The most influential points to the final outcome of a tennis match are break points.
Taking care of your own serve is the first priority, and saving those precious break points goes a very long way to winning matches, and defining careers. But all break points are not created equal.
An Infosys ATP Beyond the Numbers analysis of players who finished in the year-end 2015 Emirates ATP Rankings shows that there is a big difference when players attempt to save a break point with a first serve or a second serve.
Let’s start with year-end World No.1, Novak Djokovic. Djokovic made his first serve in play two times out of three (66 per cent) when facing a break point in the 2015 season, and won a healthy 73 per cent of those critical points. But if Djokovic missed his first serve, the winning percentage dropped down to only 59 per cent.
The primary reason is the power of the first serve. Djokovic typically averages right around 192 km/h (119mph) with his first delivery, and 156 km/h (97mph) with his second serve.
Basically, the difference in speed means the returner is initially playing defense against Djokovic’s first serve, but switches to offence against the comparatively slower second serve.
Year-end World No. 2, Andy Murray has more of a spread saving break points, making it even more imperative that he makes his first serve when facing break point. Murray is very close to Djokovic saving break points on first serves at 72 per cent, with the Serb only one percentage point higher. But when Murray misses his first serve, he is only saving 53 per cent on second serves - a substantial six percentage points lower than Djokovic.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s metrics really stand out in this area, having the largest spread between break points saved on first serves and second serves: 39 percentage points. Tsonga led the year-end Top 10 in break points saved following a first serve at a staggering 83 per cent. But curiously, he was at the bottom of the Top 10 list in saving break points on second serves, at only 44 percent.
Tsonga won 53 per cent of all second serve points in the 2015 season. Finding an under-performing area like this is actually good news for a player because they learn exactly where to spend their time on the practice court.
When you average out the Top 10 players in the 2015 season, they are saving break points 72 per cent of the time when making a first serve. On average, that drops to 53 per cent with second serves. That 19 per cent difference is one of the most important, hidden metrics in our sport.
One would imagine that making a slightly slower first serve - even one that looks and behaves a little bit more like a second serve - would be beneficial, because the returner is in a defensive mindset, simply trying to get back to neutral in the rally after returning a first serve.
Rafael Nadal’s year-end ranking dipped from No. 3 in 2014 to No. 5 in 2015, and that may be due in part to his performance on break points. Along with Kei Nishikori, Rafa had the lowest percentage of break points saved with a first serve, at 67 per cent. Nadal joined Tsonga as the only two Top 10 players below 50 per cent (at 49 per cent) saving break points on their second serves.
The Swiss connection in the Top 10 provides perfect symmetry in this statistical category for Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. Both are saving 77 per cent (equal second) of break points on first serves, and a very respectable 55 per cent on second serves.
Nishikori’s aggressive game style yields the smallest spread between saving break points on first and second serves. He is winning 67 per cent of break points on first serves, and a Top 10-leading 62 per cent on second serves.
Nishikori is three percentage points better with his second serve performance than Djokovic, and seven percentage points better than the next best in order, being the Swiss duo.
It stands to reason that these numbers would wash right through all levels of our sport. There is a lot to learn from these metrics for recreational players all over the world: Pay extra attention to making a first serve when facing the pressure of break points.
SAVING BREAK POINTS ON FIRST AND SECOND SERVES
||Serving % First Serve
||Serving % Second Serve