Why Federer Changes His Return Strategy vs. Nadal & Other Lefties

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers investigates where players deliver their second-serve returns

How much do top-tier players adjust their strategies against left-handed opponents?

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of the current Top 10 focuses on return direction back to the opponent’s Serve +1 forehand or backhand, which naturally change sides of the court against a left-handed or right-handed server.

The results are compelling and highlight which side of the equation each player is on when it comes to answering the following question: Is it more important to hit the ball where you want to hit it, or more important to hit it where your opponent does not want it?

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The data set comes from ATP Masters 1000s and Nitto ATP Finals from 2011-2018, and is specific to the following two criteria:

  • Returning a second serve.

  • The second serve is directed wide in the Ad court.

These two criteria were chosen as the returner has more control of his return direction versus a second serve, and if the serve is wide in the Ad court, both cross and down the line are viable options.

Return Direction vs. Right-Handed Server
As expected, every player in the Top 10 primarily directed the wide second serve return back crosscourt to the right-hander’s Serve +1 backhand.

Juan Martin del Potro stuck to this strategy the most, directing 91 per cent of his Ad court wide returns crosscourt. Both John Isner and Kei Nishikori mixed the most, with 64 per cent crosscourt and 36 per cent down the line to the Serve +1 forehand.

Current Top 10: Returning Direction vs. Right-Handed Server

Position

Player

Return cross to Ad Court (to the righty backhand)

Return line to the Deuce Court (to the righty forehand)

1

J.M. Del Potro

91%

9%

2

M. Cilic

87%

13%

3

A. Zverev

84%

16%

4

N. Djokovic

84%

16%

5

R. Nadal

84%

16%

6

K. Anderson

80%

20%

7

R. Federer

78%

22%

8

D. Thiem

72%

28%

9

K. Nishikori

64%

36%

10

J. Isner

64%

36%

-

AVERAGE

79%

21%

Return Direction vs. Left-Handed Server
This is where gamestyle, opponent awareness, specific strategies and prowess with the backhand return all come into play.

Four of the Top 10 players in the ATP Rankings changed the primary return direction down the line to stick with the common strategy of making the server have to hit a Serve +1 backhand. Roger Federer hit the most down the line (71%), followed by Rafael Nadal (59%), Isner (56%) and Novak Djokovic (55%). Kevin Anderson was equal with a 50-50 ratio.

Current Top 10: Returning Direction vs Left-Handed Server

Position

Player

Return cross to Ad Ct (to the lefty forehand)

Return line to the Deuce Ct (to the lefty backhand)

1

R. Federer

29%

71%

2

R. Nadal

42%

59%

3

J. Isner

44%

56%

4

N. Djokovic

45%

55%

5

K. Anderson

50%

50%

6

D. Thiem

60%

40%

7

K. Nishikori

61%

39%

7

A. Zverev

71%

29%

9

J.M. Del Potro

86%

14%

10

M. Cilic

89%

11%

-

AVERAGE

58%

42%

Interestingly, players such as Marin Cilic, Del Potro and Alexander Zverev led the way with backing their aggressive returns crosscourt, where they like to hit it, not concerned that it was going to the left-hander’s Serve +1 forehand.

Overall, the Top 10 averaged directing 79 per cent of returns crosscourt against right-handers, but only 58 per cent against left-handers. That definitely highlights an adjustment versus left-handed servers.

Sometimes, the return crosscourt is so dominant that it doesn’t really matter what’s waiting for it. Other times, it’s all about the age-old strategy of trying to make your opponent hit as many backhands as possible.

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