When you listen to the pundits and commentators analysing the statistics from a match on the television, one of the first things that they arrow in on is the first serve percentage. Regularly we hear that a player has struggled in a match because he has struggled to get a high percentage of his first serves in the court.
However, is this statistic really one that matters? Would it not be better to hit fewer first serves, but win a higher percentage of those points, as opposed to simply ensure you get the ball in the court, but without the power or without hitting the lines?
If we look through the 2012 list for those players who have the highest first serve percentage, we find the following names at the top of that ranking:
- Alex Bogomolov (71%)
- Flavio Cipolla (70%)
- Nikolay Davydenko (70%)
- Fernando Verdasco (69%)
- Juan Monaco (69%)
Looking for the elite players, we find Rafael Nadal at 8th (67%), Novak Djokovic at 17th (64%), Roger Federer at 23rd (63%) and US Open champion, Andy Murray, shows up at a measly 41st (60%). On the all-time list, Rafael Nadal is the only one of these to feature anywhere close to the top 10.
This would suggest that simply ensuring that you get first serves in the court is not a solid basis for success. The big servers of the men’s game in particularly tend to show up relatively low on this list – they go for big aces with their first serve, then concentrate on attaining high percentage serves on their second serve. The interesting exception here is John Isner, who as well as having one of the biggest serves on the men’s tour, actually ranks in the top 10 all-time for first serve percentage.
In terms of points won on first serve, we again see no real correlation between the top players and a high percentage. Unsurprisingly, the big servers dominate the top of this list, with Milos Raonic, Gilles Muller and Sam Querrey comprising the top three.
Roger Federer actually appears at 4th in this list, emphasising how his serve is one of the most important, and underrated, aspects of his game. However, below that, we have to drop down to Novak Djokovic (15th), Rafael Nadal (16th) and Andy Murray (20th) to find the rest of the big four. Again, this is clearly not the key service statistic.
Pete Sampras once claimed that a tennis player is only as good as his second serve. Now, if we look at the ranking for points won on second serve in 2012, we see an interesting group of names at the top of the rankings.
Roger Federer appears at the top of the rankings, winning an impressive 60% of points behind his second serve. In joint second, winning 57% of points behind the second serve, we find Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer. Andy Murray slightly unexpectedly lies outside the top ten, but still wins 55% behind his second serve.
It is clear that there is a very strong correlation between this statistic and the world rankings. If we look at the all-time list, we find Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer taking the top two places, just ahead of Andy Roddick in 3rd. The rest of the top twenty includes such luminaries as Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier.
Seven of the top ten on this list have made it to number 1 in the world rankings. Only three of the top twenty (Wayne Arthurs, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Wally Masur) have failed to reach the top 10 in their career.
Contrast this with the top percentage servers. Only four of the top 10 percentage servers have even reached the top 10 in the world, and only one of the top twenty has ever reached world number 1 (Rafael Nadal).
Overall, this seems to suggest that pundits’ emphasis on raising the first serve percentage, while not being a bad thing, is certainly not the instant solution to all problems. It simply backs up the belief of Pete Sampras. The key to improving and moving up the rankings would appear to be to work on your second serve. Win plenty of points behind it, and the statistics dictate that you will achieve success.
To repeat Pete Sampras, a player is only as good as his second serve.