#7 Second Serves

Video correction: U.S. Open Sampras v Hewitt was not 2010 – that would be silly.
It was the 2000 Semi Final I was referencing that Sampras won 7-6 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (5). Sorry about that.

 2012 Wimbledon Rd16: Roger Federer def. Xavier Malisse 7-6 (1), 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 

On the surface, Roger Federer had another scare on Wimbledon’s center court with a four-set victory over Xavier Malisse to advance to the quarters. But while the baseline rallies and approach shots looked fairly even, Federer had a massive advantage in one specific area that was always going to get him over the line – total dominance with second serves.

When looking at an IBM stat sheet, it’s best to go straight to second serve points won and lost for both players to get the inside view of what was really going on.

This is the “smart stat” and Federer typically wins this battle hands down.

Federer was number one in the world in 2012 coming into Wimbledon winning points on his second serve at 61% which is 3% points better than the Canadian flame-thrower, Milos Raonic.

  • Federer won 20/35 (57%) of his second serve points.
  • Malisse was only able to win a very low 9/32 (28%).
  • Federer was more than twice as good as his opponent in this critical area which totally shaped a match that was fairly even with aces (9 each), first serves made (Federer 71% / Malisse 70%) and first serve points won (Federer 73% / Malisse 67%).

Malisse’s problems winning second serve points starts with the speed he hits it – a slow average of 87mph compared to Federer’s average of 96mph. This included three serves in the 70’s in this match for Malisse including one at 74mph at 40-30 in his opening service game. Federer walks faster than that to change ends.

Federer feasted on the slow second serves, particularly off the forehand wing where he never lost a point – going 8/8 in the match.

Federer also won 13/19 (68%) off the backhand return as well, giving Malisse nowhere to hide. Overall Federer only failed to put three second serves out of 30 back in play, denying Malisse of any free points.

In the first set tiebreaker which Federer won 7-1, Malisse twice had to hit second serves and lost both points. When he needed it most, it came up short.

Federer on the other hand used his second serve as a weapon. He is averaging winning 59% second serve points for the tournament so far and was just under that at 57% against Malisse. Any time you win at least 50% of your second serve points in a match it has been a good day at the office.

Federer served 65% of his second serves to Malisse’s backhand side, staying away from the more potent forehand that could immediately hurt him. Federer won 15/22 (68%) serving to Malisse’s backhand and won 5/12 (42%) to Malisse’s more offensive forehand.

Federer’s domination in this area was even more telling on the critical break points throughout the match. Federer faced three break points on his second serve and won two of them. He won all three break points when Malisse hit second serves.

Malisse’s success in each set was mirrored by his winning percentage on second serves. Although he was never able to exert any real pressure, he was able at times to minimize the damage. In the first set Malisse got to a tiebreaker and won 3/11 (27%) of his second serve points for the set. He won the third set 6-4 and was a little better winning 4/9 (44%). But he lost the second set 6-1 and the fourth set 6-3 and was won 1/6 (17%) points on his second serve in both sets.

The real issue with second serves is that is it a comparatively weaker shot required to be hit short in the court and your opponent is standing there waiting for it. The problem is an immediate loss of control and no one has mastered the art of taking advantage of it better than Roger Federer.

 2013 Miami Final: Serena Williams def. Maria Sharapova 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 

Maria Sharapova got close and then got blown away.

Sharapova was a real chance in this match until 4-3 in the second set and got withing nine points of victory before Serena found another level or two to raise her game. Sharapova collapsed to lose the last eight games in a row, not reaching game point in any of the last seven.

Williams hit 34 winners for the match to Sharapova’s 14 and dominated the back of the court with 14 forehand winners and 11 backhand winners while Sharapova managed to produce eight forehand and four backhand winners.

Sharapova 2nd Serve Summary
  • Sharapova only won 6/25 (24 percent) of her second serve points for the match as Williams stepped in and attacked.
  • Sharapova did not mix any second serves out wide to surprise Williams in the deuce court. Way too predictable.
  •  She did hit three down the middle in the Ad court but needed more variety to keep Williams guessing.
  • The Russian only won 1/11 (nine percent) second serve points in the second set and 1/5 (20 percent) in the third set.
Williams Serve Summary
  • Deuce Court 1st Serves – Williams directed 14/19 first serves to Sharpova’s comparatively weaker forehand return.
  • Deuce Court 2nd Serves – Williams directed 100% of the 18 second serves to the Sharapova backhand.
  • That shows that Williams felt she could rush the forehand return and force errors on the first serve but not the second serve.
  •  Williams averaged 107mph as her first serve speed but only 89mph on her second serve.
  • Sharapova averaged four miles per hour slower than Williams on first serves but four miles an hour faster on second serves.

Sharapova had a great start to the match, forcing Williams’ second service game of the match at 1-1 to eight deuces before finally losing it. It was a good early sign in their 14th overall meeting and sixth in a final. Williams may have lost the battle of the first set but the mental and emotional energy that it took from Sharapova helped Williams win the war. In the third set, Sharapova only won 10 total points – five serving and five returning.

 2013 Indian Wells Final: Rafael Nadal def. J.M. Del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 

Both players heavily targeted their opponent’s backhand with their serve direction which also helped them hit a forehand as their first shot after the serve.

  • On first serves, Del Potro made Nadal hit 85% backhands but only 61% of the time on second serves as Nadal was able to run around several second serves directed to his backhand and hit them as forehands. Nadal was so persistent with this strategy that he was even able to create forehand returns off second serves that were landing on the center line in the Ad court directed towards his backhand.
  • Nadal also targeted Del Potro’s backhand with his first serve, making him hit 71% backhands but Del Potro hit 77% forehands off Nadal’s weaker second serve.
  • Del Potro in particular stood far behind the baseline to return second serves to allow him enough time and space to run around and wind up with heavier artillery.
  • Both players would at times used the surprise strategy of serving wide to their opponent’s forehand on second serves to hopefully catch them cheating running around their backhand.

Go Do This

Yes – you are only as good as your second serve. How often do you practice it? 

You must have slice and kick – both are different weapons to make the returner uncomfortable. 

Hitting it deep in the box is the best thing to stop the returner stepping in and hurting you.

Primary locations are Positions 3 and 7 at the backhand jam.

Surprising to the strength often leads to a return error.