#10 Returning 2nd Serves

 2013 Roland Garros Final: Rafael Nadal def. David Ferrer 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 

Nadal is a beast at owning your second serve.

Rafa won several of the smaller battles around the court but none more important than turning Ferrer’s second serve into his own third serve. Ferrer made 62% of his first serves winning only 58% of them (Nadal won 70% of first serves). The problem began when Ferrer missed his first serve and began the point with his second.

Ferrer hit 32 second serves for the match and only managed to win 8 (25%).

It doesn’t matter if Ferrer hits 60 forehand winners – it’s still not enough to cover this massive hole in his game. Ferrer won two points on second serve in the opening set, three in the second set and three in the third set. IBM’s keys to the match forecast Ferrer needed to win 60% of his points on second serves to have a chance.  Up to the final, Ferrer had dominated winning 65% (119/181) of his second serve points but Nadal had his number with a tactic in the final.

Ferrer directed all 32 second serves (including 5 double faults) to Nadal’s backhand and Nadal employed vastly different strategies returning it in the deuce and ad court.

Returning 2nd Serves Deuce Court – Nadal elected to hit all 14 second serve returns as a backhand return.  Normally Nadal would run outside the deuce court alley in hot pursuit of a forehand but he opted for a neutralizing strategy by hitting his backhand returns deep down the middle and hard cross court. Ferrer was nearly always immediately on defense and Nadal was able to then successfully develop the point, winning 78% (11 of 14) of the deuce court second serve points.

Returning 2nd Serves Ad Court – Nadal completely switched gears and ran around 12 of 13 second serves directed at his backhand to pummel a forehand return. Nadal won 61% (8 of 13) with this tactic which also helped force five double faults for the match – four in the Ad court trying to squeeze it into Nadal’s backhand down the middle.

  2014 Wimbledon Final: Novak Djokovic def. Roger Federer 6-7(7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4  

Novak Djokovic dismantled Roger Federer’s 2nd serve in the Wimbledon final.

Roger Federer was basically untouchable when hitting first serves in the final but Novak Djokovic was extremely successful against The Swiss maestro’s second serve – more than any other player in the touranament.

Federer First Serves – Federer crushing 29 aces, hitting 14 in the deuce court (8 wide/6 T) and 15 in the Ad court (8 T/7 wide) including one on match point down in the fourth set. Federer won 77% of first serve points which made it very difficult for Djokovic to make any progress here.

Federer Second Serves – Djokovic humbled Federer’s second serve, with the Swiss superstar only winning a tournament low 44 per cent over the five sets. This was a major element of the final, with Federer missing a lot of first serves in the critical last game of the match at 4-5 in the 5th set.

Federer’s Average Smashed – Federer averaged winning 68% of his second serve points in the six matches up to the final – but that got chopped to only 44% in the final. A huge difference in the biggest match of the year!

Federer: Rd & Opponent1st Serve Winning %2nd Serve Winning %
Final v Novak Djokovic7744
Semi v Milos Raonic 8168
Qtr v Stan Wawrinka 7969
Rd 16 v Tommy Robredo 8873
3rd Rd v Santiago Giraldo 8452
2nd Rd v Gilles Muller 9175
1st Rd v Paolo Lorenzi 7771

  2014 Wimbledon 3rd Rd: Rafael Nadal def. Mikhail Kukushkin  6-7(4), 6-1, 6-1, 6-1  

Rafael Nadal’s breakthrough in this match came through attacking second serves. 

Rafael Nadal lost the opening set in a tie-break and led 2-1 in the second set and hadn’t yet seen a break point for the match. Kukushkin was serving at 40-15 and another regulation hold seemed inevitable.

40-15 Second Serve Return – Nadal stepped inside the baseline and ripped a backhand return cross court, immediately forcing a forehand error.

40-30 First Serve Return – Nadal hit a lucky backhand return winner down the line from the Ad court to drag the game back to Deuce.

Ad In Second Serve Return – Nadal hit another backhand return winner down the line in the Ad court off a second serve to keep the game alive.

Deuce Second Serve Return – Nadal hit a deep backhand return off a second serve hard down the middle that set up a powerful run-around forehand to get control of the point and force an error.

Ad Out 2nd Serve Return – The Spaniard second serve backhand return down the line to immediately force a forehand error and finally break Kukushkin for the first time in the match.

From this point on, the party was over for Kukushkin as he would only win two more games for the entire match.

Deuce Court Serve Direction – Kukushkin targeted Nadal’s backhand with his second serve in the Deuce court, hitting 11 out wide, 13 jamming the backhand at the body and only three down the middle to the forehand. Nadal typically loves to run around second serves and smack forehand returns, but the slick grass courts rob him of the necessary time to execute it, so he has adjusted his game by shortening his backhand backswing and stepping inside the baseline a lot more to find the advantage.

Ad Court Serve Direction – The Ad Court offered similar targets with 12 second serves directed down the middle to Nadal’s backhand return, eight jamming at the body and only four mixed out wide to the forehand. Kukushkin only won 35 per cent (18/52) of his second serve points for the match as Nadal’s improved backhand return dominated this micro-battle.

Nadal put back in play 76 per cent (61/80) of all points starting with a backhand return which was slightly higher than the 72 per cent (39/54) from the forehand side. Nadal only yielded 13 forced errors off the backhand return (five Deuce court/eight Ad court) in four sets, but amazingly was only credited with three backhand return unforced errors for the match – all in the Deuce Court. He is not going to beat himself.

Nadal’s returns against second serves have gradually improved at Wimbledon, winning 50 per cent in the opening round against Martin Klizan, 46 per cent against Lukas Rosol and 65 per cent against Kukushkin. He is also getting better from the baseline, winning 51 per cent, then 54 per cent and finally 59 per cent as he has progressed through the first three rounds.

 2012 Wimbledon Final: Roger Federer def. Andy Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 

Returning serve was also a front-line battleground for Federer to seize early control of the point.

The most obvious area was running around Murray’s second serve directed to his backhand to attack it with his bigger forehand.

Federer ran around 17 of Murray’s second serves and crushed a forehand return.  Even though he only won 7 (41%) of them, it sent a very aggressive message to Murray that he was wearing the pants in this area of the game. Federer also hit three return winners for the match to Murray’s one. Federer also directly came forward with an approach shot off six of Murray’s second serves, winning three of them (50%). It’s a shock and awe tactic that disrupts rhythm and timing as much as it does to win the point. It was exactly the right mix to help win 4/12 (33%) break points for the match.

 Andy Murray – Return Hit Point 

Andy Steps In – You Should As Well.

Here is the proof you are looking for. This graphic was taken from Murray playing at Wimbledon, illustrating his rally hit point against first serves (yellow dots) and second serves (black dots).

Murray is incredibly good at moving forward on 2nd serves – taking a step and then a split step and then adjusting if necessary to make clean contact. He attacks the 2nd serve return firstly with his feet and secondly with his racquet – and a very compact backswing. A great way to pressure your opponent’s second serves.

Go Do This

You need to break to win. Difficult vs. a first serve. This place is the bullseye. Attack, attack, attack.

Whenever possible upgrade to a forehand by running around the 2nd serve directed to the backhand. 

You can be like Murray who steps well into the court and attacks with his feet – rushing the server’s next shot.

You can also be more like Nadal staying back and punishing a big forehand at every opportunity.

Let the server see you step in – apply pressure with your improved court position.