Ranking the Best Serves in Tennis Today
Given that it starts and occasionally ends a point, the serve is the most important shot in tennis.
Without at least a solid serve, a player will struggle to forge a career at the elite level, as a competent returner will routinely punish him or her.
Some of the players on this list have relied almost single-handedly on their strong serve in their long and fruitful careers.
Many purists turn their nose up at this; tennis is rarely at its most attractive or interesting when it pits two limited big-servers against each other.
Regardless, such players deserve credit for their dedication and technique in repeatedly executing a difficult skill, while even the most broadly talented of players sometimes have to rely on their serves on key points.
A whole host of talented servers in the game narrowly missed out on a place in this list.
Even the finest player in the game, Novak Djokovic, has significantly improved his serve in recent years, particularly on the big points when he would regularly double-fault earlier in his career.
The days of the Serb's incessant ball-bouncing when under pressure are long gone; in its place are composure and accuracy. However, it can still be one of the comparatively weaker aspects of his game, largely because he cannot generate the sort of power the 10 included in this list can.
Thomas Berdych is a better all-round player than many give him credit for, but it is unlikely he would have reached the depths of Slams as often as he has without his strong serve. That said, it is hard to escape the feeling it should be even stronger for a man of his frame and talent, and he does not hit as many first serves as a player of his quality should.
Both Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga also have booming serves, but it is not the standout aspect of either's man game. Del Potro's serve in particular can be frustrating at times.
And then there are the likes of Ernests Gulbis, Sam Groth and Bernard Tomic—players with strong serves who narrowly missed out on a spot.
It would also be a disservice not to mention Serena Williams—while her serve would not realistically cope at the elite level of the ATP Tour, it is surely the finest female weapon ever witnessed, having regularly bailed her out on the way to 19 Slam titles.
10) Jerzy Janowicz
Having recorded the joint-third highest serve (156 mph) of all time in his home nation in 2012, Jerzy Janowicz has the power to overcome any opponent.
The pace at which he manages to whip his arm, while bending his powerful frame, is frightening.
Consistency is Janowicz’s biggest issue, though, and he has thus far been unable to rediscover the scintillating form which saw him reach the Wimbledon semi-final in 2013.
It took one of the finest returners in the game, Andy Murray, to stop him in that tournament, but even the Scot was powerless to resist the Pole’s power in the first set tiebreaker.
Janowicz often struggles to find the right balance on his second serve; at only 47 percent, his second-serve win percentage was the second lowest of players in the top 100 in 2014, which is why he is not higher on this list.
It might be considered generous, then, for the 24-year-old to make this list on current form, but in full flight, the sheer velocity of his first serve remains a joy to behold.
The fact that he is currently 10th on the aces list despite being far from his best is a testament to that.
9) Nick Kyrgios
The Australian rookie is full of baseline flair and eccentric antics, but his biggest weapon is his monstrous serve.
The 19-year-old hit fame by stunning Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon last year, as the Spaniard was unable to cope with Kyrgios’ astonishing power.
So far this year he has won 91 percent of his service games—the same percentage as Novak Djokovic and the world’s fastest server, Sam Groth—while striking 123 aces in just six matches.
Indeed, he had the highest ace-per-match average on tour last year, with only two of the top three in this list ahead of him on that front this year.
8) Marin Cilic
Under the tutelage of compatriot Goran Ivanisevic, the leading acer in history, 6’6” Marin Cilic’s serve has hugely improved over the past year, culminating in his highly unexpected triumph at the U.S. Open last year.
As described by Ravi Ubha for CNN, the Croatian “overpowered [Roger] Federer in the semifinals in straight sets and did the same against the diminutive [Kei] Nishikori, firing 17 aces and winning 80 percent of his first-serve points.”
To only be broken once in such a high-pressure environment, albeit against a visibly fatigued opponent, was commendable.
Cilic ranked fourth for both aces and percentage of first-serve points won throughout 2014; if he can improve his sometimes shaky second serve or his first-serve percentage to avoid relying on it as often, he may well push the big three in this list somewhat harder, with a better all-round game to go with it.
7) Gilles Muller
The 31-year-old from Luxembourg is enjoying something of a career swan song, currently sitting in the highest ranking position of his career at No. 34 after reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open.
And it is largely due to his excellent serve, as he has racked up a formidable 250 aces already in 2015.
He is also sitting in the top five on tour for percentage of first-serve points won and break points saved this year.
The former U.S. Open quarter-finalist is a tough cookie to break, and in his current serving hot streak, few players will want to face him.
6) Roger Federer
It’s been a familiar sight for more than a decade: After playing a loose service game and finding himself a break point down, out comes a booming Roger Federer first serve to save the day.
Indeed, only the two tallest men on tour—both of whom feature ahead of him in this list—saved a higher percentage of break points than the Swiss managed last year (71 percent), and it is only the same duo ahead of them in that statistic this year, too.
They were also the only two players to win a higher percentage of service games than the Swiss’ effort of 91 percent throughout 2014.
Federer’s unique, but highly reliable, ball toss and arching of his back help him blend consistency with explosiveness, as well as an ability to find angles that few can.
His reliable second serve, which he often uses a kicker technique with, also helped him achieve a higher second-serve win percentage (58 percent) than any player on tour last year, although his strong groundstrokes are arguably more significant in that particular figure.
Fourth on the all-time aces list—and now less than 100 behind third-placed Andy Roddick—serving has been an underrated aspect of his game and testament to the importance of placement alongside power.
5) Kevin Anderson
The 6’8” South African is in the form of his life at the moment, having reached the fourth round in four of the last five Slams and currently sitting in a career-high No. 15 in the ATP rankings.
He hit the fifth-highest amount of aces (an impressive 723) on tour last year while also winning an impressive 86 percent of his service games.
Just ask Stan Wawrinka how difficult he is to play against; the Swiss lost to him three times last year, including at Indian Wells and the Paris Masters.
4) Sam Querrey
Americans tend to be pretty good at serving, and Sam Querrey is no different.
He holds the record for the most consecutive aces in a match (10 against compatriot James Blake in 2007), while he averaged over 14 aces per match last year.
The only players to win a higher percentage of their service games throughout last year were the three men directly ahead of him in this list, as well as Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, which illustrates Querrey’s dominance on his serve despite a slip in his overall standard in the last few years.
3) John Isner
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of John Isner’s serving is his first-serve percentage.
Of course, the 6’10” American’s height gives him a great advantage in that regard, widening the service box, but to be so consistent when hitting at such speed is freakishly good.
Indeed, only Rafael Nadal and Roberto Bautista Agut—two players not exactly renowned for fast serving—managed a higher first-serve percentage in both 2013 and 2014.
Isner also holds pretty much every serving record under the sun thanks to his historic 11-hour epic with Nicholas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010, when he hit 113 aces and held serve a whopping 84 consecutive times.
The only reason he does not feature even higher in this list is that the men ahead of him are generally serving at slightly faster speeds, which allows them to hit more aces and win a slightly higher percentage of first-serve points.
Regardless, facing Isner and Sam Querrey in a doubles match must be the stuff of nightmares.
2) Milos Raonic
"I can't recall the last time when I was feeling so helpless returning, even his second serves,” reflected Novak Djokovic, perhaps the finest returner of serve in the history of tennis, after his narrow victory over Milos Raonic at the Rome Masters last year, as per SuperSport.com.
Put simply, the Canadian is a monster server.
Tom Perrotta noted for the The Wall Street Journal that “more than half of the serves hit by [the] 6'5" Canadian in his first four matches [at the Australian Open] weren’t returned.”
After breaking the 1,000 barrier for aces last year, Raonic currently leads the tour in that regard, having already broken the quarter-century mark.
Having also led the tour in terms of percentage of first-serve points won in 2011, 2012 and 2013—a figure which has stood at 83 percent this year and last—his only slight weaknesses regarding serving have been his first-serve percentage and his percentage of second-serve points won.
The former stood at 61 percent throughout 2014, and the latter at 54 percent, so both were outside the top 10 on tour.
Both have improved to 68 percent and 59 percent, respectively, thus far this year, suggesting that stopping the Canadian is going to become progressively harder as he develops.
Indeed, the fact that Raonic’s recent statistics include a higher quantity of clashes against better opponents in bigger matches than the men he is sandwiched in between makes it all the more impressive.
And the 24-year-old’s serve alone should ensure such clashes continue for many years to come.
1) Ivo Karlovic
On the ATP Tour in 2014, the Croatian recorded the highest amount of aces (1,185), the highest first-serve win percentage (84 percent) and the joint-highest win percentage of his service games (93 percent).
Only his compatriot Goran Ivanisevic, meanwhile, has more career aces, with Karlovic averaging 18.76 per match throughout his career.
Reading such stats alone, it would be difficult to understand how the 35-year-old has never surpassed the quarter-final of a Slam.
Yet, in reality, it is astonishing he has reached the heights he has due to his lack of all-round talent, with his dominant victory over Grigor Dimitrov at the French Open last year particularly eyebrow-raising.
At an incredible 6’11”, he is the tallest player on tour, giving him a huge advantage when it comes to serving.
It would be fair to say, however, that his height hasn’t helped his clunky footwork, while his groundstrokes remain as mediocre as ever.
According to ATP Match Facts, he is also the poorest returner since stats began to be recorded in 1991, winning just 9 percent of his return games throughout his career.
Still, he may well be the most deadly server of all time and deserves huge credit for competing at the elite end of tennis with essentially one weapon.
He is living proof of just how important the serve is.
All serving stats included are sourced from ATP Match Facts unless otherwise stated.