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Rafael Nadal's strong first-service return game has helped him return to No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings this season.

Nadal's Surprising Stat That Pushed Him To No. 1

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers explains how the Spaniard overcomes the odds returning first serves

As a returner, everything is stacked against you.

Firstly, you are facing the hardest shot hit on a tennis court, sometimes upwards of 140 mph. Blink, and it’s gone. Secondly, you begin in a statistical black hole, not even forecast to win three out of every 10 points you play.

Returning first serves is one of the toughest elements of our sport, with only a handful of players able to nudge their win rate higher than 30 per cent in this key strategic area. Depending on court surface and speed, average first-serve return win percentages for the Top 100 are typically between 26-30 per cent, with the average right at 28 per cent.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of Rafael Nadal’s resurgence to No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings this season shows that the Spaniard's performance in this key battleground has certainly aided his comeback.

Nadal is also No. 1 on tour in 2017 winning return points against first serves, at 35.2 per cent (971/2761). That metric bumps up to an astounding 43.4 per cent (454/1045) when you focus on just his clay-court matches.

2017 Season: Top 10 Points Won Returning First Serves

Ranking Player Win Percentage
Rafael Nadal 35.2%
Andy Murray 34.7%
Diego Schwartzman 34.5%
Benoit Paire 33.7%
Novak Djokovic 33.5%
Roberto Bautista Agut 32.8%
Roger Federer 32.5%
8 Fabio Fognini 31.9%
9 Dominic Thiem 31.8%
10  Marin Cilic 31.6%
 - AVERAGE 33.2%

Andy Murray, who started 2017 as the No. 1 player in the Emirates ATP Rankings, is second best this season winning return points against first serves, at 34.7 per cent (640/1847).

Diego Schwartzman is the best returner on tour so far in 2017, winning an impressive 36 per cent (195/544) of his return games. He comes in third best winning return points against first serves, at 34.5 per cent (724/2099).

Other players in the Top 10 in first-serve return points won this season include Novak Djokovic (33.5 per cent), Roberto Bautista Agut (32.8 per cent), Roger Federer (32.5 per cent), Fabio Fognini (31.9 per cent), Dominic Thiem (31.8 per cent) and Marin Cilic (31.6 per cent).

Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have been No. 1 in this statistic for the past six seasons, dating back to 2011.

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The technique used to succeed in this area is built around rebounding the power coming at you rather than trying to generate it all yourself. Blocking first serves with a short backswing and a defencive mindset lets these players neutralise the power of the first serve as quickly as possible in the rally.

The halo effect of the serve typically lasts for two more shots in a rally, where the server can lean on their groundstrokes and play aggressively because of the offence created behind their first serve. But these peak returners typically take that two-shot advantage away, often times pushing the server immediately onto their back foot for their Serve +1 groundstroke.

The primary target is straight back at the server, not changing direction at all, and trying to get the return as deep as possible to make the server have to move away from the shot instead of towards it.

There is no other strategy in our sport that makes you feel good winning only three out of ten times. It’s all about defence first, and looking to get back to neutral as quickly as possible through depth and direction right back at the server.

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