Novak Djokovic leads the ATP World Tour for second-serve points won and points won returning second serves.

Novak Uses 'Third Serve' To Full Advantage

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers shows how the best players switch from defense to offense when returning

Imagine playing a match where you get three serves and your opponent gets only one.

Sounds very unfair, but that’s the dynamic the world’s elite players artificially create to gain their competitive edge. There are four separate serves hit in a match – a first and second serve for each player – and the best of the best manage to consistently create a winning percentage with three of them.

The hidden key is to own your opponent’s second serve, and to at least break even on your own. An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis uncovered just 21 players on tour last year managed to maintain a winning percentage against their opponents' second serve and also be above 50 per cent on their own second serve.

The first thing to understand is that nobody will consistently average a winning percentage against an opponent’s first serve. In the 2015 season, David Ferrer ranked No. 1 in this category, winning 35 per cent of his opponents' first serves. In the past 52 weeks, Bernard Tomic has maintained a ranking of around No. 20 in the world, and has won just 25 per cent of his opponents' first-serve points. The career best, since 1991, is Argentine Guillermo Coria, who won 36 per cent against his opponents' first serves.

Once the first serve misses its mark, the world’s best returners flick the switch from defense to offense to take advantage of the second serve's slower delivery with a faster return. Simply, the faster serve dictates a slower, more defensive return, while a slower serve invites a lot more offense from the returner.

Below is the list of the 21 players in the 2015 season who averaged a winning percentage on their opponents' second-serve points and on their own second serve.

Ranking  Player Returning 2nd Serve Win % 2nd Serve Win %
1 Novak Djokovic  57 60.2
Andy Murray  55.5 52.2
3 Gilles Simon 55.4 54.5
David Ferrer 55.2 53.7
Tomas Berdych 54.4 54.5
Kei Nishikori 53.6 54.7
Rafael Nadal 53.4 55.4
8 David Goffin 53.6 51.2
Pablo Andujar 52.6 51.6
10  Juan Monaco 52.4 52.6
11  Marcos Baghdatis 52 51.1
12  Diego Schwartzman 51.6 50.2
13  Mikhail Kukushkin 50.9 53
14 Donald Young 50.9 50.5
15  Thomaz Bellucci 50.9 52
16 Roberto Bautista Agut 50.8 55.7
17  Philipp Kohlschreiber 50.7 56.6
18  Alexandr Dolgopolov 50.6 51.8
19  Richard Gasquet 50.4 55.3
20  Roger Federer 50.3 57.2
21  Adrian Mannarino 50.1 52.1

In the 2015 season, there were 24 players who had a winning percentage on their opponents' second serves, but three of them failed to generate a winning percentage on their own second serves. They were Andreas Seppi (49.9 per cent), Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (49.7 per cent) and Fabio Fognini (49.3 per cent).

Some players, such as World No. 2 Andy Murray, actually win more second-serve points from their opponenst than on their own second delivery. In the 2015 season, Murray won 56 per cent returning second serves, and 52 per cent of his own second-serve points. In the table above, there were seven players with a similar performance, and another three who were within half a percentage point of doing better on their opponents' second serve than on their own second serve.

As you would expect, this is an area of extreme focus for World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. In the past 52 weeks, the Super Serbian is ranked No. 1 in second-serve points won (59.3 per cent) and second-serve return points won (56.8 per cent). More than any other player, Djokovic maximises the battle surrounding second serves. He also happens to be the world leader in first-serve return points won in the past 52 weeks at 34.6 per cent.

Having a winning percentage on three of the four serves hit is one of the most important tactical concepts that directly translates to a W at the end of a match at all levels of the game.

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