© Ella Ling/ATP Tour

Stefanos Tsitsipas has enjoyed more success than any player in the Top 10 when directing his second serve in the Deuce court out wide.

Trust The Math: How Tsitsipas Succeeds Going Against The Grain

Infofys ATP Beyond The Numbers analyses the Top 10's success in the Deuce court behind their second serve

Trust the math.

Traditional tennis mantra dictates second serves should be directed at the backhand return, either kicking up high with a topspin serve or jamming the returner with a slice to the body. The third option of serving to the opponent’s forehand return, which is typically viewed as being very brave or very foolish, is the antithesis of the first two.

Unless you trust the math.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers 2020 analysis of second-serve direction in the Deuce court versus right-handed opponents by the Top 10 identified second serves directed out wide to the opponent’s forehand return actually delivered the highest winning percentage. Roger Federer, ranked fifth, was omitted from this Top 10 analysis as he didn’t play any ATP Tour events, which is where this data is sourced, this year. Gael Monfils, No. 11 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, was added to the data set.

The 10 players served down the T the most, utilising a kick second serve up high to the returner’s backhand. But where did they win the most? Out wide to the forehand.

2020 Season: Top 10 Second Serves In The Deuce Court vs. Right-Handed Opponents

 Second-Serve Direction  Direction Percentage  Winning Percentage
 Wide  25%  65%
 Body  23%  56%
 T  53%  58% 

Monfils was one of only three players that served wide to the forehand as the primary location.

Primary Location = Wide To The Forehand Return
Gael Monfils = 48% (59/123)
Novak Djokovic = 44.0% (118/268)
Daniil Medvedev = 41.9% (95/227)

On the surface, serving to the returner’s forehand seems like a fatally flawed strategy - until you do the math. Eight of the 10 players enjoyed their highest winning percentage when serving wide to the forehand, with one scoring highest at the body and another winning the highest rate of points serving down the T.

The eight players who won the most out wide to the forehand return were:
1. Stefanos Tsitsipas = 75.0% (21/28)
2. Alexander Zverev = 66.7% (4/6)
T3. Dominic Thiem = 67.5% (27/40)
T3. Rafael Nadal = 67.5% (27/40)
5. Daniil Medvedev = 64.2% (61/95)
6. Gael Monfils = 62.7% (37/59)
7. Matteo Berrettini = 62.5% (10/16)
8. Diego Schwartzman = 60.6% (40.66)

There are two main advantages to serving wide to the right-hander’s forehand return in the Deuce court.

1: Element Of Surprise - In this data set, 75 per cent (1323/1754) of second serves were directed at the body and down the T. Mistakes flow when the returner is anticipating the serve going to their backhand and they have to quickly adjust to hit a forehand return on the other side of their body.

2: Over-Hitting - Forehand returns are a more powerful shot than backhand returns. When returners are surprised with the direction to the forehand, they instantly want to be on offence and swing big. The problem is that the wide serve is now stretching them off the court into a defensive posture. Return errors flow from playing offence when on defence.

A statistics table clearly shows the benefits of directing second serves wide to the forehand in the Deuce court. Without the math, we would never know just how good this gem of a strategy really is.

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