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Should Novak Djokovic focus on landing every first serve? Probably not, as Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers explains.

Too Good At Making First Serves?

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers shows how landing your first serve all the time can hurt your game

Can you make too many first serves?

It seems like a ridiculous question, but the more you dig into it, the more valid it becomes. First serves are the only shot in tennis that do not have a detrimental consequence if missed. It's a “freebie”.

Is making six out of 10 first serves going to help you win more matches than making seven out of 10? It seems counterintuitive, but like many myths in our sport, numbers help explain what our eyes can only guess about.

Making your first serve has always been thought of as one of the best things you can do to win a match. It’s a balancing act between going for too much and hitting a fault, or not going for it enough to maximise the ultimate first-strike weapon.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of first-serve percentages challenges the myth that getting a very high percentage of first serves in the box is the best thing you can do to be victorious.

The recently completed 2016 Roland Garros is a case in point.

The leading eight players in the first-serve category made between 72 per cent and 80 per cent of their first serves. Common sense tells us that should be a good thing, but six of the eight failed to win a match. Six of the top eight in this specific category also lost in the opening round of the 2015 US Open.

At the 2016 Australian Open, things were very similar. There were 13 players who made between 67 per cent and 75 per cent of their first serves. But only one of those players made it through to the fourth round. Six lost in the second round and the other six all lost in the opening round.

Average First-Serve Percentage At Grand Slams

 Recent Grand Slams Average Tournament First-Serve Percentage
 2016 Roland Garros  62%
 2016 Australian Open  61%
 2015 US Open  58%
 2015 Wimbledon  62%
 Average  60.75%

The current players in the Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings produce a variety of first-serve averages based on their individual playing styles but combine to produce an average very similar to the rest of their peers.

First-Serve Percentages of Top 10 Players

 Ranking Player Past 52 Weeks Career
  Novak Djokovic  66.6%  64.8%
 2 Andy Murray 61.2% 58%
 3  Roger Federer 63.7% 61.9%
 4 Rafael Nadal 70.6% 68.9%
 5  Stan Wawrinka 56.6% 57.6%
 6  Kei Nishikori 60.8% 61%
 7 Dominic Thiem 61% 58.7%
 8 Tomas Berdych 56.3% 57.9%
 9 Milos Raonic 62.4% 62.5%
 10  Richard Gasquet 62.4% 61.7%
  Average 62.1% 61.8%

Making five out of 10 seems to be clearly not enough.

Making six out of 10 is much closer to the ideal ratio, with the elite level players just a percentage point or two above that. Making seven out of 10 typically means you are not hitting it big enough, although there will certainly be some matches where that is advantageous.

Yes, you can make too many first serves. Overall, too many first serves in the box means consistency is trumping power with the game’s most powerful shot, and the “penalty-free” benefits of the first serve are not being maximised. The metrics identify that right around six out of 10 is where professional players like to be to in order to win the most matches possible.

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