#6 First Serves

 2014 Australian Open Semi: Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-4 

Sometimes the exact right thing to do is hammer away at a weakness relentlessly – even if your opponent knows its coming.

 Case in point – Rafael Nadal v Roger Federer.

Nadal made 56 first serves for the match and pin-pointed 52 (92 percent) of them straight to Federer’s backhand.

This is not new, in fact Nadal has been doing it for years, but it is remarkable Federer has not figured out a way to counter this basic, bulldozing tactic. You could almost imagine Nadal yelling over the net on Rod Laver Arena telling Federer where the serve was going to go but Federer still somehow managing to lose the point.

  • Federer only won 28 percent (15/52) of points beginning with a backhand return off a first serve and none of four directed to his forehand.
  • Federer coughed up 19 backhand return errors  – even though it was obvious where Nadal’s serve was going to go.
  • Nadal in comparison committed 11 backhand return errors.
The pair last played each other on an outdoor hard court last summer in the quarters of the Cincinnati Masters 1000 which Nadal won 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.  Nadal directed a healthy 87 percent (57/65) of first serves to Federer’s backhand in that match with Federer winning 24 percent (14/57) but only committing 6 backhand return errors. In Cincinnati, Federer sliced 43 percent (25/57) of his backhand returns but at the Australian Open he only sliced 11 percent (6/51) in an apparent effort to be more offensive to begin the point.

 Tournament Focus: Roland Garros 

The sport is in constant evolution.

Global trends in tennis are best measured over a period of years and the different surfaces add multiple layers to the diversity of how the sport is played. A snapshot of the French Open, the sport’s most grueling Slam to win, clearly shows the game is not what it used to be on clay.

 1st Serve Speed

The needle has moved in this area more than any other statistic at any Grand Slam event in the last 15 years.

Players used to opt for more spin than power in Paris to kick the ball up high but dropping heat is now the dominant theme. In 2000 the average first serve speed was around 160kph – well below the other three Slams. Fast forward to 2008 and the average had skyrocketed almost 30kph higher to be just under 190kph – second only to Wimbledon. In 2013 the Top 20 men in serve speed were between 213kph and 228kph. Dropping bombs in Paris is now the order of the day.


The French Open has traditionally delivered the least amount of aces of the Slams but has shown a sharp increase since 2005 where it was around 1200 for the tournament – less than half that of Wimbledon. But by 2009 aces had jumped to over 1800 which is a direct reflection in the increase in serve speed. In 2012 the ace total came back down slightly to 1675 and 2013 produced around the same at 1611.

 2013 Istanbul: Serena Williams def. Na Li 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 

Williams relied heavily on her first serve to recover from a slow start to capture the WTA Tour Finals. 

Williams was in deep trouble early on as she fell behind 1-5 in the first set but would win 13 of the next 17 games including the last nine in a row.

Li was averaging an outstanding 63%1st serves in four matches leading into the final but failed badly against Williams making only 49%. In the opening set she only managed to make a ridiculously low 30% of her first serves but with Williams misfiring she got away with it and still managed to win the set.

Once Williams got her head in the game in the second set Li needed to rely on the pressure of making first serves – but they all but vanished.  In a stretch between her opening two service games of the third set, with the match still well in the balance, Li missed seven consecutive serves including three straight double faults.

Williams by comparison made a tournament high 74% of her first serves including 14 in a row to begin the opening service game of the second set. She would make 21 of 24 first serves in that long game and saved two break points that would have seen her down a set and a break. Her first serve was solid when she needed it while Li’s self-destructed.

 2012 US Open: Andy Murray def. Novak Djokovic 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 

Andy Murray’s serve was a gem.

Andy Murray is one of the best returners in the game but it was his serve that carried him to his first Grand Slam singles title at the US Open Monday evening.

Murray’s first serve, particularly hitting his spots out wide, was the perfect way to gain back control and minimize the effectiveness of Djokovic’s aggressive play. It would prove to be the difference between the two players in the deciding set and change the flow of play much more to suit Murray. Murray did get broken once in the fifth set, but was able to break three times off just three break points.

Murray served brilliantly in the fifth set, stretching Djokovic out wide in both courts with his first serve – which also had the added benefit of pressuring Djokovic into his poorest serving performance of any set of the match. Murray regained his confidence through his first serve, which washed over the rest of his game and carried him to an epic victory.

5th Set – Murray 1st Serve Location

LocationAttempted Made WonWinning %
Deuce Ct Wide55480%
Ad Ct Wide 755100%
Deuce Ct Middle 411100%
Ad Ct Middle 2200%

Murray won a dominating 9/10 (90%) when he made his first serve out wide in the fifth set. It was the engine room of his stunning performance.

In the deuce court he also was able to force three forehand return errors to begin the point. In the Ad court he was just as lethal – hitting two aces and also forcing another return error.

Murray went out wide twice as much as down the middle (12 to 6), but the middle serves still played their role in keeping Djokovic guessing as to where the serve might go. They were a bluff as he only won one point serving down the middle in the fifth set.

Murray made 70% of his first serves in the pressure-packed fifth set, winning 71% of them, which was the highest winning percentage of any set he played. This greatly reduced his exposure to his second serve, as he only had to hit six of them for the entire set, winning three (50%).

This also had an impact on Djokovic’s serve as well.

Djokovic made 83% of his first serves in the fourth set, winning 67% of them. But the fifth set was a completely different story where he made only 45% first serves, winning 38%. Djokovic hit five second serves in the fourth set, but that more than tripled to 16 in the fifth set, where he managed to win seven (44%). In none of the five sets did both players serve well at the same time, so it was a critical component of Murray’s victory to own this area of the match in the fifth set.

5th Set – Djokovic 1st Serve Location

LocationAttempted Made WonWinning %
Deuce Ct Wide43133%
Ad Ct Wide 4000%
Deuce Ct Middle 73266%
Ad Ct Middle 73133%

Djokovic struggled mightily with his serve location in the fifth set, only winning five points on his first serve for the set and only one of them out wide in either court. This greatly impacted the pressure on Murray’s return, where he only made two return errors in the fifth set – both routine forehand errors off second serves. By contrast, Murray forced six return errors from Djokovic – five from his first serve and one from his second serve. All four of Djokovic’s forehand return errors were in the deuce court, including on match point when Djokovic unloaded on a second serve return that went long and handed Murray the title.

Serving out wide in both courts was something that worked well for Murray throughout the match, but became much more of a weapon when he really needed it in the fifth set.

Murray Entire Match

LocationAttempted Made WonWinning %
Deuce Ct Wide41281967%
Ad Ct Wide 2212975%
Deuce Ct Middle 176583%
Ad Ct Middle 33271555%

 2013 Wimbledon Semi: Andy Murray def. Jerzy Jonowicz  6-7(2), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 

Andy Murray is evolving into a superstar of the sport.

For the past several years Murray has consistently been one of the best returners in the world but in the past 12 months it’s his serve that gets the credit for lifting him to the elite level of the sport.

Since 2006 Murray has been consistently ranked in the top four in the world for points won on opponent’s second serves. His best year was 2012 where he finished number one in the world in this critical area. He steps well inside the baseline, takes a very short backswing off both sides and rebounds the power of the serve right back at his opponent. The main goal is to take time away from the server to prepare for their initial groundstroke.

But returning is only half the game. Serving is where Murray is making his biggest steps forward and he was lights out against Janowicz.

  • Murray made 70 percent of his first serves, winning 76 percent of those points.
  • He remarkably won 71 percent of his second serve points.
  • Janowicz was only able to convert one of seven break points in the semi-final.
  • In the deuce court on first serves Murray won 16 points serving out wide and exactly the same amount serving down the middle.
  • In the Ad court he won 15 serving down the middle and 13 serving out wide.

On paper Janowicz’s flamethrower of a serve was the “x” factor as he regularly crushes it at 140mph. He is also the ace leader for the tournament with 103. But Murray shut that weapon down as well, hitting 20 aces in the semi-final to Janowicz’s nine. That could be the most impressive stat to come from the match. Murray is now in second place for most aces hit for the tournament with 80 – four more than Djokovic.

 2012 US Open: Serena Williams def. Ana Ivanovic 6-1, 6-3 

Often times the beginning of a match against Serena Williams is purely about survival. 

Williams, seeded four, defeated number 12 seed Ana Ivanovic displaying the classic Williams game style of shock and awe to begin the match.

Williams served first and delivered three aces in her opening service game, sending the ultimate message of intimidation without saying a word. The first point of the game also had an unreturned serve and she directed all first serves out wide.

Williams broke serve to lead 2-0 and started her second service game with another ace out wide. Ivanovic did manage to win one game in the opening set, but with Williams serving at 5-1, Ad In, it was yet another ace that closed out the first set.

Williams leads the women’s field with 41 aces for the tournament, and has only committed 12 double faults to the mix. Her serve is so dominant that the two players tied for 10th in most aces hit, Kiki Bertens and Lucie Hradecka, are 27 behind her with only 14. She would be tied for 17th with her ace total in the men’s field.

When Williams serves, it’s close to a 50-50 chance the ball is not coming back. Williams has hit 209 serves for the tournament and 94 (45%) have not been returned.

She is also making 58% of her first serves and leads the tournament with 1st serve points won at 81%. She has only been broken twice (36/38 service games won) and only twice in 10 sets has an opponent won at least four games in a set. These stats are from another planet. Williams is tied for first with the fastest women’s serve at the US Open at 124mph, which is faster than at least 15 players in the men’s draw  (34 male players had no serve speed data recorded). Her first serve is not only powerful, it also features excellent location. Williams only lost one point on her first serve to the deuce court and two to the Ad court. 

 2013 London Tour Finals: Novak Djokovic def. Roger Federer 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-2 

Federer had a major hole in his game against Djokovic – first serve location in the deuce court.

Federer typically serves wide in the deuce court more than down the T but that flipped last night for Federer which hurt him much more than it helped him.

  • Federer attempted 19 first serves out wide, five at the body and 28 to the lower percentage but higher reward target right down the middle.
  • Serving down the T in the deuce court offers a smaller target to hit to and is also directed at Djokovic’s better backhand return side.
  • The pressure of these factors had Federer only making eight (28%) of the 28 first serves he attempted there. When he made it he won all eight, but missing 20 first serves and giving Djokovic a look at 20 second serves in the deuce court is a heavy price to pay.
  • Federer did a much better job serving down the T in the Ad court, making 80% (16/20) and winning 75% (12/16) of the time. Serving out wide in the Ad was his tougher location where he only made 50% (14/28) of his first serves and won 50% (7/14) of those points.

 2012 Wimbledon: Lucas Rosol def. Rafael Nadal 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4 2-6, 6-4 

There’s hot, there’s burning hot and then there’s Lukas Rosol.

In the fifth set of this match, which players had to wait for as the roof closed, Rosol never fell behind in any of his service games and used an excellent mix of serve placement to kept Nadal guessing in the 5th set.

  • Rosol He hit 43% of his serves out wide, 43% down the middle T and 13% to the body.
  •  Nadal hit 12 backhand returns and 11 forehand returns and had no read at all on where it was going.
  • Rosol found perfect rhythm with his service motion, making 19/23 (83%) of his first serves and most importantly only lost one point on his first serve for the entire set.

Rosol was floating somewhere between unconscious and another galaxy.

Making such a high percentage also stopped Nadal getting too many looks at Rosol’s second serve. Rosol only had to hit four second serves for the set, winning half of them. He elevated his game to a level rarely seen on such a big stage – not dropping a point in his last three service games.

Of his last 10 service points of the match, he hit seven aces.

That’s a joke. It’s probably the prettiest piece of match data that IBM has ever produced at the championships.

Leading 5-4 30-0, he rocketed his fastest serve of the match (134mph) down the T for an ace and then followed it up with a 129mph dart out wide to seal victory. Rosol immediately dropped to his knees and raised his arms in the air just like Bjorn Borg used to do, and then laid down face first on the grass savoring the greatest moment of his tennis life.

 2012 Wimbledon: Serena Williams def. Melinda Czink 6-1, 6-4 

What is it like to coach against four-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams on center court at the championships?

Well, it’s like experiencing a beautiful dream and a horrifying nightmare at the same time.

That’s exactly what it was like for me as part of Melinda Czink’s coaching team, with Serena winning 6-1, 6-4 in a second round match she controlled literally from the first shot to the last.

I have coached against Novak Djokovic on center court at the Australian Open and against Rafael Nadal on center court at the Toronto Masters and never have I felt that a match was played more on the opponent’s terms than the player I was coaching.

Serena won the toss and elected to serve and the first two points produced aces. She then dropped a 119mph bomb down the T that Melinda missed long with a forehand return. That’s world class, even on the men’s tour. James Blake, David Nalbandian, David Ferrer and Radek Stepanek also recorded 119mph as their fastest serves in the opening round. Serena hit her third ace of the game at 40-0 and just like that the first game was over and a statement was made without saying a word.

Serena hit 28 first serves in the match and won 27 of them. It was incredible how hard she was consistently hitting it, and how well she was hitting her spots.

It was the most dominant serving display I think I have ever seen – certainly on the women’s tour.

Melinda’s tiny window of opportunity existed when Serena missed her first serve (16 times) and got a look at the second serve.

But it proved to be only a slight downgrade in weaponry as Serena won 10/16 (63%) of her second serve points as well. Melinda was trying to step in and attack the second serve, which was definitely something we targeted before the match but the depth, speed and kick of Serena’s second serve made it very difficult to make any headway in this area as well.

Melinda had to make an adjustment in the match to actually step back a little to create more time and space for the return. Serena would end the match with 10 aces, including one on a second serve at 5-1 in the first set that kicked sharply off the line in a cloud of chalk. She only served one double fault and would not have to face a break point on serve for the match.

 2013 London: Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer 7-5, 6-3 

It’s the simple things in life that always seem to work the best.

Nadal’s simple yet ruthlessly efficient strategy of relentlessly attacking Federer’s backhand started way back in 2004 at their first meeting in Miami, which he won 6-3, 6-3, and is still the dominant theme a decade later with Nadal now owning a 22-10 winning head-to-head record.

Nadal’s nasty lefty serve and heavy forehand are the two primary weapons that are the devastating difference-makers in this elite match-up at the pinnacle of our sport.

Nothing could not paint a clearer picture of Nadal’s obsession with breaking down Federer’s backhand than his first serve direction in Sunday’s semi-final.

Nadal made Federer hit a whopping 87% (36/41) backhands from his first serve for the match including 100% (14/14) in the second set. Federer struggled mightily with this tactic, only able to win 19% (7/36) of points beginning with a backhand return from a first serve. On the flip side, Federer won 80% (4/5) when he was able to return Nadal’s first serve with a forehand, illustrating the dramatic difference in success for Federer with the two tactics.

Nadal was equally as persistent with the tactic on second serves, making Federer hit 76% (10/13) backhands to completely handcuff him to begin the point. Federer won 3/10 starting with a backhand return and 1/3 beginning with a forehand return as Nadal won a very high 69% of points on his second serve for the match.

Even though Federer knew exactly where it was going he still had serious trouble handling the heavy lefty slice, committing 11 backhand return errors off first serves and two from second serves over two sets.

The problem for Federer in this match-up is that he is always the one having to adjust to Nadal – not the other way around. It must make for a monumental headache trying to figure out how to diffuse the Spaniard’s strategy that never seems to change and always seems to work.

Go Do This.

1. Don’t mix too much if you “go to the well” and you keep winning the point.

2. You have two weapons here – power and the location it lands. Practice both of these elements constantly.

3. Sometimes all that matters is making first serves to win the match. Figure that out and hit a lot at the body.

4. Remember serving wide opens holes for the next shot.

5. Best place to hit an ace is down the middle but its also the smallest target area.