Djokovic's Surprisingly Successful Second-Serve Strategy

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers shows how the Serbian goes against conventional wisdom, with success

Should more second serves be directed to the forehand return?

Second serves are slower than first serves, and forehand returns are more potent than backhand returns, hence the typical match-up of second serves directed to the backhand body-jam location.

While the theory makes perfect sense, the supporting analytics of blindly hitting second serves to the backhand return simply don't add up.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of players inside the 2018 year-end Top 10 reveals that they overwhelmingly serve more to the backhand with their second serves, but the win percentages are actually superior serving to the forehand.

The data set comes from 2018 ATP Masters 1000 events and the Nitto ATP Finals. It includes 2,368 second serves to the Deuce court and 2,217 second serves to the Ad court, with the general presumption of a right-handed returner. Each service box is broken down into three evenly spaced areas: down the T, at the body, and out wide.

Deuce Court - Top 10 2018 Average
Most second serves went down the T, to a right-handed player’s backhand return, but the highest win percentage was out wide to their forehand return.

Deuce Court – Second Serves Attempted & Won (Bold = Highest)

DEUCE COURT Direction Attempted Win Percentage
53.5% 60.9%
Body  23.1% 59.6%
Wide  23.4% 63.5%

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic hit the most amount of second serves out wide to the forehand (45.1%), and enjoyed his highest win percentage there as well.

Novak Djokovic - Deuce Court Second Serves
T = Made 36.6% / Won 51.9%
Body = Made 18.3% / Won 59.6%
Wide = Made 45.1% / Won 68%

Deuce Court Win Percentage – WIDE
1. Juan Martin del Potro 75% (24/32)
2. Novak Djokovic 68% (87/128)
3. Kevin Anderson 67.6% (48/71)

Ad Court - Top 10 2018 Average
Directing a second serve down the T in the Ad court – to a right-hander’s forehand return – delivered almost the exact same win percentage as going out wide to the backhand. You would expect hitting a kick serve up high and out wide to a backhand return to be vastly superior to hitting a second serve to the forehand, which also pulls the returner into the middle of the court to begin the point. But the win percentages are basically the same.

Ad Court – Second Serves Attempted & Won (Bold = Highest)

AD COURT Direction Attempted Win Percentage
26.2% 60.8%
Body  33.8% 55.1%
Wide  40% 60.9%

The top three performers with second-serve points won down the T to the forehand in the Ad court:

Ad Court Win Percentage – T
1. Novak Djokovic 73.5% (86/117)
2.
Rafael Nadal 63.2% (24/38)
3. John Isner 61.9% (13/21)

Yes, more second serves should definitely be directed to the opponent’s forehand return. A main reason is the surprise factor, as almost all returners are initially sitting on a backhand return against a second serve.

But it’s not all about the kicking it in to the backhand wing and starting the point; it’s actually about attacking the forehand return and catching opponents off guard.

Editor's Note: Craig O'Shannessy is a member of Novak Djokovic's coaching team.

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