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Rafael Nadal is among the best on the ATP World Tour at winning first-serve return points.

How Rafael Nadal Became The King Of Returns

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers explains how Nadal leads the tour when returning his opponent's best

Two for you, one for me.

Thats’s basically the equation that dominates the landscape whenever points start with a first serve at the pinnacle of our sport. On average, the server takes two points while the returner gets one, as the world’s best dominate with power and precision using the ultimate first-strike weapon.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis from 1991 to 2016 of the Top 20 performers in first-serve return points won show that the increased power of the first serve is overcoming the improvement players are clearly making with their return games.

The ATP Stats LEADERBOARDS, powered by the Infosys Information Platform, uncovered that points won returning first serves is in a slow and steady decline.

Top 50 Performers - First-Serve Return Points Won Average

  • 1991-2000 = 32.8%

  • 2001-2010 = 32.3%

  • 2011-2016 = 31.9%

It’s important to note that the elite level of our sport is currently filled more so with the best returners in the game than the best servers. Raw speed seems to be the primary force behind the declined performance of the returner.

Wimbledon Final - Average Serve Speed

Year Final Match Winner - Average First Serve Speed
1992  Andre Agassi d. Goran Ivanisevic 96 mph
1993  Pete Sampras d. Jim Courier 110 mph
2015  Novak Djokovic d. Roger Federer 119 mph
2016 Andy Murray d. Milos Raonic 116 mph

In the 1992 Wimbledon final, Andre Agassi averaged only 96 mph behind his first serve to defeat Goran Ivanisevic in five sets, with Agassi's fastest serve clocked at 110 mph.

In the 2016 Wimbledon final, Andy Murray averaged 116 mph, with his fastest serve clocked at 130 mph. Serve speed has risen during the past 25 years, and it seems to have had a cancelling effect on the corresponding improvement in return proficiency. In the 2016 season, the three leaders with points won returning first serves on the ATP World Tour:

  1. Rafael Nadal = 35.5% (753/2122)

  2. Novak Djokovic = 34.7% (1185/3413)

  3. Andy Murray = 33.8% (1366/4045)

In 2015, it was David Ferrer who led the tour with points won returning first serves.

  1. David Ferrer 34.5% (1117/3239)

  2. Novak Djokovic = 33.6% (1403/4181)

  3. Rafael Nadal = 33.0% (1261/3821)

Players such as Nadal and Ferrer tend to stand way back behind the baseline returning first serves to give the ball ample time to slow down and become more manageable. Players like Djokovic and Federer will be a lot closer to the baseline, looking to use the rebounding power of the first serve to hit it right back at their opponent.

Murray, No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, likes to employ a big step, then a large split step, attacking it as much with his feet as with his racquet. There is no set technique that is clearly better than the other, as returners seek to find the right balance of court position and time to battle the speed and direction of first serves.

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