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Rafael Nadal is a nine-time season leader in return games won.

Why Nadal's Return Game Transcends Generations

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers looks at why Nadal is the king of breaking serve

We are not breaking serve like we used to.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of players breaking serve over the past 29 years identifies that the most recent season (2019) and the most distant (1991) in the data set sit at polar opposites in overall performance on a statistics table - and not where you would expect.

The data set includes the average of the 20 best performers each season in breaking serve from when statistics were first kept in 1991 to last season. The leading 20 players in 1991 outperformed the season leaders in each of the 28 seasons that followed, breaking serve 32.18 per cent (4,309/13,392) of the time on average.

What was the worst performing season? None other than last year, when the leading 20 players broke serve just 26.19 per cent (3,769/14,315) of the time. We have a preconceived notion that our sport is always improving, always putting up superior numbers than yesteryear, but that’s not always the case. In fact, the leading six seasons are all in the 1990s and the seven worst performing years are all from 2010 onwards.

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There has only been one instance where a player has broken the 40 per cent threshold for return games won in a season. That was Rafael Nadal in 2016, where he won a staggering 40.75 per cent (216/530) of his return games. Nadal has been the season leader in return games won a record nine times, with the first coming in 2005. Nadal has been the return games won leader in the past two seasons and five of the past seven seasons.

In 2016, Nadal led the tour in breaking serve from 15/0. He won 27.13 per cent (70/258) of the games where this occurred, which was more than double the tour average of 13.49 per cent (2,891/21,435). It’s just another return metric where he understandably sits at the top of the mountain. The Spaniard has been the ultimate nemesis for the server for well over a decade.

While the leading 20 players performed better breaking serve in the 1990s than in the past decade, Nadal transcends all years and generations with his ability to consistently lead the tour in breaking serve at a rate other players simply can’t compete with.

1991-2019: Average Of The Best 20 Performers Breaking Serve

 

Year

Leading Players Break %

Season Leader

Season Leader Break %

1991

32.18%

M. Gustaffson

36.48%

1994

31.79%

A. Berasategui

36.83%

1995

31.68%

T. Muster

35,92%

1992

31.28%

M. Chang

36.70%

1993

31.27%

A. Agassi

37.34%

1996

30.85%

M. Chang

35.28%

2003

30.44%

G. Coria

38.83%

2005

30.33%

R. Nadal

37.54%

1998

29.89%

K. Kucera

33.51%

2006

29.67%

N. Davydenko

35.41%

1997

29.48%

A. Corretja

33.42%

2011

29.36%

N. Djokovic

38.84%

1999

29.27%

A. Agassi

33.83%

2004

29.26%

F. Volandri

37.46%

2001

28.98%

L. Hewitt

33.48%

2006

29.67%

N. Davydenko

35.41%

2002

28.94%

L. Hewitt

33.06%

2007

28.92%

D. Ferrer

36.09%

2016

28.57%

R. Nadal

40.75%

2012

28.26%

R. Nadal

37.70%

2000

28.15%

K. Kucera

31.55%

2009

27.80%

R. Nadal

33.56%

2008

27.80%

R. Nadal

33.56%

2008

27.80%

R. Nadal

33.49%

2013

27.45%

R. Nadal

33.84%

2010

27.35%

J.I. Chela

32.22%

2018

27.01%

R. Nadal

36.55%

2014

26.57%

R. Nadal

34.97%

2017

26.57%

D. Schwartzman

34.76%

2015

26.46%

N. Djokovic

34.44%

2019

26.19%

R. Nadal

34.97%

Pushing the server to Deuce is not an easy task in itself. These players are the best of the best at going the extra step and securing the break after an extended arm wrestle to Deuce and beyond.

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