As a companion piece to my list of the ten greatest servers in tennis history, I have decided to compile a list of the game’s standout returners over the last 25 years. ‘But why only the last 25 years, James?!’ I hear you cry. My reasoning is thus: it would be unfair to compare eras that were quite distinct, in that improved racquet technology changed the sport dramatically during the mid-1980s. When it becomes apparent that Jimmy Connors did not make the cut, well, now you know why.
As was the case in the previous article, the sum of a player’s return will be taken into consideration. Decisions will also be weighted in favor of fast-court returners. It should go without saying that this is not an exact science, and I do not have a concrete formula written down as a guide to my choices. It is entirely subjective. With no further caveats in mind, let’s get on with the list.
I expect to take some heat for this selection, but at least hear me out first. Let me be clear, Federer makes it onto the list purely based on his astonishing ability to neutralize monstrous first serves during his peak.
His ability to absorb the pace of the serve and knock it back to a good length was unmatched from 2004 until 2006. Statistically, the Swiss was the best fast-court first serve returner between those years.
The newly crowned World No. 1 may have crept up even higher on the list if not for his puzzlingly passive second serve return. Federer almost exclusively chips back even the slowest second serves, generally content to begin the point in a neutral position.
The fiery Aussie was viewed as a natural successor to Agassi during the early part of this century, largely owing to his dominant return game. Out of all the players on this list, Hewitt is probably the best at dealing with the serve and volley game style.
Although he would get aced a lot, getting his racquet to the ball was usually sufficient to ensure that his opponent would be forced to play a tough volley. He was very similar to Agassi in this respect.
The Hewitt second serve return was less effective than the first, mostly due to the fact that he was content to play things safe. The former World No. 1 lacked natural power, which also may have compromised his ability to inject pace into slow second serve returns.
The Russian has never been known for his hand skills, yet he is surprisingly adept at the return game. And given his occasionally cringe-inducing serve, he must be thankful that his return is so dominant.
What is most surprising about Davydenko’s return game is that he is equally skilled at returning both first and second serves. Most tennis pundits would grant that the first serve return is based on ‘feel,’ or, put more simply, hand skills. Well, Davydenko does not have much of what we colloquially refer to as ‘feel’.
What he does have is terrific timing, along with some of the cleanest ball-striking you are ever likely to see. His anticipation should also be credited for the success he achieves on the return.
Like Federer, the Russian was always near the top of the return statistics from 2004-2006—and perhaps a little beyond. Unlike the Swiss, Davydenko is most certainly not content to block back second serves. Instead, he takes the ball early and does so with aggression, adding up to an impressive all-around return game.
The diminutive Spaniard is something a little special, given how well he is able to overcome his physical shortcomings. His ability to return serve and get to balls a 5’9” player has no right to even get near is exceptional.
Ferrer is undoubtedly one of the best first serve returners of the modern era, and arguably the most consistent. In seven of the last eight years, he has been in the top five in terms of the percentage of return games won on all surfaces.
The World No. 5’s second serve return is a little less impressive, but only marginally so. He lacks the aggression of the better second serve returners, but he still manages to win a high percentage of points against the second offering, based purely on his dogged attitude.
The talented Argentine is another player, like Ferrer and Davydenko, who uses his supreme return game to compensate for a lackluster serve. In many ways, Nalbandian is similar to Davydenko in his approach to the return. However, he has excellent hand skills to complement his timing and ball-striking ability.
His ability to return first serves is as good as anyone’s on the list thus far. Where he truly shines, though, is in his unbridled aggression when it comes to dealing with the second serve. If the portly Argentine can get his strings on the ball, you can be sure that he will look to end the point with one swing of the racquet.
Novak Djokovic came to prominence as a truly great returner in 2011. Prior to his sensational season last year, he was considered a very good returner. However, he was not considered the best, and certainly not the best ever, as the bandwagon-hopping John McEnroe is so fond of claiming.
What makes the Serb’s return so extraordinary is his flexibility. He has the ability to fling himself at seemingly unreachable serves and somehow produce an effective return. Of all the players on this list, his return game is the most visually appealing.
Although a tremendous first serve returner, Djokovic is at his best when he is taking carefree swipes at second serves. Perhaps the most impressive part of his return game is not the actual mechanics of it, but rather how clutch he is. His break point conversion is almost without equal. Should he continue to emulate the returning he displayed during 2011, he will be worth his place at the very summit of this list.
The perennial bridesmaid, Andy Murray, once again comes second. But let’s not dwell on the negative. The Scot is perhaps the best first serve returner the game has ever seen, with an uncanny ability to handle even the most formidable of serves. The statistics appear to bear this out, with Murray topping the list of first serve returners on hard courts for four of the last five years. He has been extraordinarily consistent, even breaking the top three during his first full season on the tour.
It is worth highlighting just how impressive the World No. 4’s statistics are overall. In three out of the four return categories, statistically Murray is in the top three all time. And to go along with his peerless first serve return, the Scot’s ability to attack second serves makes him the most well-rounded returner on the list.
The biggest barrier to Murray being considered the best returner of the last 25 years is relatively poor break point conversion. He is actually ranked at 44 all-time on that particular measure, suggesting that his return does not always hold up when it matters most.
It is no surprise that the beloved American tops this list, but it was not an easy decision to make. Without question, Agassi is the most dominant second serve returner in the history of tennis. His knack for taking the ball early allowed him to not only take his opponents’ time away, but it meant that he could punish second serves as he would any short ball.
The benefit of possessing such a murderous second serve return is that it puts an extreme amount of pressure on the opponent’s first serve. One should not overlook how intimidating it must be to know that you will be dealing with the most aggressive returner of all time in the event that you miss your first serve. Like Nalbandian more recently, Agassi liked to view the second serve as the shortest ball he was likely to get in the rally, and he treated it accordingly.
Unfortunately for Andre, his first serve return suffered somewhat by comparison. He would often get aced a lot, arguably because he took risks even when returning first serves. The fact that Agassi tops this list on the basis of his second serve return illustrates just how dominant that particular stroke was.