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Rafael Nadal has proven especially successful returning first serves in the Ad court.

Why You Can't Let The Big Three Put Their First-Serve Returns In Play

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers reveals the first-serve return prowess of the Big Three

The first serve comes barreling down. If Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic return the powerful delivery back into play, they just completely levelled the playing field.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of the Big Three returning first serves on hard courts and clay courts shows they combine to win 50.1 per cent (8555/17073) of first-serve return points when they get their return back in play. The data set comes from ATP Masters 1000 events from 2011-2018 and the Nitto ATP Finals.

On hard courts, Djokovic was the only one of the three players to be above 50 per cent (52.2%), while Nadal took the honours on clay, winning 50.6 per cent (1378/2723) of first-serve return points.

Hard Court
1. Djokovic = 52.2% (2321/4449)
2. Federer = 49.4% (1998/4042)
3.Nadal = 48.5% (1192/2459)
4. Average = 50.3%

Clay Court
1. Nadal = 50.6% (1378/2723)
2. Djokovic = 50.1% (1115/2224)
3. Federer = 46.9% (551/1176)
4. Average = 49.7%

Clay & Hard Combined
1. Djokovic = 51.5% (3436/6673)
2. Nadal = 49.6% (2570/5182)
3. Federer = 48.9% (2549/5218)
4. Average = 50.1%

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When you break the service box down into the three target areas — wide, body and T — you gain a little more insight into the specific strengths of each player returning first serves.

What’s interesting is that Federer was the top performer returning wide in the Deuce court on both hard courts and clay courts. Nadal, with his lefty prowess, dominated five of the six Ad court locations (three each on hard and clay), while Djokovic was superior with his backhand return against first serves down the T in the Deuce court.

Hard Court: Best Performer Wide/Body/T vs First Serves

Hard Court

Deuce Court

Ad Court


Federer (53.9%)

Nadal (50.7%)


Djokovic (50.2%)

Nadal (62.1%)


Djokovic (52.4%)

Djokovic (54.4%)

Clay Court: Best Performer Wide/Body/T vs First Serves

Clay Court

Deuce Court

Ad Court


Federer (54.2%)

Nadal (49.2%)


Federer (61.3%)

Nadal (52.4%)


Djokovic (52.2%)

Nadal (52.0%)

Of the 12 locations for clay courts and hard courts, Nadal was superior in five of them, followed by Djokovic with four and Federer with three. The stars don't always put the first serve back in play, but when they do, they basically have as good of a chance as the server to win the point.

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

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