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Rafael Nadal's improved second serve helped power him to ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles in Madrid, above, and in Monte-Carlo this season.

How Rafa Went From Worst To First After Radical Serving Pattern Switch

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers investigates how Nadal changed his second serve in 2017

It’s normally the return, but this season it was the serve that carried Rafael Nadal back to the pinnacle of our sport. Nadal finished 2017 as World No. 1 for the fourth time in his career. An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of his service patterns reveals a key change that took him from personal worst-to-first marks from 2016 to 2017.

The Spaniard finished first on tour with second serve points won this season at 61.5 per cent (1076/1749), recording his personal best in this specific metric since emerging onto the tour in 2003. It’s a remarkable improvement, considering he won a career low (tied with 2004) 54 per cent in 2016.

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Nadal’s second serve dominance in 2017 came from mixing it around the service box much more than normal, especially in the deuce court. The strategy was specifically to surprise opponents by serving to their stronger forehand return, and also catch them sliding left anticipating a serve to the backhand. The serve went right a whole lot more this year, and it worked a treat.

Masters 1000 & Nitto ATP Finals
Deuce Court Second Serve Location – 2016 & 2017

Location 2017 2016
Middle T  167 (44.3%) 111 (63.8%)
Body  124 (32.9%) 59 (33.9%)
Wide  86 (22.8%) 4 (2.3%)

For example, at ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events and the Nitto ATP Finals this season, Nadal hit 86 second serves out wide in the deuce court. Last season, he attempted only four to the same location.

Masters 1000 & Nitto ATP Finals
Deuce Court Second Serve Points Won - 2016 & 2017

Location 2017 2016
Middle T 95 (56.9%) 69 (62.2%)
Body  73 (58.9%) 24 (40.7%)
Wide  55 (64%) 3 (75%) 

Nadal’s commitment to hit more wide second serves in the deuce court was well rewarded, as he had the highest win percentage (64 per cent) there than in any other location.

In the Ad court, Nadal predictably served primarily at the body, and had the highest win percentage out wide, at 64.4 per cent.

View Nadal's Serve Tendencies at the Serve & Return Tracker

Nadal won an impressive 74 per cent (2755/3721) of his first serve points in 2017, which was only one per cent lower than his personal best performances in this area in 2010 and 2012. He hit 286 aces this season, which was his second highest total after hitting 310 back in 2010.

Nadal’s renaissance back to No. 1 this season speaks of rounding out his game more, and getting inside his opponent’s head to figure out what they are expecting, and switching it.

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