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The importance of the second serve return

The importance of the second serve return. 

There are three phases to a game of tennis: serve, return and rally. 

Do we emphasise the return with our coaching and players at training enough?

We tend to have a strong emphasis on serving technique along with tactical awareness on how to dictate the play with our serve, but looking at the statistics of return points won from first serve and second serve at the elite level, we may reconsider some of our coaching strategies. 

If you looked at your second-serve return performance from only the matches you lost, would the average be higher than your first-serve return win percentage from only the matches you won?

The Infosys Beyond The Numbers analysis looks at five seasons from 2015-2019 and includes players that have played a minimum of 50 matches. Players in the data set averaged winning 53.3% of second-serve return points when they won their match, with that average dropping down to 44.5% when they lost the match. But 44.5%, which is a bad day for second serve returns won, is still significantly superior to 32.3%, which is a great day returning against first serves. The gap is 12.2%, which is essentially chalk and cheese.

To help explain this better check out the video below.

The following table highlights average points won against first and second serves when players won and lost matches.

Average Points Won When Winning & Losing The Match 2015-2019

Serve

Player Won Match Player Lost Match

First Serve Return Points Won

32.3%

23.7%

Second Serve Return Points Won

53.3%

44.5%

There is one person at the elite level in the men’s game who stands out from the others, Diego Schwartzman. Against second serves, the Argentine averaged winning 60% in matches that he won from 2015-2019, with 23 of his 135 victories above the 70% threshold for second serve points won. 

Schwartzman was also the leader with first serve return points won when winning the match at 37.9%. Looking at these statistics provides new clarity for players and coaches to identify what matters most to win a match and prepare for this as best they can. The first serve is a weapon in our sport and even an outstanding performance returning in this area averages winning only about one in every three points.

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