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#4 Serve & Volley

 2012 U.S. Open Analytics 

Serve and Volley is dead. Who told you that nonsense?

Want the cold hard facts about baseline play? Well, here they are. Make sure you are sitting down.

MEN

 Won 349 of 508 points serve and volley points.

This is an off the charts number. If you win 68.7% of all points in a set you just won it 6-0. The general feeling that it’s too difficult to serve and volley these days is just flat out wrong. Just over 500 points is a very substantial sample size to see what is really going on here.

  • 58 players were recorded serving and volleying.
  • Only 11 players out of 58 had a losing record serving and volleying.
  • 16 players won 100% of their serve and volley points.
  • 31 players won more than 70% of their serve and volley points.

 Men Serve & Volley Winning % = 68.7% 

82% (47/58) of male players had a winning record

This is extreme validation for this aggressive strategy. There were 58 players recorded that served and volleyed at least once in the tournament. Only 11 players failed to achieve a winning record and of those 11 only four attempted it more than once.

Men: >10 attempts winning percentage = 68.9% (235/341 points)

The more players attempted this strategy the more success they had. There were 14 players in the draw that had more than 10 attempts at serve and volley and they fared slightly better than the overall group.

WOMEN

Won 18 of 26 serve and volley points.

There were only 10 women who attempted it and only two of the 10 did it twice. Seven of the 10 won every point they attempted. These number beg the question – why in the world is it not done more?

 Women Serve & Volley Winning % = 69.2% 

 2013 Wimbledon: Sergiy Stakhovsky def. Roger Federer 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) 

Well, you can’t really keep up with Roger on grass on baseline rallies,” he said. “It’s just impossible. He feels the grass. He feels the slice. He can do whatever he wants with the ball. The only tactics I have is press as hard as I can on my serve and come in as much as I can. The shorter it is, the less rhythm he got.”Sergiy Stakhovsky

He was uncomfortable to play against. I think he served and volleyed really well. It was difficult to get into that much rhythm clearly against a player like that.Roger Federer

Disruptive

Serve and Volley throws a huge monkey wrench into the flow and rhythm of a match. It makes points so much shorter and the shots required to win are inherently different. If your opponent wants rhythm give them serve and volley.

Uncomfortable

Honestly, who thrives against a serve and volleyer? The fact that there is so little of it these days means that opponents have not had a lot of practice against it. You may not be the best serve and volleyer in the world but the odds are your opponent is better at grinding at the baseline instead of having to constantly keep the ball low and attempt passing shots.

2nd Serves

When I saw this 2nd serve stat I was so impressed. Yes you can indeed even mix serve and volley on 2nd serves.

  • Winning 60% (10/33) – Stakhovsky served and stayed back 33 times.
  • Winning 69% (16/23) – He served and volleyed on his second serve to deliver a higher winning percentage + more attempts.

Percentages That Matter

  • 100% –  Stakhovsky served and volleyed on all 109 first serve points he played.
  • 76% – 1st serve points won.
  • 41% – Serve and volley points on 2nd serves.
  • 69% – Points won serving and volleying on 2nd serves.
  • 85% – First serves directed to Federer’s backhand return
  • 84% – Second serves directed to Federer’s backhand return

 2014 Dubai Semi: Roger Federer wins 78% (11/14) to defeat Novak Djokovic 

Federer Serve and Volley First Serves Won 81% (9/11)

Federer used serve and volley as a fantastic MIX in his overall strategy of baseline and net play. In this match Federer did it nine times in the deuce court and twice in the Ad court. It takes a little bit of courage to pull it off but more importantly it creates CHAOS for Djokovic as he can’t establish the rhythm from the back of the court and he is always asking the question “will he or won’t he” on the next point. It messes with Djokovic’s mind as much as his strokes – what a great tool for Roger!

Federer Serve and Volley Second Serves Won 66% (2/3)

Federer did it initially at 1-1, 40-0 in the second set so it was a low pressure. It was also a test to see if it worked so he can use it again later on the in the match when it really matters. He used it twice in the 4-2 game in the second set to extend his lead and pile on the pressure for Djokovic. If Federer can win points serving and volleying on his second serve, then what can’t he do?

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

Novak Djokovic was owning the back of the court against Roger Federer in this epic final. So Roger came to the net.

Roger Federer employed the wonderfully aggressive tactic of serving and volleying to keep the points short and apply as much pressure to the Serb from the front of the court as possible.

Federer won an extremely high 78% serving and volleying, coming to the net 36 times in five sets, winning 28 of them.

That comes out at an average of 7.2 per set which is roughly once a game counting the tie-breakers. Federer’s overall winning percentage on first serves was 77% – so serving and volleying was just a notch higher – an excellent mix strategy.

 2011 Atlanta: #272 Rajeev Ram def. #59 Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 6-4 

Rajeev wins 34/38 serve and volley points. Whoa!

  • This match was the beginning of Rajeev’s remarkable run to improve #279 to #93 (186 ranking spots) from June 2011 to June 2012.
  • There is no way Rajeev could have won this match staying back.
  • Part of the victory definitely gets attributed to Rajeev executing a strategy that he is good at. But there is also a large part of the victory that goes to making Dimitrov uncomfortable – making him play against a a strategy that he didn’t like.

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

  • Federer mixed in serve and volley points superbly, winning 11/12 (91%)
  • The tactic was just enough to keep Murray guessing if Federer was immediately coming to the net.
  • Sometimes Federer did not plan on serving and volleying but quickly changed his mind to take advantage of a high defensive floating return. Other times it was pre-meditated and only once did he have to hit his first volley below the height of the net.

 Player Focus – John Isner 

Is John Isner a top 10 player in the world because of his game style, or in spite of it? At the 2012 U.S. Open Isner lost to Philip Kohlschreiber 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the third round and a close look at how he plays the game revels some potential areas for improvement.

Kohlscheiber won only two more points than Isner (143 to 141) and went 3/3 (100%) on break points while Isner went 2/11 (18%). Talk about taking full advantage of every chance you get. Kohlscheiber basically had one opportunity an hour for the three hour and twenty minute match and hit his target every time like a sniper in the dead of the night.

Isner is listed at 6’9” and 245lbs and has arguably the biggest serve in the world – he is number one in the world hitting aces in 2012 with 850 coming into the US Open. The ATP records six serving categories (1st serve percentage, 1st serve points won, 2nd serve points won, service games won, break points saved and aces) and he is in the top 7 in the world in every single one of them.

But what happens when his opponents get his serve back into play, or he has to start the point returning serve? A close look at an IBM match data sheet reveals some puzzling insights into how Isner goes about constructing and finishing points compared to the rest of the men’s field through the first three rounds.

2012 US Open Men’s Draw Through 3 Rounds

Strategy Won/AttemptedWinning %
Serve & Volley Points Won327/48068%
Net Points Won2210/359461%
Baseline Points Won7846/1699846%

Isner has a higher than normal winning percentage approaching but a lower than normal winning percentage when a point finishes with him standing around the baseline.

2012 US Open John Isner Through Three Rounds

Strategy Won/AttemptedWinning %
Serve & Volley Points Won1/1100%
Net Points Won72/10469%
Baseline Points Won152/36741%

The first thing that leaps off the stat sheet is why is he staying back and pursing a losing strategy with a baseline rally (winning 41%) when he could be serving and volleying (tournament average is 68%)? Isner hit 379 serves in three matches and 169 (44%) were unreturned. Opponents got back into play 119 first serves and 85 second serves (also factor in 6 double faults), so why not add the third option of serving and volleying to the mix – which also has the highest winning percentage. Following is a list of players who have done well with the strategy at this year’s US Open. Isner’s stats should be leading this category.

2012 US Open Serve & Volley Points Through Three Rounds.

PlayerServe & Volley WonServe & Volley AttemptedWinning %
Michael Llodra396065%
Gilles Muller 253866%
Julien Benneteau203165%
Feliciano Lopez 161889%
Milos Raonic 131587%
Roger Federer81080%
Steve Johnson 121675%
Jack Sock 131872%
Lleyton Hewitt 152463%
John Isner 11100%

The serve and volley tactic has four benefits for Isner: It keeps points and matches shorter to stop fatigue; it stops opponents getting away with blocking back a floating return; it deliver a much higher winning percentage than rallying and it keeps the opponent guessing.

It fits like a glove with Isner’s game but for all intents and purposes he avoids it like the plague.

The other two areas Isner has to make a decision with is involving staying back and rallying or getting to the net to finish points. Quite often the depth or power of an opponent’s ball makes it impossible for him to get to the net, especially when returning serve, but Isner does not have the urgency he needs in this critical part of the game.

Isner is tied for 63rd in baseline points won for the tournament, winning 152/367 (41%) from the back of the court. It should come as no surprise to anyone that former world #1 Novak Djokovic is crushing this category, winning 138/220 (63%) of his baseline points.

Isner approached 34 times in 5 sets against Kohlschreiber for an average 6.8 – which is at least a full point and some change below the tour average.

Isner Stats v Kohlschreiber

StrategyWon/AttemptedWinning %
Serve & Volley1/1100%
Approaching 21/34 61%
Baseline 55/13939%

Isner should not be below the tour average in any offensive category known to mankind. The statistics could not be clearer. He should do everything he can to avoid a baseline rally, because he gets chopped from the back of the court. He is proficient at the net and has a solid winning percentage but he comes in far too little and not at all behind his biggest weapon – his serve.

For Isner to grab the American tennis flag and fly it high and strong over the coming years we will have to see a different way of going about his business. Isner must first become a short ball hunter in every sense of the term before he can start thinking about displaying some grand slam silverware.

For Isner, not going forward is definitely going backwards.

 2012 Wimbledon: Roger Federer def. Albert Ramos 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 

The lost art of serving and volleying has been found again by Roger Federer.

Federer served and volleyed 18 times in his straight-sets, first round victory over Albert Ramos at Wimbledon. It is a significant increase in this aggressive tactic considering he only served and volleyed 16 times in five matches in the 2011 tournament before losing in the quarters to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Since 2005, Federer has played 45 matches at Wimbledon and only twice has served and volleyed more in a match.

The tactic is an investment in Federer’s immediate future in the championships and has much more to do with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic than it does with Albert Ramos. It’s was a dress rehearsal.

Federer did not need to serve and volley to be successful against Ramos. His normal dominating play from the back of the court could have got the job done. But he was able to practice a critical tactic that can be used as a secondary weapon in the second week.

Serving and volleying may prove to be his special sauce.

Federer’s coach, Paul Annacone, liked what he saw in the match and was especially pleased to see his player work on a tactic that creates doubt in the returner’s mind, making them unsure whether Federer is immediately coming to the net or not. “Roger is one of a small group of players who can serve and volley at a very high level,” Annacone said. “He was investing in something that can help a lot later in the tournament. I would like for him to use it enough against the best players to initiate a question in their mind on how they should return.” Annacone said he discussed the tactic with Federer as part of their game plan but did not give specifics on how much or when to do it. He said it’s hard to find the right answer with exactly how much Federer should mix in the strategy but practicing it is the only way to feel more comfortable with it. “We talk about it in general terms and it is then up to him to impart it based on the opponent, the score and the conditions.”

Annacone definitely has the credentials to teach serve and volleying as it was the primary tactic that took him all the way to #12 in the world back in 1986. He also coached arguably the best serve and volleyer the game has ever seen in Pete Sampras. “Pete definitely volleyed better in the last week of Wimbledon than he did at Queens,” Annacone said referring to the traditional grass court lead up event in London.

Annacone knows the serve and volley tactic is a tougher strategy to learn and takes longer for players to master since there is so much variation within it. “I remember working on it with Pete when he was 18 and Michael Chang was already winning the French Open. It was easier for Michael to develop quicker because he had a great game but it was one dimensional,” he said. “Pete had a tougher puzzle to put together at the same age which just took more time before he was good at it.”

One of the subtle advantages of serving and volleying is making the returner ask the question – “will he or won’t he?”

Where it is particularly effective is taking away a floating return off a powerful first serve that lands deep in the court. If the returner is afraid to hit that shot because of the threat of a serve and volley play then the server regains the advantage.

Go Do This.

It’s a fantastic surprise tactic that can signals who is the attacker in the match.

Let the scoreboard help you. Do it when you are 40-0 up or 0-40 down.

Use is to take the net away from an opponent who is dominating at the net. You now own it. 

Use it freak your opponent out. Want to shock them and disrupt their concentration. Suddenly serving and volleying will do that.

It’s a great Plan B or Plan C when other things are not working. Don’t lose a match and not try this awesome tactic.

It could be a strong secondary tactic that you mix 10-15 times a match. Keep your opponent constantly guessing.

It’s the prefect tactic against an opponent who is just floating returns back in play. Get to the net and feast on high volleys. 

Seriously – what if this is your thing? There are plenty of boring baseliners out there.

You may be the next Stefan Edberg or Patrick Rafter. It will take more time to develop but may perfectly suit your mojo. 

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