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Novak Djokovic's return prowess was key in defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Shanghai.

Brain Game: Djokovic's 'Third Serve' The Key

Brain Game explores the tactics behind Novak Djokovic's victory in Shanghai

Imagine playing Novak Djokovic, where he gets three serves and you only get one. That’s the advantage he creates with the best return of serve in today’s game, particularly in the key battleground of second serves.

Djokovic defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-2, 6-4 in the final of the Shanghai Rolex Masters, with the Frenchman only winning 4/25 (16 per cent) of second serve points for the match.

There are essentially four serves hit in a match - a first and a second serve by each player - and Djokovic enjoyed a massive winning percentage on three of them, successfully manipulating Tsonga’s second serve into his own third serve. Djokovic won 86 per cent (25/29) of points on his first serve, 84 per cent on Tsonga’s second serve (21/25), 75 per cent (9/12) on his own second serve, and 30 per cent (13/44) on Tsonga’s first serve.

This is a hidden key to Djokovic’s domination - the ability to dismantle an opponent’s perceived strength, and make the numbers work in his favor. Tsonga lost the first eight second serves he hit for the match, quickly falling behind 1-5 against the World No. 1.

Tsonga won only two of his first 17 points on second serve, as Djokovic always looked to immediately pressure the Frenchman with the two main weapons of court position and time. When points start with an opponent’s second serve, Djokovic prefers to return deep down the middle to the opponent’s forehand, trying to rush the comparatively bigger backswing, while at the same time staying away from the danger of the singles sidelines out wide.

There is no better time in our sport to rush a groundstroke than right after a serve, as there is more work and time required to get the hands and feet organised coming out of a serve motion than repeating another groundstroke. Returning second serves, Djokovic hit 15 immediately to Tsonga’s forehand, five to the backhand, extracted three doubles faults, made only one return error, and torched a forehand return winner against a sneaky serve-and-volley play.

Djokovic always enjoys good court position inside the baseline after the second serve return, and continues to lean on opponents until they hopefully go for too much down the line and miss. Tsonga’s first six points on his second serve all finished with a down-the-line error - the perfect, high percentage ending that the Serb wants to extract in this specific part of the game.

Djokovic initially looks to force a first shot groundstroke error after the second serve, which he did four times against Tsonga, and then dominate any ensuing rallies with superior court position right on top of the baseline. Overall, at all stages of the point, Tsonga committed 11 errors going down the line when starting the point with a second serve. The two seemingly separate areas of our sport actually go hand-in-hand.

Djokovic has no peer in today’s game when points begin with a second serve. He is ranked No. 1 in second serve points won at 60 per cent, and No. 1 in second serve return points won at 56 per cent. Not once in his five rounds in Shanghai did Djokovic have a losing percentage on his own second serve, and not once did an opponent enjoy a winning percentage on theirs.

Overall in five matches against Martin Klizan, Feliciano Lopez, Bernard Tomic, Andy Murray and Tsonga, the opponents combined to win only 30 per cent (39/131) of their second serve points. Djokovic won more than double that amount at 68 per cent (52/76) on his own second serve.

It’s also important to note that Djokovic hit around half (58 per cent) as many second serves as his opponents did, greatly reducing his exposure to be attacked in this area. Djokovic is the modern-day master of procuring a third serve, making for a very uneven playing field to begin the point, and a lot of down-the-line errors to finish them.

Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at www.braingametennis.com.

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