The men’s finals matchup of 25-year-old Marin Cilic and 24-year-old Kei Nishikori seemed as unlikely a pairing as any. No recent showdowns can match the low seedings of Cilic’s 14 to Nishikori’s 10. Going back to 1998, the Open saw unseeded Mark Philippoussis make the finals, losing to third-seed Patrick Rafter. But the year before, Rafter, in the 13-seed, faced off and defeated unseeded Greg Rusedski.
IBM started tracking a new tennis metric via its stadium cameras — the same that track ball speed and faults — at the U.S. Open that could shed light on why this year’s young pros bested the likes of Djokovic, Wawrinka, and Federer: feet per point. The metric, which hasn’t previously been watched at a Grand Slam, tracks the average distance a player travels on the court for each point.
“Right now it can’t point to who will lose,” says Kent, an IBM technology marketing manager. “But down the road we’ll be able to see how far does a player move to strike each ball or how they move within a rally.”
After the quarterfinals, the fifth round of the U.S. Open, the two players with the lowest feet per point were the lanky 6-foot-6 Cilic at 42, and Nishikori, the first Japanese player to make a Grand Slam final, with 52. Federer trailed at 57 feet, with Djokovic close behind at 58. Poor Andy Murray averaged a 70, as did Gael Monfils.
Cilic and Nishikori achieved their low-travel numbers through entirely different styles of play. Both play aggressively, but Nishikori works the baseline, making his opponent run, while the towering Cilic strikes early, for quick, efficient points.
It’s not surprising that Cilic’s fast points kept him in place, says Jose Higueras, a former pro and the Director of Coaching for USTA Player Development. After all, Cilic won his Open title with 17 aces against Nishikori in the final and finished the tournament with the second most overall, at 98.
For a player like Nishikori, however, the low feet per point speaks to his ability to control the court, says Higueras. “He makes his opponent change direction more, and has a good idea of where the ball will come.”
The women’s final bore a similar result. Serena Williams blasted Caroline Wozniacki in three sets, while averaging 43 feet per point over the course of the tournament. Wozniacki, who made the finals through considerably longer matches, registered a 73.
Total mileage bore a less direct connection with player success. Cilic’s Round 2 travel is unavailable, because he played the match on an outer court without the tracking technology. But looking back at the larger data pool from the quarters, Andy Murray ran farthest, with 8.3 miles over five rounds, while Tomas Berdych, who also failed to advance, had the lowest with 5.5 if you exclude Cilic’s incomplete total. Williams’s dominating U.S. Open campaign, however, totaled a mere 3.6 miles — even considering women play best of three, unlike the men’s best of five — while Wozniacki ran 6.8, a little more than a quarter of a marathon.
Will players now work to lower their feet per point? Higueras is quick to maintain that tennis is a game of movement, not standing around. What this new metric may point to, though, is which players best control the game and which are left chasing the ball. The 2014 U.S. Open was the first tournament to track feet per point, but both singles champions ruled the stat.
“The way the game is played today is very physical,” says Higueras. “You have to move with your opponents, and once you fall behind, you’re in trouble.”