© Peter Staples/ATP Tour

Entering the US Open, Roger Federer has won 27 per cent of his career return games.

Federer On The Return Of Serve: 'No Return, No Wins!'

Roger and Rafa explain the importance of the return ahead of the US Open

In tennis, each player’s first shot in the rally is vital. The serve is perhaps flashier, with some players striking the ball as hard as 140 mph, rocketing it past their opponents. But don’t forget about the return. While sometimes there are winners crushed off returns, many times it’s as simple as blocking the ball back into play. However, that can be more important than it looks.

“No return, no wins, I'll tell you that. It's that simple. It's maybe not as important as the serve. I think still bigger serving is a bit more important,” Federer said. “But it is amazing how returning has improved in the past 20 years since I started in the game. There were some shocking return players back in my day when I started. Now you rarely have them. Everyone can make returns at all times.”

Some of the biggest servers in history are active today, with four of the Top 5 players on the Infosys ATP Career Aces leaderboard still competing. The same goes for service games won. But while not as visible to the naked eye as a serve ricocheting off the back wall, the return has proven crucial.

“I don't know if there's really a safe place to go to. When you kick serve to the backhand now, everybody waits for it, can make it, can even be aggressive on it. It's nice to see the improvements,” Federer said. “You have different styles of returns. I use the slice. Me, Rafa, Novak return completely different. It's so interesting.”

Since 2008, the lowest Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal have finished a season in return games won was sixth (Nadal, 2010). Nadal led that category eight times and Djokovic did so twice. But perhaps more impressively, both players were in the Top 3 in the same season eight times, and in all but one of those years (2016), one of the superstars finished with the year-end No. 1 ATP Ranking. The 2016 year-end World No. 1, Andy Murray, was second that season in return games won.

2019 Return Games Won/ATP Ranking

Player   % Return Games Won  ATP Ranking
 1. Rafael Nadal  37.8%  2
 2. Novak Djokovic  32.7%  1
 3. Diego Schwartzman  31.6%  21
 4. Gael Monfils  30.5%  13
 5. David Goffin  29.2%  15
 6. Daniil Medvedev  29.1%  5
 7. Fabio Fognini  28.1%  11
 8. Kei Nishikori  27.5%  7
 9. Roberto Carballes Baena  27.2%  76
 10. Alexander Zverev  26.5%  6

“Rafa is by far the best from returning way back in the court. It's amazing the power he gets from there. Just Novak, how long he is, he's still able to stay aggressive. I use the slice a lot,” Federer said. “The good thing is you can do it in different ways. I think consistency is the key when it comes to returning.”

A player’s Infosys ATP Return Rating is determined by adding their percentage of first-serve return points won, second-serve return points won, return games won and break points converted. And over the past 52 weeks, of the Top 10 players in that category (led by No. 1 Nadal and No. 2 Djokovic), seven of the Top 10 are inside the Top 15 of the ATP Rankings.

As far as servers go, when you look at the Infosys ATP Serve Rating, only four of the Top 10 on that leaderboard are inside the Top 15 of the ATP Rankings, and only one comes from the Top 4 on that list.

Nevertheless, Nadal says both strokes will be crucial at the US Open, the final Grand Slam of the season that starts Monday.

“On hard courts, serve and return are so important. Both shots have a very big impact on the success or not in this sport,” Nadal said. “Honestly, I think having a good return and a good serve gives you a very, very big advantage.”

Longer rallies tend to earn greater reactions from the crowd. But it has been shown that a majority of rallies are less than five shots. And while the serve is perceived as a weapon, so is the return.

“The two first shots of the point are decisive. You play rallies, yes, but every time the game is moving in a more aggressive way,” Nadal said. “You need to start the point the right way. If not, you are in big trouble.”

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