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Former No. 1 Pete Sampras set the standard for first-serve dominance.

The Formula To Becoming No. 1

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers shares the secret: Be very good at something

The formula to becoming the No. 1 ranked player in the world is simple – there isn’t one.

The rich diversity of playing styles that our sport produces creates many different pathways to the very top of the tree. Serving and volleying will help get you there. So will being solid as a rock from the back of the court.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of year-end No. 1s from the 1991 season to present day shows remarkable variety in serve and return performance.


Pete Sampras finished year-end No. 1 for six straight years, from 1993 to 1998, with his last season in particular highlighting the extremes in how well he dominated with his first and second serves.

In 1998, Sampras won 83 per cent of first serves, which was the best season of any year-end No. 1 since 1991. You would assume he also put up impressive numbers with his second serve, but it was actually the complete opposite. Sampras won only 50.9 per cent of his second-serve points, which ranks him last of any year-end No. 1.

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A deeper dive into points won on Sampras' first and second serves highlights an amazing contrast in performance. The six years that Sampras ended No. 1 were also the six highest in first-serve points won. His first serve was clearly the engine room of his global dominance. You would anticipate his second serve also putting up impressive numbers, but it simply wasn't the case, as he owns six of the worst seven years with second-serve points won.

The ATP Stats LEADERBOARDS show those metrics flow right through to aces and double faults. Sampras owns six of the seven highest ace totals, but also five of the seven seasons with the most double faults.

Who has been the best No. 1 under pressure? View the ATP Stats LEADERBOARDS

1991-2015: Year-End No. 1 Serve Performance

 SERVING  Best  Worst  Average
 First-Serve Percentage  Nadal 2008 = 69.5%  Hewitt 2002 = 51%  61.6%
 First-Serve Points Won   Sampras 1998 = 83%  Nadal 2008 = 71.9%  77.4%
 Second-Serve Points Won   Djokovic 2015 = 60.2%  Sampras 1998 = 50.9%  55.7%
 Service Games Won   Federer 2004 = 91.6%  Hewitt 2002 = 80.2%  88.1%
 Average Aces/Match  Sampras 1995 = 11.9  Nadal 2013 = 2.7  7.2
 Average Double Faults/Match   Federer 2007 = 1.1  Sampras 1998 = 4.2  2.3


Novak Djokovic’s 2011 season is the standout, dominating in all four statistical categories. It was the first year he finished No. 1 in the world. Djokovic went 70-6, winning five ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles and three Grand Slam tournaments. In the 2011 season, Djokovic’s performance against other year-end No. 1’s is unparalleled. He dominated in first-serve return points won, return games won and break points converted. He also finished second overall in second-serve return points won at 57.5 per cent. Out of the past No. 1s, only Djokovic, himself, won more second-serve return points (2014, 57.6 per cent).

1991-2015: Year-End No. 1 Return Performance

 RETURNING  Best  Worst  Average
 First-Serve Return Points Won   Djokovic 2011 = 35.7%  Sampras 1996 = 23.7%  32.2%
 Second-Serve Return Points Won   Djokovic 2014 = 57.6%  Roddick 2003 = 48.9%  53.8%
 Return Games Won   Djokovic 2011 = 38.8%  Roddick 2003 = 20.9%  30%
 Break Points Converted  Djokovic 2011 = 48.3%  Sampras 1996 = 36.7%  43.2%


Tennis has seen a changing of the guard in recent times, with the best returners in the game dominating much more than the best servers. Like all sports, adjustments will be made, and the cyclical nature of the dominant strategies will continue to rise and fall. The key is to understand that you don’t need to be good at everything, but you have to be good at something.

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