Top 5 Serves in Tennis

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Over the next few weeks, Blindside Sport will be ranking the best shots in tennis. First up, we take a look at the top 5 serves on the tour.

How do we rank the best servers in the world? With so many ways to win a point, is a big first serve advantageous, or would you rather sacrifice some speed for pinpoint accuracy on the big points?  From countless years of watching tennis, here is what I consider to be the most crucial aspects of a player’s serve

  1. Ability to win free points – a great way to get through a service game quickly, or recover from dangerous 15-30, 30-30, 30-40 situations
  2. Hitting spots under pressure – on the big points, the best servers will deliver. Accurate first serves set up the point
  3. An attacking second serve – can easily put the server in a winning rally position. Simply using a second serve as a point starter will not work

Even with these criteria however, judging a server is a very difficult task. Take the 2009 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. To almost everyone, Roddick has the preferred serve, especially on grass – fast, accurate and an extremely quick second serve that sometimes pushed 170kmh. But it was Federer with all the big serving numbers. 50 aces for Fed versus 27, 89% winning on first serve versus 83%, 60% winning on second serve versus 44%. So even on what would be considered Roddick’s best ever match, he was completely outplayed on serve.

Every match is different, every returner is different, but based on the three crucial aspects of a players serve, here are the 5 players that more often than not will come through on serve.

5. Novak Djokovic

2013 Serving Statistics
Aces: 476 (5.7/match)
1st Serve: 66%
1st Serve Points won: 75%
2nd Serve Points won: 60%
Service Games won: 88%

Number five on this list was always a difficult one, but the rapid rise of Novak Djokovic since 2011 can be largely attributed to his improved serve. Early in his career, the Djokovic serve was never a weapon, and would be prone to double faulting sprees in crucial moments. Everyone remembers all those ball bounces before his serve before his rise to number 1. You hardly see them anymore, even on the big points. Credit to Djokovic though – he wouldn’t have even been in the top 30 ranked serves when he won his first Grand Slam in 2008.

Not a big ace server, but he hits his spots on the big points. Time and time again throughout his most recent match against Stanislas Wawrinka, Djokovic would come up big time in the big moments. Yes, he lost that match, but his serve extended that match deep into the fifth. I’m putting him in the same category as Federer – easily top two server in the big points. By big points, we’re talking about break points deep in Grand Slam which can be the difference between the title or not.

4. Roger Federer

2013 Serving Statistics
Aces: 399 (6.4/match)
1st Serve: 63%
1st Serve Points won: 76%
2nd Serve Points won: 55%
Service Games won: 87%

Possibly the most underrated area of Federer’s game, the serve has payed many bills for the Swiss legend. The ability to hit any spot in the court from the same ball toss completely baffles his opponents, not to mention a brilliant second serve that can really stretch out his opponents. The short serve out wide was a big winner in the 2014 Australian Open, especially against Andy Murray in the quarter final.

The back injury of 2013 significantly hampered his campaign, with his serving statistics taking quite a hit. The two standout differences are on second serve points won, with 55% in 2013 compared to a strong 60% in 2012, and in service games won with 87% compared to 91%. Interesting for Federer and what might be a sign of good things to come, his ace count from 2013 was a disappointingly low 399. Already through his 11 matches, he has already hit 104 – a good indication his back is in tip top shape.

3. Milos Raonic

2013 Serving Statistics
Aces: 883 (13.4/match)
1st Serve: 63%
1st Serve Points won: 82%
2nd Serve Points won: 53%
Service Games won: 91%

Milos Raonic burst onto the scene with his monster serve, with what some would regard as an underdeveloped ground game. For someone to work his way onto the cusp of the top 10 without anything more than a big serve is quite incredible. The big Canadian lacks movement, hindering him on the defensive side of the game, meaning any rally he wins is most likely behind a weak return from such a massive serve. Raonic leads the tour in first serve points won (2013) at 82%, a full 3% ahead of his nearest rival shows just how dominant this serve is

He would be higher on this list if not for a relatively poor second serve winning percentage. At 53%, he is well down on his fellow big servers, and sits only 14th on the tour. Again, this suggests his ground game cannot back up his serve, something which Raonic will need to work heavily on if he can ever be considered a Grand Slam contender. Quite simply, he’ll lose when he has an off serving day. The others in the top 10 have so much more they can rely on.

2. John Isner

2013 Serving Statistics
Aces: 979 (15.5/match)
1st Serve: 68%
1st Serve Points won: 78%
2nd Serve Points won: 56%
Service Games won: 90%

Number 2 on the list probably isn’t too much of a surprise. A great first serve percentage, backed up by an impressive first serve points won tally gives him the serving edge in any match he plays. Touching on 1000 aces in 2013 at an average of over 15 a match is just freakishly incredible considering how important the return game has become in the past 5 years. His 6 foot 11 frame gives him a huge advantage, especially when hitting wide on both sides. These serves are unreachable against a normal sized server, let alone someone close to a foot taller than everyone else.

He holds basically every single match serving record thanks to his 11 hour epic with Nicolas Mahut, where he fired down 113 aces and held serve for a whopping 84 consecutive times on his way to a 70-68 final set victory.

Some would argue that Raonic has the more lethal serve, but based on the first serve percentage, and second serve points won, it’s a no-brainer.

1. Ivo Karlovic

2013 Serving Statistics
Aces: 485 (17.3/match)
1st Serve: 65%
1st Serve Points won: 82%
2nd Serve Points won: 54%
Service Games won: 91%

Absolutely no contest for this position. Ivo Karlovic is most likely the greatest server of all time. To put it simply, he would not be ranked inside the top 500 if it wasn’t for the serve. I’ll never forget watching Karlovic against Federer at Wimbledon a few years back, where a simple rally ball was put into the back fence. No frame, right off the strings into the back fence. You just shouldn’t be seeing that at Wimbledon. Regardless, his career high ranking of 14 in 2008 is nothing to be laughed at.

At over 17 aces a match in 2013, Karlovic is an absolute pain to break. Just recently he set a record equalling 44 aces in a best of 3 set match, and in the one set he lost, he only lost one point on serve. That’s just stupidly good. If he’d been around maybe 10 years earlier, I would pencil him in for a couple of Wimbledon titles based solely on the serve. At 34 years old, there might not be much left in the tank, but as long as he can keep rolling that arm over, he’ll be the number 1 server for years to come.

 

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Religiously tennis - senior coach at Canberra School of Tennis, playing and watching. Sydney Swans nut and fan of the five day game.

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