Seasoned tennis players and fans will know that the serve is the most important shot in the game. Sure, groundstroke consistency and net-play are pretty significant too, but the serve outweighs them all.
If you can’t serve, you can’t even get a rally started, making the rest of your arsenal useless. The serve sets up the rest of the point. A good one will put you in a winning position from the get-go. A bad serve will put you in a hole from the very start.
The serve sets the precedent for the rest of the point, and sometimes the match. For many, it’s the most intimidating shot of any opponent.
I’ve compiled the numbers on the serves of the top 100 men for 2011. I’ve mapped out the statistics to find out just how important the serve is, and to see the specific aspects of the serve that separate the weak from the strong.
Obviously, there is a lot of variation among the serves of the top 100 singles players in men’s tennis, but the important patterns may surprise you.
Let’s start with the least significant service stat.
As it turns out, the first serve percentage (the percentage of playable first serves) isn’t all that outstanding among the top players in the world. The difference in first serve percentage between 2011’s No. 1, Novak Djokovic, and the 2011’s No. 100, Karol Beck, is strikingly small. Djokovic made 65 percent of his first serves, and Beck made 64 percent.
In fact, the three men with the best first serve percentage (all at 71 percent) were Alex Bogomolov Jr. (ranked 34), Dmitry Tursunov (ranked 41) and Lakasz Kubot (ranked 58). The worst first serve percentage in the game belongs to the World No. 15, Gael Monfils.
These results seem counterintuitive. Overall, the trend shows that first serve percentage only slightly decreases as one moves from the top-ranked players to the bottom. First serve percentage simply isn’t a huge factor in determining rank.
The percentage of second serve points won is considerably more important, according to the data. Though by no means a perfect correlation, the trend line across the top 100 men’s singles players reveals about a six percent difference between the top players and those at the bottom.
The top three players, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer each win at least 56 percent of their second serve points. The only other players in the Top 100 with that good of a record are Alexandr Dolgopolov (ranked 14), Albert Montanes (ranked 50) and Yen-Hsun Lu (ranked 78).
The four worst serving percentages in the Top 100 are all in the bottom 30, the worst belonging to No. 97, Matthew Ebden, who won only 39 percent of his second serve points in 2011.
By the numbers, however, the most important serving statistic is first serve points won. The difference between the top players and the bottom is nearly 10 percent. The top ten players average a first serve winning percentage of about 75 percent.
By contrast, the bottom ten players in the Top 100 average a first serve winning percentage of 67 percent. That difference manifests itself in a lot of lost points, and lost points mean lost games. And lost games mean lost matches. And lost matches mean a lower ranking.
If you take a look at the data, you’ll see that there are many outliers.
Because of the huge number of shots, physical factors and intangibles that go into a player’s game, no single serving statistic is likely to correlate strongly with ranking. Still, we can see patterns.
It’s clear that, in the upper echelons of men’s tennis, first serve percentage is pretty steady across the field. On the other hand, the percentage of first serves won varies much more dramatically across the rankings.
There can be no doubt that the serve is one of the most important parts of any tennis game, if not the most important part. It has and will continue to define players and points. The data from 2011 demonstrates the trends across the serving spectrum.