When Returns Are Back In Play, Rafa Reigns Supreme
Thirty per cent of serves in tennis don’t come back in play. Strategically placed aces and missed returns abound.
That means that 70 per cent of serves are returned in the court. This is where the heavy lifting of holding serve takes place. This is where Rafael Nadal reigns supreme.
An Infosys ATP Insights deep dive into 88,640 first serves and second serves struck by the current Top 10 identifies that Nadal has won 58.5 per cent of all serves that are returned in the court against him. The data set is from the Infosys Serve & Return Tracker, which includes metrics from 2011 onwards at ATP Masters 1000 events and the Nitto ATP Finals, with data also coming from select ATP 500 and 250 events from 2019 and the 2020 ATP Cup.
Nadal sits almost four percentage points above the Top 10 average of 54.6 per cent. The only other three players with win rates above the average were Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, Federer and Djokovic were tied in second place, winning 57.3 per cent of all serve points when the serve was returned.
Current Top 10: Serve Points Won When The Ball Is Returned In Play
First-Serve Points Won When Serve Returned In Court
Federer rose to the top spot when filtering only for first serves returned in the court. The Swiss won 61.9 per cent of these points, which was considerably lower than the 77.6 per cent he won when you count all first-serve points won, including aces and unreturned serves.
The leading three players in the data set winning first-serve points when the ball was returned in the court were:
1. R. Federer = 61.9%
2. S. Tsitsipas = 61.3%
3. R. Nadal = 61.2%
Overall, the current Top 10 averaged winning 59.9 per cent of first-serve points when the ball was returned in the court, which was considerably lower than the 74.5 per cent they averaged on all serves, including aces and missed returns.
Second-Serve Points Won When Serve Returned In Court
Nadal sits in the top position as one of only three players who managed to win north of 50 per cent of second-serve points in which the serve was returned in the court. Those players were:
1. R. Nadal = 53.5%
2. N. Djokovic = 51.7%
3. R. Federer = 51.4%
The Top 10 average sits at a very compelling 49.5 per cent, meaning that the current Top 10 average losing slightly more second-serve points than they win when the second serve is returned in the court.
Examining serves that are returned in play adds another layer of understanding of Nadal’s formidable strengths. Sometimes he wins more points in this category because of his thirst to hit a Serve +1 forehand from anywhere on the court. Other times it’s all about blocking a powerful return back in play and keeping the point alive.