Holding Serve

If there’s one thing the last two weeks at Wimbledon has taught us, it is that the serve is still the most fundamental shot in tennis.

Everything, begins with the serve.  The match, the game, the set, the point.  Professional players don’t bunt the ball across the net and begin a rally, the way most of us club hitters do on a cool Saturday morning.

It only makes sense that the serve, being the starting point of every fundamental part of the tennis scoring system, be a well formulated, and constructed shot, capable of achieving the ultimate goal of the tennis player, with a single swing.  Win a point.  Win enough points at the right time, and the match is yours.  However, the serve also serves as the focal point – the foundation if you like – for the rest of a professional tennis player’s game.  While the serve can definitely end a point with one swing, its fundamental purpose is to start the point.

This year’s Wimbledon championships gave us a glimpse of three different types of player – particularly on the ATP circuit.  I’ll call them Servers, Returners and Balancers.  Servers are the embodiment of the devastating power of the single swing point ending shot.  They realize the implicit advantage the server has over the outcome of a point and use their natural talent as well as physical gifts, to maximize the potential of their serves.  These players don’t spend a lot of their developmental effort improving all aspects of their game.  They focus on their strengths – usually a serve and one lethal follow up shot.  The goal is to end the point quickly and ruthlessly with the first shot and if for some reason, that shot comes back, end it with the next one.  We know these players.  Raonic, Cilic, Berdych, Zverev to name a few.  While these guys have varying rallying and movement abilities, the core of their game is the same.  Keep holding serve and placing that little bit of psychological pressure on their opponent, who most likely realizes that if he should lose his serve just once in a set, he’s essentially lost the set.  Lose serve a mere three times and he’s lost the match.  It works for the most part, until these servers face of against the next breed of players.

The returners build their game around the notion that eventually, a serve, no matter how good it is, must come back, essentially starting a rally.  That’s when these type of players come alive.  Their game is designed to take full advantage of the dynamics of a rally.  Fantastic hand-eye coordination to return the serve in the first place, speed and excellent footwork for court coverage, great swing mechanisms that rarely break down under pressure or awkwardness of body position, great timing that makes for excellent ball striking and redirection of shot, and touch – not necessarily for forays towards the net, though it helps – for that rally changing drop shot that usually stupefies the big server – servers are usually big.  Obviously, this style of play has its advantages.  Make enough returns and the returner becomes the player seeding some doubt in the mind of the server.  This player doesn’t seek to hit a ton of aces.  His aim is to tease out one more great shot, or make one more impossible return and watch as his opponent’s confidence balloon deflates, until that opponent is all but easy pickings.  Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon, Robert Bautista-Agut, and Kei Nishikori are a few guys who have mastered the art of winning matches without getting too many free points  on serve.  These guys usually run into challenges when they meet balancers.

While balancer isn’t a word, it is a term I’ve coined to describe the player who develops both his serve and his rallying game.  The balancer template for me, is the blue-print to the complete player.  This player realizes the value of a deadly first and second delivery, while possessing a rallying game that can more than hold its own against the best movers on tour.  If you’ve guessed the big four, then you are right.  Again there are varying levels of ability among balancers, but they usually have a very dependable serve, at least two rallying weapons, and exceptional movement.  However, the serve remains the key point starter and the ultimate go-to shot that the rest of their games are built around.

How important was the serve at this year’s championship?  Consider the two men who contested for the title this past Sunday, Roger Federer and Marin Cilic.  I’ve pulled some statistics from http://www.wimbledon.com which runs on IBM’s powerful analytics tools, to get a few interesting data that I briefly played around with to evaluate certain trends and make a few inferences from.

We’ll start with Marin Cilic.  Cilic served an impressive 135 aces for the tournament (averaging 19.3 aces per match), but he also made 20 double faults.  I came up with a metric called Serve Cheap Points Differential (SCPD) which subtracts the total number of aces (cheap points won) from the total number of double faults hit (cheap points gifted away).  This means Cilic had a staggering differential of 115.  This represents his cheap points profit as the case may be.  Cilic won a total of 115 cheap points over the course of the tournament.  If we assume that every game consists of four points played (15, 30, 40, game-point), then Cilic won a total of 28 games worth of cheap points.  Considering that his first round match was a brief sprint of 27 games, you can begin to appreciate how devastating Cilic’s serve was, particularly when it came to points won on it.  Cilic also got in an average of 61.4% of his first serves into play.  That’s average but when he got it in, he won a supreme 81% of those points.  135 aces will drive that percentage up for sure, and the ace count is largely due to the power and speed of Cilic’s delivery – he can belt them in at speeds of 146MPH.  He also possesses decent variety and placement.  His second serve was fair in terms of effectiveness.  Cilic won a middle of the line 55.7% of the points when he had to hit his second delivery.  We’ll keep a note of this interesting drop off for a bit later.

By contrast, Roger Federer’s total haul of aces for the tournament – compared to Cilic’s – came in at a paltry 72 aces, with an average of 10.3 aces per match.  His total ace haul was nearly half that of Cilic’s.  However, Federer also made less double faults – 12 in total – bringing his SCPD score to 60 or a mere 15 games worth of cheap points on serve.  However, this stat is misleading for one obvious reason.  Federer did not lose a set throughout the entire championship.  Coming into the finals, Cilic had already lost three.  If we assume that he lost each set by the minimum number of games i.e 0 – 6, that’s still 18 games more of serving for the big Croat.  When we look a bit deeper into Federer’s stats, we begin to realize why he didn’t drop a set throughout the fortnight.  On average, Federer got in 68% of his first serves in and won 81.7% of the points on those serves.  Not much different from Cilic.  In fact it is a .7% difference.  However, this is a game of inches.  When the Swiss had to hit a second serve?  He won 65% of those points – nearly 10% higher than Cilic’s conversion on his second ball.

Both these guys had fantastic first serves throughout the entire tournament, but Federer was the better player by far, on the second serve.  Why?  The answer is simple really.  Cilic for all his surprising little man qualities in a big man’s body, is still a Server archetype player.  Federer by contrast, is the ultimate Balancer.  Second serves usually come back which automatically means the beginnings of a rally not entirely on the serving player’s terms.  Under these circumstances, Federer’s all court skills far exceed Marin Cilic’s one two punch.  This was a subtle advantage Federer had heading into the final, but an advantage nonetheless.  The Swiss knew that while his first delivery was fairly even with the Croat’s, his second delivery, was far more effective.  Apart from the all court game, Federer’s second delivery incorporates everything that makes the first delivery so lethal, minus the pace.  The disguise, the spot serving, the variation and the spin, all of these elements are still there.

There’s also one thing inherent in being a balancer.  You are pretty darn good at everything.  I stated in an earlier article that Federer’s return game is perhaps even more underrated than his serve.  Looking at the stats for the final, this proved true again.  Cilic’s average first serve in for the tournament was 61.4%.  He largely stayed true to that, posting in an average of 60% first serves in for the final.  However, where he usually won 81% of those points, on Sunday he was only able to win 65% of them.  His second serve?  It was essentially point suicide when Cilic missed his first serve.  He only won 39% of the points when he had to put in his second delivery.  Federer on the other hand, got in 76% of his first serves and won 81% of the points on those serves.  He also converted a staggering 71% of the points played on his second delivery.  His second delivery conversion rate was 6% better than Cilic’s first serve conversion rate.  He out-aced Cilic, 8 – 5 and ended it fittingly, with an ace up the T.  If there was ever a tournament that reinforced the concept of a solid all round game built around a potent – not fast but potent – serve, this was it.

What was that famous quote by John Newcombe again?  Ah yes.  Your game is only as good as your second serve.

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