Player Features

The evolution of Hubert Hurkacz, the smiling nightmare

Learn about the development of the Pole's game
January 20, 2024
Hubert Hurkacz led the ATP Tour in aces in 2023.
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Hubert Hurkacz led the ATP Tour in aces in 2023. By Andrew Eichenholz

Hubert Hurkacz is known across the ATP Tour for his jovial nature. But over the course of his career, the powerful Pole has turned into a smiling nightmare for opponents.

The 26-year-old advanced to the fourth round of the Australian Open for the second consecutive year on Saturday. One of the reasons he is a player nobody in the field will want to face is his booming serve.

Hurkacz’s delivery is not impenetrable — he has lost serve four times through three matches at Melbourne Park. But the No. 9 player in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings’ serve gives him a fighting chance in every match he plays. When Hurkacz began his partnership with coach Craig Boynton in 2019, that was far from the case.

“We looked up my service rating [in 2019] and it was around the 70th spot in the world. So we were like, ‘We've got to get that number a bit better’,” Hurkacz told, flashing his trademark smile. “Since then, it has gotten better. We just try to improve it.”

According to Infosys ATP Stats, Hurkacz has evolved from an average server to consistently being one of the best in the world. In 2018, he held 76 per cent of his service games. In the past two seasons he has won 90.6 and 88 per cent of his service games, respectively, ranking among the Top 3 in the world both years.

Hurkacz's service games won

 Year  Service Games Won
 2018  76%
 2019  83% 
 2020  79%
 2021  86%
 2022  91%
 2023  88%

“We always have a master list of what we're trying to improve on. We took a look at his return ranking and his return stats,” Boynton said. “When I first started with him, his serving ranking was well, well, well below what I had envisioned. So we put a lot of emphasis on that, a couple of years on that. And he's one of the best servers in the world, if not the best first server. I mean, you can throw him in a basket of guys.”

Hurkacz is not 6’10” like John Isner, whom Boynton once coached. But the Pole has honed his serving skills well enough to deliver as well as anyone on Tour. In 2023, he led the circuit with 1,031 aces, becoming the first player shorter than 6'8" to hit 1,000 aces in a season since former World No. 3 Milos Raonic in 2014.

<a href=''>Hubert Hurkacz</a> is the first player since 2019 to hit more than 1,000 aces in a season.

How has he made such a marked improvement? Hurkacz does not believe it has been an accident.

“I would say just definitely consciously making adjustments and figuring things out, like what things to improve on the serve, where to place the serve and to find the good rhythm on your serve, toss it in the right spot,” Hurkacz said. “We are still always working on it, but definitely I think [it is about] just putting in the hours and time and effort, and just really consciously doing things.

“It's not, like, ‘Oh, just serve a basket’. No, you really think about each serve, what you're trying to achieve, what you're trying to feel out there.”

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The good news for Hurkacz is that he has enjoyed plenty of success over the past few years. In 2021, he qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals for the first time. The next year, he was an alternate and in 2023, the Pole competed as an alternate against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

The bad news is that his extended year leaves little time to “get under the hood”, as Boynton puts it. He did so as Hurkacz competed at the United Cup. As the pair has continued working on Hurkacz’s serve, they have put even more of an emphasis on his return.

“We've made a couple of adjustments and really a commitment to a style of play,” Boynton said. “When we first started, he had a really big step like Andy Murray. And I don't know how Andy does it really, he's amazing. His timing on that is so perfect. And I just felt like with Hubi, he got over his skis a little bit.

“You miss time with that, and then you're kind of stuck. And so we worked hard on shortening that step and that takes time. You just do things a little bit in stages, and it just takes time. And he's very good with that now, it's not nearly as big. But it takes a while to be able to do that without thinking.”

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Some of the work has to do with technical adjustments, while Hurkacz and his team also look at data — without going too far in depth — to crystallise not just his technique, but how he plays.

“It's important stuff. And it puts a number to something. It's not a feeling. It's a number. Here is the number. It's science. It's right there. And then we break down what those numbers represent,” Boynton said. “How did you get to those numbers? Good, bad or indifferent? What's going on? And so that's getting under the hood, finding out what's driving those numbers.”

The numbers do not always tell a player what they want to hear, and sometimes they mean an athlete needs to play outside their comfort zone.

“You look at the information, and what gives you the best chance. Sometimes you might not feel as comfortable with things. But if you're in agreement that this gives you the best chance, then it's just the commitment word,” Boynton said. “We'll be okay if he takes a shot and misses it. You've got to be okay. It’s a Michael Jordan type quote.”

Hurkacz is already one of the most dominant serving players on the ATP Tour. If he is able to commit to his plan with Boynton and become more dangerous on return, that spells danger for his competitors.

“I have a vision for Hubi and if he can come close to that and the vision that we talk about, he's already kind of a nightmare to deal with on court,” Boynton said. “I would hope for him to become even more of a nightmare to deal with. He is the nice nightmare guy.”

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