhand return was especially important, but he could also sometimes do a sliced forehand return.
4. Thus, as a result, Edberg's success on return is partly linked to his domination of the net, counter-intuitive than it might seem. After McEnroe's loss of form (and Cash's injuries), Edberg was just much better at the net than any other player on tour, including Becker and, later, Sampras and Rafter. Stich had his moments, but not as consistently.
5. Edberg was an extremely good mover, and allied this to possession of good passing shots. This made him effective at returning the serve of big servers who crowded the net.
6. While Edberg was generally less effective at the baseline, he was pretty patient in rallies, and his sliced backhand could buy him time.

The thing that ruined Edberg's career from early 1993 onwards was more lost timing on serve than return of serve. His service motion also contributed to increasing injury-proneness, as it puts so much pressure on his back and stomach muscles, hence his frequent lost opportunities in Australia, where the heat and hard surface combined to exacerbate these tendencies. He was in with a decent shot in 1989 but for injury, would most likely have won in 1990 but for injury, and was hampered by injury in 1993, too.
I'd love to see Stefan's pre-'91 stats (see above for the rest of his #s) if anyone has 'em. No doubt his younger self gives Jimbo, Dre, Nole and Muzz a run for their $$$.
 

Heuristic

Hall of Fame
Did he just not have enough range to cover the swinging Pistol serves?
That, and his tendency to slice the BH return when stretched to the sides which often putted or even failed to get the ball over the net. He just wasn't that great returning big serves.
 

mental midget

Hall of Fame
too lazy to read throug
Edberg was a great athlete with fast feet and great at setting himself. Plus good anticipation and fast hands, aided no doubt by his constant net play. He had very good chips/blocks off both sides - low and directed well. His drive returns were also very good - people make fun of his janky forehand, but he was comfortable with it and knew its limitations. In the context of his game, it really wasn't that bad of a shot. He was always moving into the return, hitting it out front
yep. just a great athlete with incredible balance and reaction times. the forehand was less of a liability than is often said, but i always thought if he had learned a more 'contemporary' stroke mechanic on that side, and flattened out that serve a bit (basically been trained as a more all-court player) he'd have had even greater success. you could take a cast of that guy anywhere on the court at any time, make a statue out of it, and it would stand on its own.
 

BorgTheGOAT

Hall of Fame
Agassi exaggerated and the "news" media did their job in quoting that as fact. I was there to see many of Becker/Agassi matches where Becker's serve was not only unreturnable, but could not be read. This tounge business is largely myth.
As most other things which he wrote in his book. His description of the hand shake with Becker after their US Open 95 match (which can easily be rewatched in YouTube to see whether how far away his description was from the truth), his crap about being 100% certain ahead of the 90 US Open final that he would destroy this poor mug Pete based on the fact that he had beaten him 6-2,6-1 in their first pro meeting in Rome 89 (apart from the fact that Sampras reaching a slam final should have been enough to not underestimate him, Agassi also writes that he had actually watched Sampras destroying McEnroe in their semi on TV and also coveniently leaves out that after their first ever match in Rome they had another meeting prior to the US Open 90 which Pete actually won), but worst of all his whining about Tarango cheating in their junior match trying to make us believe that there were no umpires, the children could basically say out to each ball of their opponent and there was no chance to protest or overrule. Agassis book is a good read and well written but shouldn’t be taken seriously.
 
The tongue thing is probably an urban legend but Agassi probably was a guy who tried to read the motion.

Just like in baseball where some hitters are guess hitters and some are reaction hitters. Guess hitters do better against more predictable pitchers.
 

Dolgopolov85

G.O.A.T.
The tongue thing is probably an urban legend but Agassi probably was a guy who tried to read the motion.

Just like in baseball where some hitters are guess hitters and some are reaction hitters. Guess hitters do better against more predictable pitchers.
Hmm I doubt there are many reaction hitters in tennis given how fast the serve is. Even good recs learn to observe the motion and guess. Agassi was just much more accurate at guessing to the point where it sometimes seemed like he was ready even before the ball had left the server's strings. He could take the ball phenomenally early on the return. His returns against Sampras at San Jose 98 were incredible. But, outside AO, he seemed to get bullied a little in big match situations by Sampras who was much tougher mentally. Their last two USO meetings were very close and it was Sampras's clutchness that saw him through.
 

magnut

Hall of Fame
Sampras could back up his serve pretty well too. Andre was not the same player if you could make him move. Pete seemed better on the move than he did if he was more stationary. Thats what the spanish armada did to him. Guys like Corretja, costa etc. would pin him in that backhand courner ala Jim Courier and force Pete to be impatient. Andre would often try to beat pete in a shotmaking match and it would play into Sampras benefit.

sampras was hard to get to... you either had to grind him down somehow (spanish type players) or you had to Rush him (edberg, Rafter, Krajicek). If Sampras was playing fairly well Agassi had no chance most of the time.
 
Sampras matched up very well against Agassi from the baseline, so even on the points where Agassi could neutralise the Sampras serve, he was still slightly behind the eightball. Very hard for Andre to get his teeth into a Sampras service game.

People forget how absurdly good Pete was at standing and banging with Andre without needing to come to net. Part of it was the mental hold he had over Andre but it was also court craft, the pace of shot on the Sampras forehand, and Sampras constantly using the high percentage short angled top spin backhand that pulled Agassi out of court.
 

skaj

Legend
Sampras matched up very well against Agassi from the baseline, so even on the points where Agassi could neutralise the Sampras serve, he was still slightly behind the eightball. Very hard for Andre to get his teeth into a Sampras service game.

People forget how absurdly good Pete was at standing and banging with Andre without needing to come to net. Part of it was the mental hold he had over Andre but it was also court craft, the pace of shot on the Sampras forehand, and Sampras constantly using the high percentage short angled top spin backhand that pulled Agassi out of court.
Also Pete's incredible athleticism, great movement.
 
Also Pete's incredible athleticism, great movement.
Definitely. Phenomenal reaction time and also extraordinary closing speed. He could track down agassi's angles and either hit back through the line of the ball and wrongfoot Andre or change direction of the ball with his abbreviated stroke mechanics. Wonderful stuff.
 
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