Second-serve return in the men’s game: an exploration

Published by Matt Trollope

Nick Kyrgios (Getty Images)
Could ATP players return more aggressively when facing slow, short, high-bouncing second serves? We look at how they could — and where they might run into trouble.

Nick Kyrgios’ first-round win over Andrey Rublev at last year’s Kremlin Cup in Moscow was a shot-making clinic. But one shot stood out above the others. It was the Australian’s return off a Rublev second serve early in the third set, one that spun harmlessly off the Russian’s racquet at 144km/h, halfway up the middle of the box on the deuce side.

Kyrgios, already standing slightly inside the baseline, simply turned his shoulders and uncorked a ferocious forehand, sending the ball back significantly quicker than it arrived for a clean winner.

It is rare to see a serve treated with such contempt in the men’s game. But with second serves often deployed in this manner, one wonders why players don’t more often return them like this.

Three months later, David Ferrer was sending similarly-paced second serves into the centre of the box against Alexander Zverev at the Hopman Cup. Yet the German didn’t capitalise; several metres behind the baseline, he instead returned a dropping ball, placing Ferrer under little pressure despite a delivery that was, theoretically, vulnerable.

It was a similar story in the 2019 Cincinnati final between Daniil Medvedev and David Goffin. Hardly a fearsome server, Goffin curved a short second serve into the deuce-court box at 143km/h, yet Medvedev – who averaged a distance of 2.11m behind the baseline to receive second serves during that match – waited for the ball to arrive then guided the return back safely.

Later in the set, Goffin dished up a second serve at 137km/h – which Medvedev returned from even further back.

Problematic for Medvedev was that on the first of those examples, an 11-stroke rally ensued, perhaps needlessly. In Cincinnati’s stifling humidity, he began cramping as the set progressed.

Medvedev and Zverev are hardly alone in their preference for receiving serve well behind the baseline.

In recent years Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem have retreated so far back that they sometimes become practically invisible on TV broadcasts, obscured by the advertising hoardings as they position themselves near the line judges.

The idea is to take a big cut at the return, get the point back on neutral terms, then attempt to out-grind the opponent. Yet former Australian pro Wally Masur believes this inclination equals an opportunity missed.

“You’re probably not going to get another ball in the rally as short as the second serve – why wouldn’t you take advantage on that one?” Masur said.

“Do it early – first game. Make a statement. You drop it short? I’m coming. And when you do that, you will get your double faults as the match progresses.”

Kyrgios is not the only player showing aggressive instincts on the return. Roger Federer’s “SABR” was a notable addition to the game in 2015, where the Swiss began half-volleying returns and charging into the net behind them, completely befuddling the server.

Nikoloz Basilashvili is another; his compact swings, positioning inside the baseline and all-out attack were on display in this year’s Hamburg final – also, incidentally, against Rublev, who frequently delivered second serves in the 130s.

Andy Murray believes there is less pressure on the server when the receiver does not adopt an aggressive position.

“As a server, I think I prefer if guys stood back. It’s a little bit less pressure when someone’s standing back,” the former world No.1 said.

“Maybe it’s a flaw of mine, but I always return second serves inside the baseline. I think it’s been a strong part of my game. Maybe it’s good to have the option to go back and have that variety, but it’s not something that I’ve practiced or really tried.

“The positive thing about being inside the baseline is if you hit a good return, you take time away. (But) if you hit a bad one, you’re in a terrible position.

“You need to make sure you hit that return well.”

Diego Schwartzman, also notable for his returning prowess, agreed that attacking a serve was not always a sure-fire tactic – even when players like Kyrgios and Federer showed just how successful a player can be when rolling the dice in their return games.

“They can do (things like this on the return) because they have good timing. It’s difficult to do,” Schwartzman told Tennismash.

“If you see how many times (Kyrgios) won the point, is not big. I think is 20 per cent of the time. The choice to do that is really difficult to do first. Then I think it’s not the best one.”

A better model to follow on the return, according to Schwartzman, is that of Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori and Goffin. The Argentine pointed to this trio’s ability to position themselves offensively, move forward effectively, take the ball early, and rob the server of time to play their follow-up shot.

Schwartzman also acknowledged that developing his game on clay influenced his approach to receiving serve.

“(I was taught by coaches) at the beginning to be aggressive. I was trying every time in the second serve more than in the first to be aggressive. But the people in South America are born on clay, so you almost always have the chance to play the point in the return,” he said.

“Many times the people, when you born on clay, you go back and then you start the point. I mean, not aggressive, but trying to put the first ball in, then start the point.”

Clay is not the only factor fostering a more conservative mindset on the return.

Few players develop their games on grass. Quick indoor courts are disappearing. Hard courts around the world have slowed down.

As a result, more players are emerging who adopt a return stance more akin to Nadal, Thiem, Zverev and Medvedev, rather than Kyrgios or Federer.

According to Tennis TV commentator Nick Lester, today’s professional conditions have hugely impacted male players’ tactics on the return.

“Surfaces are not allowing (them to attack) quite so much, so players aren’t necessarily willing to take so many risks because they feel they may not get as much reward for an aggressive shot off the serve,” he told Tennismash.

“Guys obviously move better now because they’re better athletes, so from a defensive standpoint (there’s more risk). If you’re taking a second serve on the rise and (perhaps) trying to come in behind it, the risks are definitely there.

“(Murray) grew up playing on a variety of surfaces. When you play on quicker courts growing up you can’t stand that far back – you need to be able to take the ball early.

“Most players (now) play open-stance forehand and backhand, and one thing that doesn’t lend itself to necessarily is getting their weight and momentum going forward. And nowadays you know that 95 per cent of guys aren’t going to serve-and-volley, so you can sit back, take a rip at the return, and effectively get yourself in the point without having to give too much ground away.

“I certainly would agree with the overall assessment that there is a place for (more aggressive returning). Second serves are generally more predictable in terms of the patterns; for a right-hander, generally they’re going down the T on the deuce side, and out wide on the ad.

“But I do think that conditions at the moments aren’t necessarily lending themselves towards that sort of tactic.”

If there is indeed a place for it, could more aggressive returning represent a new tactical frontier?

As the modern playing style becomes increasingly homogenised on the men’s tour, a player willing to shift gears on the return could find reward.

It’s a tactic that bears considerable fruit in the women’s game. Yet although both Masur and Schwartzman acknowledged the women return brilliantly across the board, the serves they are facing generally do not come with the same ferocity.

RELATED: the female serve — an exploration

“You might look at the speed gun and think that serve wasn’t tremendously fast, but sometimes it’s doing a lot in the air and off the court, just by the number of revolutions on the ball,” Masur said of the men’s game.

“The girls tend to be more linear (in their swings). That lends itself to stepping in, taking the racquet straight back, straight through and just crushing the ball on the rise. And the girls actually do it really well – albeit they’re probably not facing as much spin or pace.

“(For the men) I guess that’s what we’re talking about on the return – it’s taking a risk, it’s rolling the dice, it’s taking it early, it’s asking questions of your opponent, it’s unsettling them. It’s suggesting that if you drop it short, then mate, there are going to be consequences.

“But does it suit their game style? Does it suit their swing plane? Do they have the right grip? There are all of these other elements that have evolved over time that might suggest it’s complicated to do.”

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