Home / Industry / The most important shot in men’s tennis

As tennis gets played more from the baseline—as opposed to the serve-and-volley game played till the late 1990s—the control of the point has quietly shifted to the player who’s at the receiving end of the serve. Still, the serve remains the stroke that can yield maximum control, if played well, because that’s the start of the point.

The ball, so to say, is in the server’s court and how he serves is most likely to set the tone of the point. at’s also perhaps why a majority of players still choose to serve if they win the toss.

A Mint study of shot statistics in men’s tennis over the past 23 years shows that points won on second serve is the most crucial in men’s tennis. The study also shows that during the days when serve-and-volley tennis used to be the order of the day, both first and second serves were crucial. As courts have slowed and the game has moved to the baseline, the relative importance of the second serves vis-à-vis the first serves has increased.

First serves are faster than second serves, but slower courts have blunted the edge of fast-paced first serves in the modern era. Better rackets have also played a role in transforming the game. “The biggest change in tennis has been the racket material and size, which allows players to return much more successfully than they used to," said Mary Carillo, a sportscaster and former tennis player, over email. “(Andre) Agassi returning (Pete) Sampras as he did would not have happened with wooden rackets. Blistering passing shots have become possible because of the newer rackets, which has kept a lot of players from serving and volleying."

The baseline game that’s the order of the day makes the second serve an important shot. To be sure, shots and strokes played from the baseline like returns of serves have also steadily gained in importance because of the changing nature of the game. Still, the second serve continues to be crucial.

The analysis was based on annual data since 1991 sourced from the ATP World Tour website. ATP does not disclose statistics prior to 1991. So it was not possible to measure the success rates of major serve and volleyers such as Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg at their peaks as well as legends like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors who played a serve-and-volley game.

ATP measures a player’s success rate (based on the number of matches he plays in a year) across 10 shots. The current analysis examines success rate of top-ranked players on five parameters: first serve points won, second serve points won, return games won, first serve return points won and second serve return points won.

The analysis involved checking the correlation between year-end rankings of players and success rate in individual shots to see if players in the top five on a year-on-year basis have a high success rate (among the top 20 success rates) in any one or more of the five selected shots.

Between 2001 and 2013, on an average, four of the top five ranked players finished in the top 20 most successful players based on their second serve points won. The top five players on average also scored well on return points, but the average rate of success was highest in second serve points, at 4.31.

While the margin of success between the most crucial shot (second serve) and return of serve shots has diminished over the years, the second serve is still the most important shot, which determines success rate in tennis today.

Things were different till the late 1990s, when the serve and volleyers dominated the game. In that era, the first serve was nearly as important as the second serve, the data shows.

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