#13 Return Winner

 2012 U.S. Open Analytics 

 Men Return Winners = 403 

 Women Return Winners = 252 

The Leader Board

12 men and 5 women hit 10+ return winners for the tournament.
1Novak Djokovic 15
2Andy Murray13
3TTomas Berdych12
3TMardy Fish12
3TDennis Novikov12
3TJack Sock12
7TNicholas Almagro11
7TPaul-Henri Mathieu11
9TJames Blake10
9T Marin Cilic 10


1Serena Williams28
2Maria Sharapova25
3Ana Ivanovic 19
4Laura Robson11
5Marion Bartoli10
6Yaroslava Shvedova9
7Anna Tatishvili8
8TPetra Kvitova 7
8TVenus Williams 7
10TNa Li 6

Best place to hit a return winner?

Why, Ad Court down the line of course.

You have to initially set up your Primary Pattern of returning cross court to the right hander’s backhand. Now it’s time to surprise.

 2012 Madrid Final: Roger Federer def. Tomas Berdych 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 

This is first-strike tennis at its best.

The slippery blue clay of 2012 dictated that players be more aggressive and hitting return winners was definitely a viable tactic. As this area of the game grew in importance it was very interesting to see where the attacking was focused.

Roger Federer Return Winners

Backhand – (4) Ad court down the line.
Forehand – (1) Ad court cross court

Tomas Berdych Return Winners

Backhand – (2) 1 Ad court down the line & 1 Ad court cross court.
Forehand – (3) 2 Ad court down the line & 1 deuce court down the line.

These are patterns we can all copy when the time and conditions are in your favor to be more aggressive in this critical area of the game. In Federer’s opening service game Berdych stepped in and crushed two return winners to signal his intentions right from the start.

 2012 Indian Wells Semi: John Isner def. Novak Djokovic 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5) 

John Isner’s official bio at the ATP Tour website lists playing poker as something he likes to do to unwind away from the courts.

The mental skills of learning percentages, getting inside your opponent’s head and knowing when to call their bluff and go “all in” played a major role in defeating the world number one in the semi’s. Leading 3-2 in the deciding set tiebreaker, Isner bet the house and incredibly hit the jackpot.

Djokovic had missed his first serve out wide in the Ad court to Isner’s backhand. Djokovic then wiped his brow, bounced the ball seven times with his racquet and another eleven times with his left hand before hitting his second serve out wide again to Isner’s backhand to start the point. But to Djokovic’s horror Isner had run around the return during the service motion and moved all the way outside the doubles alley to crush a forehand return.

With two feet in the air Isner hammered the biggest return of his life for a forehand winner.

It was a gamble that paid off in spades and shook up the world order of the sport. When Djokovic looked at Isner before hitting the second serve he saw nothing unusual with Isner’s return position. But once Djokovic tossed the ball Isner’s sneak attack unfolded as he upgraded his return from a backhand to a forehand and hit it straight down the line for a clean winner. Djokovic could not see him cheating because he was looking up at the ball in his service motion.

Isner’s gamble came from a deep understanding of his opponent, the moment, and the general percentages of the game. Djokovic could have hit his second serve down the T to Isner’s forehand like he had done several times in the match, but Isner bet otherwise this time.

The primary strategy in tennis is to direct 2nd serves to the opponent’s backhand, and only surprise to the stronger forehand side when the score is in your favor or your opponent does not expect it. In this case it would have been a lot riskier for Djokovic to surprise to Isner’s strength on a weaker second serve, and serving down 2-3 in the deciding set tiebreaker would be a foolish gamble that he did not need to take. Djokovic was trying to force Isner to hit a backhand return, probably crosscourt back to his backhand, and then run Isner side to side until he was able to force an error. After all, that is what got him to number one in the world last year.

Isner’s bold approach dramatically changed how the point was played, the momentum and ultimately the outcome. He assessed the risk of going for a winner early in the point and benefit from playing it on his terms or wait until later in the point when it would be far more likely to be played on Djokovic’s terms.

It was time to seize the moment. Isner commented on this exact point in his post-match interview, showing us his thinking behind the calculated gamble.

“I told myself I was going to run around the backhand and hit a forehand, and I was just hoping that he wasn’t going to hit the serve up the T. He added that Djokovic had been doing that during the match, particularly on the Ad side. “I wanted to put a good hit on the ball because if you don’t he just gets you moving. That’s why he is the best in the world.”

Isner also had another critical piece of information that helped minimize the risk of running around to hit a forehand return at 3-2 in the tie breaker. In a true poker sense, Djokovic had shown his cards a few minutes earlier when Isner had his first match point with Djokovic serving at 5-6, Ad out. Djokovic made his first serve on that occasion – straight to Isner’s backhand in the Ad court which he hit long down the middle.

Isner got a free preview of Djokovic’s thinking and shot placement under pressure. Information is everything, and Isner had the unfair advantage of knowing Djokovic’s cards. It is incredible more players on tour don’t pressure their opponents second serve by running around it to hit a forehand return instead of a backhand return – especially in the Ad court where more of the crucial game ending points are played.

It is also a lot higher of a percentage play than people realize, as going down the line in the Ad court is the number one place on tour to hit a return winner. The right handed server typically comes out of their service motion leaning a little left, trying to get a head start on covering the expected cross court return to their backhand. This is exactly what happened with Djokovic on this point as well. Djokovic landed on his left foot and then pushed back and to his left off his right foot. At exactly the time Isner was contacting the return with his forehand Djokovic was leaning to his left. Isner went right and Djokovic flailed at the ball but could not put a racquet on it.

On the next point Djokovic made sure to get his first serve in to Isner’s backhand. Isner could not get it back over the net. Leading 4-3, Isner made a first serve to Djokovic’s backhand and won the point. At 5-3 he again served a first serve to Djokovic’s backhand and the return went in the net. Down 3-6, Djokovic pulled out a surprise ace to down the T to Isner’s forehand – a smart decision with his back against the wall. At 4-6, Djokovic also went to the forehand out wide in the deuce court with his first serve, and the surprise yielded another forehand return in the net.

Now at 6-5, Isner was serving for the match for the first time. There would be no surprise and indeed no need for any more shots in the point as Isner rocketed his 20th ace for the match out wide past Djokovic’s outstretched two-handed backhand return.

Go Do This

Down the line in the Ad court is the #1 place to go for a return winner. 

On either side, run this secondary pattern to surprise, typically to the strength. 

Even if you miss going for it you are still sending a message that you wear the pants. 

Running around and crushing a forehand is tailor made for this aggressive tactic. 

Puts a big curve ball in the match. Server can’t just get the ball in anymore. Instant pressure all over the court. 

Analyze the server’s pattern during the match to correctly predict where the serve will go. Easier to crush under pressure.