James Duckworth has been among the most pleasant surprises of the first week of the Australian Open. The 20-year-old from Sydney has played two of the most competitive matches so far. In his first round, he defeated Ben Mitchell 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 5-7, 8-6, before losing to Blaz Kavcic 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 8-10 in a marathon that lasted nearly five hours.
In his match against Kavcic he developed cramps so severe that he was basically incapable of sitting down during changeovers. Every time he walked to the baseline to prepare to serve or return, one of his legs splayed and twitched awkwardly, making Duckworth resemble a member of the Ministry of Silly Walks from the classic Monty Python sketch. Despite his injury he managed to save six match points. Unfortunately, his nine hours and 18 minutes on court caught up with him. He wilted in the searing 40 degree summer heat, losing 8-10 in the fifth set.
Duckworth was able to use his powerful serve to stay in both matches, hitting 53 aces, good for second in the overall ace count, and topping out at 225KMH, also second best in the tournament. What makes him interesting in the modern game is his willingness to go to the net. During his brief run at the Australian Open, he went to the net 147 times, which averages out to just under 15 times a set. Players this year are averaging about 7-8 net approaches per set in comparison. Duckworth had fairly good results in his net approaches as well, winning 92 of his attempts for a 62.5% success rate. A net points won rate above 60% is very good, which definitely makes it a weapon in Duckworth’s arsenal, largely due to his massive serve. And in a sport where matches can often be decided by only a few points, his serve and volley advantage is a notable weapon.
Outside of the serve and volley game, Duckworth has several weaknesses. For all of the power in his first serve, his second is not as consistent as it needs to be to elevate his game to the next level. He won only 44% of second serve points through his two matches while his opponents won 47% and 54% respectively. Over a full season the game’s elite players, like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal all win north of 56% on their second serves. Considering just how good his first serve is, it is rather surprising that he is unable to win more points with his second.
Likewise, Duckworth has a long way to go to improve his return game. He won only 36% of return points over his two matches. This is where the game’s best players differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. Almost anyone can serve big in the modern game thanks to racquet technology and an emphasis on physical fitness. But, the best players are the ones who can return serves effectively. The best returners win more than 30% of their opponent’s service games. The top 10 is full of the game’s best returners such as Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal. Players like Nikolay Davydenko and David Nalbandian were likewise perennial Top 10 fixtures and Lleyton Hewitt reached no. 1 without particularly big serves. If Duckworth wants to truly raise his level, he will need to seriously improve on his return game. During his two matches he managed only 9 breaks of serve in 58 return games for a measly 15.5%.
For a 20 year old player, James Duckworth did a great job representing himself. He played in two of the more exciting matches of the first two rounds and did his best to battle through exhaustion and obvious pain. As a player, he has considerable strengths, especially in terms of his offensive weapons. However he will need to improve many aspects of his game to start raising his rankings from 223 in the world. But he has years to do it. The James Duckworth of 2013 will almost certainly not be the Duckworth of 2014, and that’s a good thing, because his strengths are evident, the big serve, the effective net game and the tenacity to stay in matches. It is merely a matter of how well he can improve on his weaknesses.