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Rafael Nadal has understood for years that the best players want to spend more time returning rather than serving.

Returning To Win

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers reveals why you should strive to play more points returning than serving

More than a million points of research. Every Top 100 player. It turns out that player development evolves from playing more points on serve to playing more points returning the further up the Emirates ATP Rankings you climb.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis reveals a hidden element of our sport we have never fully grasped. The majority of the points you want to play are not on your own serve. You want your opponents to go deeper into their service games, where your chances of breaking serve steadily increase. You want to keep your own service games short and sweet.

The Infosys Information Platform uncovered that every single player in the Top 10 has played more return points than serve points since the beginning of the 2015 season. This massive data set is from the past 20 months and contains 1,143,932 points.

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Roger Federer led the pack, playing 52.6 per cent of his points returning. Second was World No. 1 Novak Djokovic at 52 per cent. They were the only two players in the Top 100 who reached the 52 per cent mark. The entire data set of 100 players scored in a four percentage point range, from around 48 per cent to 52 per cent.

Top 10 Breakdown: Percentage of Return vs. Serve Points

 Ranking  Player  Per Cent Returning
 1  Novak Djokovic  52%
 2   Andy Murray  51.4%
 3   Stan Wawrinka  50.1%
 4   Rafael Nadal  51.2%
 5   Kei Nishikori   50.8%
 6   Milos Raonic  50.7%
 7   Roger Federer  52.6%
 8   Gael Monfils  50.3%
 9   Tomas Berdych  50.7%
 10   Dominic Thiem  51.6%

Dominic Thiem was the third ranked player in the Top 10 in this specific category. The 23-year-old Austrian moved from outside the Top 50 in the Emirates ATP Rankings in early 2015 into the Top 10 in June of this year.

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Interestingly, World No. 3 Stan Wawrinka had the lowest rating of any player in the Top 10, playing just 50.1 per cent of points returning serve.

The further down the Top 100 list you move, the more you uncover players who play more points on their own serve, battling harder to hold serve, and not pressuring as much on their opponent’s service games.

Top 100 Breakdown: Percentage of Return vs. Serve Points

 Ranking  More Return Than Serve Points Played
 Top 20   90%
 Top 50   72%
 51-100  44%
 Top 100   58%

Overall, 58 per cent of the Top 100 play more points returning than serving. But there is a clear disparity between the Top 50 and the bottom 50. Seventy two percent of the top half play more return points than serve points, and that elevates to 90 per cent within Top 20. But the metrics are clearly different in the bottom half of the Top 100, with only 44 per cent of players playing more points on return.

Playing more points returning is something that higher ranked players achieve, but it’s also something that more experienced players seem to understand as well. When you look at the youth in the Top 100, there is an overwhelming majority of them who still play more points on serve.

 Age  Player  Return Percentage
 21  Nick Kyrgios  49.6%
 22   Lucas Pouille  49.1%
 23   Bernard Tomic  48.5%
 19   Alexander Zverev  49.2%
 21   Kyle Edmund  49.3%
 18    Taylor Fritz  47.9%
 19   Jared Donaldson  49.8%

For example, the only two players in the Top 20 who play more points serving than returning are the two youngest, 21 year old Nick Kyrgios and 22 year old Lucas Pouille. Bernard Tomic, Alexander Zverev, Kyle Edmund, Taylor Fritz and Jared Donaldson are young players in the Top 100 who are in the transition zone of trying to play more points on return than on their own serve.

Becoming more efficient on your own serve and making your opponent work harder on his serve makes perfect sense, and now we have the data to tie it to player development and your position in the Top 100 on tour.

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