#8 Return Situations

 2012 U.S. Open Analytics 


 Men Return Points Won vs. 1st Serves = 28.0% 

 Men Return Points Won vs. 2nd Serves = 48.0% 

 Men Returns Made = 69.8% 

MENSuccessful Total Winning %
Return Points Won vs. 1st Serves4,76516,97128.0%
Return Points Won vs. 2nd Serves5,80412,06748.0%
Returns Made 13,36519,12869.8%


 Women Return Points Won vs. 1st Serves = 36.8% 

 Women Return Points Won vs. 2nd Serves = 53.9% 

 Women Returns Made = 78.6% 

WOMENSuccessful Total Winning %
Return Points Won vs. 1st Serves3,76510,21136.8%
Return Points Won vs. 2nd Serves3,5916,65153.9%
Returns Made 7,6979,78878.6%


PLAYERReturningWinning %Totals
Serena Williams Returning 1st Serves 48.2%122/253
Victoria Azarenka Returning 1st Serves45.5%134/294
Novak Djokovic Returning 2nd Serves59.2%150/253
Andy Murray Returning 2nd Serves57.9%194/335

 2012 Wimbledon Rd 16: Novak Djokovic def. Viktor Troicki 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 

Novak Djokovic looks cherry ripe.

You don’t need to go far on an IBM match report to pinpoint exactly why Novak Djokovic is mowing through the early rounds of Wimbledon this year.

Djokovic took exactly 90 minutes to defeat world #34 Victor Troicki  to advance to the quarter finals and firm as the favorite to win the Championships.  Everything about his game looks good but his backhand return of serve in particular is on fire. Patrons on center court should have had to pay a little extra for the clinic Djokovic put on with this area of his game.

Djokovic won 89% (17/19) of points over three sets when he got his backhand return into play.

Troicki was able to hit one ace and force seven return errors off Djokovic’s backhand wing but he needed a lot more points than that to make it a competitive encounter. Djokovic’s success with his backhand return centers much more on the depth he hits it rather than the direction of the shot.

Djokovic targets deep down the middle of the court with this lethal return to initially get the server pushed back as they get their hands and feet organized coming out of their service motion. Hitting the backhand return right at the opponent also forces them to get out of the way of the shot instead of moving towards it. Lastly, it delivers no angle for the server to hurt Djokovic with to begin the point. This is a classic strategy right out of the Andre Agassi playbook that Djokovic is now refining and taking to a new level. Take away their time, deliver no angle and immediately alter the dynamic of who really has control at the start of the point.

  • When Djokovic did get his backhand return in play he won 9/11 points (82%) from Troicki’s first serves.
  • Djokovic won an astonishing 8/8 (100%) on second serves.
  • When Djokovic got his backhand return in play off a second serve in the deuce court he won 2/3 (67%) points, but ended up winning 6/7 (86%) in the Ad court.
  • Djokovic broke Troicki six times and on four of these break points Troicki missed his first serve and had to start the point with a second serve. They were all played in the Ad court and Troicki directed all four second serves to Djokovic’s backhand return. It was a mistake that lost him all four points.

In the previous round against Radek Stepanek, Djokovic won 38/57 (67%) when he got his backhand return of serve in play.

Crunching the data and uncovering the tactics poses an obvious question – would it be wise not to serve to Djokovic’s backhand at all? The evidence is compelling – your head says to serve to the opponent’s backhand, but against Djokovic it is a losing proposition because he has elevated this part of his game to such a high level. Primary serving patterns against the world number one should be much more to the forehand wide and forehand body before you tempt fate and serve to his backhand. It’s got to be a surprise otherwise the hole you are already in just got a little deeper.

 2013 US Open Final: Serena Williams def. Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 

Serena sees her backhand return of serve as a perfect shot to immediately attack and force an error.

  • Williams stepped in and immediately forced 13 errors from Azarenka with her backhand return.
  • Eight were backhands and five were forehands.
  • By comparison, Williams was only able to immediately force three errors with her forehand return of serve.

 Rafael Nadal lifetime at Roland Garros 

This is where Nadal excels and gives his opponents very little room to breathe.

Just imagine having 3 serves that deliver a winning percentage to you. Well, the table below is what that phenomenon looks like for Rafa at Roland Garros.

Nadal’s 3 Serves with a Winning %

NADAL Winning %
Nadal 1st Serves72%
Opponent 2nd Serves60%
Nadal 2nd Serves 58%
Opponent 1st Serves41%

Nadal runs around his backhand on almost all second serves to start the point with a heavy, deep forehand return to wrestle early control of the point.

  • Nadal has won 68% (3214 of 4771) of all points serving in eight years.
  • He has won 48% (2412 of 5100) of all his return points.
  • This averages that Nadal has won 57% (5626 of 9871) of all points he has ever played at the French Open. Game, set, immortality.

2008 was the best he has played in Paris as he didn’t drop a set and crushed Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the final. Nadal only dropped 41 games for the entire tournament (Bjorn Borg only dropped 37 in 1980 and 32 in 1978 at the French Open). The players Nadal beat the most during the run were Roger Federer (5 times), Lleyton Hewitt (4 times) and Novak Djokovic (4 times).

 2013 Miami 2nd Rd: John Isner def. Ivan Dodig 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (5) 

The difference in heights and game styles made for vastly different return tactics.

John Isner’s average contact point on first serves was 2.8 feet behind the baseline but he became more aggressive on second serves making contact on average 1.3 feet inside the baseline.That’s how it typically works on hard courts. Ivan Dodig’s average contact point on first serves was 11.8 feet behind the baseline – a full nine feet further back than Isner.

But while Isner chose to move further forward for second serves Dodig chose to do the opposite and go back. Dodig’s average contact point returning second serves was 14.2 feet behind the baseline – more than 15 feet further back than Isner.

Are they playing the same match?

Dodig was only able to get 43% of Isner’s first serves back in play but because he moved back so far enabling the ball to slow down and drop lower he was able to get back in play 83% of Isner’s second serves (Isner returned 60% 1st serves and 69% 2nd serves). The height difference of each player directly contributed to the height of contact made for the returner. Isner averaged making contact with his returns at 4.2 feet high while Dodig was up at 5.6 feet.

On second serves Isner’s average contact height was a little higher at 5 feet while Dodig was slightly lower at 4.5 feet because of his extremely deep court position.

On several second serve returns Dodig moved so far back he was in danger of hitting the linesmen.

Go Do This.

Men: You skyrocket from a 28% to a  48% chance of winning the point – returning 1st serves v 2nd serves. 

Women: You move from a 37% to a 54% chance of winning the point – returning 1st serves vs. second serves. 

Making returns is huge – even floating it like a butterfly deep in the court. Got to get the ball back in play. 

Best return you will ever hit is deep down the middle. Big target right at the server. Make them adjust.

Figure out which side (forehand or backhand) is better to rush with a quick, rebounding return of serve.

Returning middle provides no angle to immediately get hurt with.