Still the most important stroke, but less so

“The serve is the most important stroke in tennis.” It’s a truism, a staple of every instructional manual, DVD series, or website that we obsessives scour in an effort to upgrade our games. Chances are that your pro imparted this chestnut when you first tried to learn this fiendishly difficult stroke. Its importance was most self-evident in the early- to mid-1990s, when flamethrowers like Becker, Sampras, and Ivanisevic seemed to win the big events with that stroke alone.

Listen to the television commentary at any Grand Slam, however, and you’ll hear that the courts have slowed; the balls are heavier;  and space-age racket materials and strings have put a nuclear weapon in the hands of the returner, neutralizing the server’s traditional advantage.

Has the serve’s importance diminished? Perhaps. But the best servers still tend to outplay the game’s best returners.

I looked at the 30 players with the highest winning percentage on their service games, and the 30 with the best records on their return games. I calculated the average ATP ranking, as of September 21, 2009, for both groups.

Slide0001For the best servers, the average ranking is about 19. For the best returners, it’s about 30, a difference consistent with conventional wisdom about the serve’s importance. The gap may nevertheless paint a distorted picture. As you get to the bottom of the top returners’ list, some fairly marginal players make their way into the spreadsheet.

Fabio Fognini, with an ATP ranking of 87, and Rainer Schuettler, ATP ranking of 93, are both among the 30 best returners. The lowest ranking among the best servers, by contrast, is Mardy Fish at 52.

If you look at the top 10 from each list, the gap is much smaller—an average ranking of 14 for the 10 best servers and 17 for the top-10 returners. And if you look at the top 20, the returners have a slight edge.

No doubt about it, the serve is the most important stroke in tennis. It starts the point. It sets the tone. But the balance of power has become more equal.

–A. Clarke


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