The Battle Within The Battle: Federer's Second Serve v Nadal's Return
One of Rafael Nadal’s greatest strengths is to maul an opponent’s second serve until it’s unrecognisable.
For 11 straight years from 2004 to 2014, Rafael Nadal lacerated Roger Federer’s second serve to build a 23-10 lead over the Swiss star in their ATP Head2Head series, during the prime of Federer’s career. Federer was ranked No. 1 in second-serve points won for seven seasons during this period and was never ranked below fifth-best in this category.
For over a decade, Federer’s second-serve metrics against the rest of the Tour were from another planet. But against Nadal, the Spaniard surgically moved Federer’s second serve from the asset to the liability column.
This rivalry exists in two stanzas - the first 11 years (2004-14) when Nadal built a 23-10 lead, and the past five years from 2015-2019, when Federer won six of seven clashes, including five on the trot. The canary in the coal mine has been Federer’s second-serve performance.
An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of the vaunted Federer vs. Nadal rivalry identifies second-serve performance as a critical factor when these two titans faced off. From 2004-2014, Federer’s second-serve performance was exceptional against all players on Tour - Nadal excluded - winning a jaw-dropping 58 per cent of second-serve points. Nobody else put up such lofty second-serve numbers over that period of time.
But when Federer faced Nadal from 2004-2014, the Spaniard racked up 23 wins while yielding just 10 losses by knocking Federer’s second-serve win percentage below the 50 per cent mark.
2004-2014: Federer Second-Serve Points Won•Against Nadal = 48.7% (589/1209)
•Against Everyone Else = 58.3% (13,593/23,302)
Nadal was especially ruthless on clay during this period against Federer’s second serve, where the Swiss only won 44.3 per cent (259/585) of second-serve points. Federer never won more second-serve points than he lost against Nadal at any of the five clay-court tournaments they competed in.
2004-2014: Federer Second-Serve Points Won v Nadal On Clay•Hamburg = 40.7% (33/81)
•Monte Carlo = 42.6% (49/115)
•Roland Garros = 43.1% (88/204)
•Rome = 46.2% (42/91)
•Madrid = 50.0% (47/94)
In 2008, Nadal won all four finals they squared off in (Monte Carlo, Hamburg, Roland Garros, Wimbledon). The Roland Garros final, which Nadal won 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, was particularly brutal in this specific area. Nadal won a head-turning 65 per cent (11/17) of his second-serve points, while Federer managed to win just 21 per cent (5/24).
But how did Nadal’s second serve stand up against Federer during this 11-year period? Actually, just fine. While Federer struggled to win 48.7 per cent against Nadal, the Spaniard won a healthy 55.9 per cent (337/603) of second-serve points against the Swiss.
Overall, Nadal and Federer sit at the very pinnacle of second-serve points won since 1991, when official statistics were first recorded.
Career Second-Serve Points Won (1991-2020)1. Nadal = 57.4% (15,308/26,664)
2. Federer = 56.8% (24,303/42,760)
Federer sits second on the all-time list, winning 56.8 per cent of second-serve points. But his career second-serve points won from 40 matches against Nadal sits at 49.7 per cent (707/1423). His record just against Nadal would have Federer sit at No. 177 on the list.
2015-2020: Federer Second-Serve Revival
After winning only 10 of their first 33 meetings, Federer has won six of seven encounters from 2015-2019, including five in a row. Federer also won the last time they played, squeaking by the Spaniard 7-6(3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the 2019 Wimbledon semi-finals and winning 62 per cent (23/37) of second-serve points to Nadal’s 48 per cent (22/46).
A massive part of Federer’s recent revival against Nadal is moving his second-serve win percentage back into positive territory. Federer has won an impressive 55.1 per cent (118/224) of second-serve points from 2015-2019 against Nadal, while Nadal has dropped off slightly to win 54.1 per cent (96/214).
When analysing overall performance in this area, part of the focus needs to be on the quality (depth, direction, speed, spin) of the second serve and the Serve +1 groundstroke that immediately follows it, along with the ensuing tussle for control for the rest of the point.
Drilling down into data tables sheds light on where players really forge their advantage. The second-serve battleground repeatedly takes centre stage when looking at what matters most to winning at all levels of our sport and begs the question: Have you worked on your second serve lately?