why doesn't the better server win against the better returner in today's game?

#1
first, some context for this question

jim courier himself as to why pitting the best server vs the best returner is a big mismatch in strengths, referencing the sampras vs agassi matchup


keeping this in mind, why is it in today's game, the player with the better defense and return is always touted as the favorite over the power baseliner that has a massive serve and big shots?

examples: players like isner, karlovic, cilic, del potro, raonic etc losing and having negative H2Hs against players like djokovic, murray, nadal, nishikori etc.

generally pre-matches people always say something along the lines of "yea murray/djokovic/nadal have better defense and ROS so they're gonna win"

really? so the better server loses out against the better returner?

was courier in the wrong with his statement or was he simply commentating on the game during a different time and era when tennis was a completely different game compared to today?
 
#3
Djokovic isn't just a defensive genius, he also has good attacking options. Even Federer plays a lot of defense, especially on the BH side.



Nishikori is a midget, I think we can cut him some slack. He's not physically able to hit 150mph serves and 100mph forehands.



Murray was a very defensive player, and until he played aggressively under Lendl, had 0 slams to his name.
 
#4
I think part of the problem is the big server doesn't have to play a ton of rally balls until he faces a big ROS. Against 90% of the competition he can just mindlessly hold serve and win the match in 2-3 tiebreakers. Then he faces someone that gets his ball back, puts him on the defensive and he can't move and rally very well.
The defensive ROS guy on the other hand has spent all his life handling serves and getting into rallies. He can move and manufacture points from the baseline. That gives him an advantage over the servebot when the two meet.
 
#5
first, some context for this question

jim courier himself as to why pitting the best server vs the best returner is a big mismatch in strengths, referencing the sampras vs agassi matchup


keeping this in mind, why is it in today's game, the player with the better defense and return is always touted as the favorite over the power baseliner that has a massive serve and big shots?

examples: players like isner, karlovic, cilic, del potro, raonic etc losing and having negative H2Hs against players like djokovic, murray, nadal, nishikori etc.

generally pre-matches people always say something along the lines of "yea murray/djokovic/nadal have better defense and ROS so they're gonna win"

really? so the better server loses out against the better returner?

was courier in the wrong with his statement or was he simply commentating on the game during a different time and era when tennis was a completely different game compared to today?
You are looking at the wrong metric.

Look to % of games won. In general, the guy who wins the most games wins the most matches and the most slams.

The magic number is always around 60%. Pete won 58% of all his games on grass in his career. Agassi won 57% or so.

That's career, very high. Every % point is huge.

And when two guys are both winning the same % of games, usually the guy who is winning more of them on serve has the advantage.
 
#7
I think part of the problem is the big server doesn't have to play a ton of rally balls until he faces a big ROS. Against 90% of the competition he can just mindlessly hold serve and win the match in 2-3 tiebreakers. Then he faces someone that gets his ball back, puts him on the defensive and he can't move and rally very well.
The defensive ROS guy on the other hand has spent all his life handling serves and getting into rallies. He can move and manufacture points from the baseline. That gives him an advantage over the servebot when the two meet.
No. The servebot has poor stats on return. The problem is this:

You have a guy winning 95% of his service games, but he only wins 15%. That's going to be around 55% of all games total, and it's not usually good enough to win big tournaments, especially slams.

Example of the problem:

http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/stats/return-games-won/all/all/all/

Try to find Roddick...
 
#8
It's all about balance, today we see some players with amazing monstrous serves bu their ground game is woeful. It's a bit of a stretch to say people like Murray or Djokovic don't have good 1st serves, they have very powerful serves that can win points outright by aces or setting up the easy winner play or force an error. Couple that with their return game and that makes them the better player. Even Sampras wasn't that bad on the return, he just took it easy at times knowing his serve won't be broken at times.
 
#9
looks like the serve vs return thing only comes into play assuming both players have a very equal and balanced game

for example raonic, cilic and isner would probably have very stable H2Hs vs the usual top 4 counterpunchers if the rest of their games (outside the serve) were equally matched against their opponents

in their case, it's not evenly matched by far (groundstrokes, ROS, movement, etc. ) although raonic is proving to be a challenge as he improves
 
#10
Technology is the main reason. Then you have to take into account the physicality of the players today and the fact that the game is more baseline oriented. Slower surfaces also don't help strong servers either.
 
#11
looks like the serve vs return thing only comes into play assuming both players have a very equal and balanced game

for example raonic, cilic and isner would probably have very stable H2Hs vs the usual top 4 counterpunchers if the rest of their games (outside the serve) were equally matched against their opponents

in their case, it's not evenly matched by far (groundstrokes, ROS, movement, etc. ) although raonic is proving to be a challenge as he improves
It's like this:

95/25
90/30
85/35

As % of serve goes down, % of return has to go up.

There are a few guys who win around 95% of games on grass.

For instance, Nadal did it in 2008, as anti-intuitive as that seems. He won around 22% of his games.

His actual %: 58.81% for the year, and it went up to 60.70% at Wimbledon.

And that's a guy like Nadal, who was dangerous returning even on grass.

You can see that a guy who wins 90% of service games has to win around 30% of return games, which very rarely happens.

That's why you don't see great returners win Wimbledon unless they also win a lot of service games.
 
#12
Technology is the main reason. Then you have to take into account the physicality of the players today and the fact that the game is more baseline oriented. Slower surfaces also don't help strong servers either.
That's also wrong.

Servers have never been helped by only serving well except in very rare, unusual circumstances. One exception was the year Ivanisevic won Wimbledon. He is the only guy in Wimbledon history to win with under 54% of games. He is another guy you won't even find on the returners list.

You also will see no wins from incredible returners with weak serves. Coria statistically is the best returner of the past 21 years.

http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/stats/return-games-won/all/all/all/

Not good enough with such a weak serve.
 
#13
That's also wrong.

Servers have never been helped by only serving well except in very rare, unusual circumstances. One exception was the year Ivanisevic won Wimbledon. He is the only guy in Wimbledon history to win with under 54% of games. He is another guy you won't even find on the returners list.

You also will see no wins from incredible returners with weak serves. Coria statistically is the best returner of the past 21 years.

http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/stats/return-games-won/all/all/all/

Not good enough with such a weak serve.
That's very impressive from Coric and I did not know what he was "statistically" the #1 returner. I think the OP was inquiring about why massive servers like Raonic, Isner and Karlovic has such trouble with good returners. We would need a head to head of Coric and strong servers throughout his career to make a comparison. I respect your opinion Gary but I think you have become a little invested in this % games won stat lately. It has too many holes and doesn't always tell the accurate summary of a tournament or a player's run. Also we have to remember Chang won RG without a strong serve so it's not impossible.
 

ibbi

Hall of Fame
#14
Because the courts are slower, and the bounce is generally higher, and it's harder to serve, and easier to return. That's why todays servers deserve more credit, and yesteryears returners do.
 
#15
That's very impressive from Coric and I did not know what he was "statiscally" the #1 returner. I think the OP was inquiring about why massive servers like Raonic, Isner and Karlovic has such trouble with good returners. We would need a head to head of Coric and strong servers throughout his career to make a comparison. I respect your opinion Gary but I think you have become a little invested in this % games won stat lately. It has too many holes and doesn't always tell the accurate summary of a tournament or a player's run.
There is no metric that works all the time, but the guys who are highest in % of games for a career on a surface are the champions, and the guys with years with highest % on a surface generally dominate.

Highest % of games in a year on grass in the last 25 years: Federer, Sampras, Edberg. The latter most remarkable because there are no stats before 1991.

To that add Hewitt (2002) and Djokovic (2011) in the over 60% club. Murray and Agassi are next, rounding off to 60% but just below it.

So tell me how I am "too much invested" in this?

Murray was around 65% after 4 rounds this year at Wimbledon. If he wins he will probably be close to 60%, above if he has a good win. Raonic is way below that. He can still win - Ivanisevic did it with around 54% - but it's not likely.
 
#16
That's very impressive from Coric and I did not know what he was "statistically" the #1 returner.
On "all surfaces", so you have to remember that his statistics are pushed up by clay. If you check other surfaces, the list changes.

Career is a good start, but you also have to remember that there are players who had brief peaks. Hewitt is right at the top for returning in his best year on grass, where he belongs. He did not manage to duplicate those results other years.

For HCs, check this out:

http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/stats/return-games-won/all/hard/all/

Do you think it is coincidence that Novak and Agassi are at the top of the list?
I think the OP was inquiring about why massive servers like Raonic, Isner and Karlovic has such trouble with good returners.
But that's obvious. Great servers don't have the same high % of service games against top returners, and some of those top returners have pretty good serves (understatement of the century for guys like Murray and Djokovic). Raonic has been around 15% of return games. He got up to around 20% sometime earlier this year and may be closer to that now on all surfaces. If he gets to 25%, he will end up close to #1 in the world. So watch that stat as time goes by. Will he get there? ;)
Also we have to remember Chang won RG without a strong serve so it's not impossible.
Chang, RG, 1989: 60.31% of games
 
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#17
Technology and there's a lot more big servers now so returners are better at returning because they've been able to regularly practice and play against big servers for years.
 
#19
On "all surfaces", so you have to remember that statistics are pushed up by clay. If you check other surfaces, the list changes.

Career is a good but you also have to remember that there are players who had brief peaks. Hewitt is right at the top for returning in his best year on grass, where he belongs. He did not manage to duplicate those results other years.

For HCs, check this out:

http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/stcompute urn-games-won/all/hard/all/

Do you think it is coincidence that Novak and Agassi are at the top of the list?

But that's obvious. Great servers don't have the same high % of service games against top returners, and some of those top returners have pretty good serves (understatement of the century for guys like Murray and Djokovic). Raonic has been around 15% of return games. He got up to around 20% sometime earlier this year and may be closer to that now on all surfaces. If he gets to 25%, he will end up close to #1 in the world. So watch that stat as time goes by. Will he get there? ;)

Change, RG, 1989: 60.31% of games
Well I didn't mean that is a totally useless stat but I just feel that it is a bit flawed. Take Hewitt for example. You talk about his percentages but his draw was very weak. One of the easiest Wimbledon draws ever. That's why he hit over 60% that year and never did it again. I think it's a good measurement to look at after a player wins but we also have to take into account the difficulty of that player's run to the title. Comparing Hewitt and another champ's percentages don't relate in a case like that.
 
#20
Well I didn't mean that is a totally useless stat but I just feel that it is a bit flawed. Take Hewitt for example. You talk about his percentages but his draw was very weak. One of the easiest Wimbledon draws ever. That's he hit over 60% that year and never did it again. I think it's a good measurement to look at after a player wins but we also have to take into account the difficulty of that player's run to the title. Comparing Hewitt and another champ percentages relate in a case like that.
Yes, that is the usual knock against Hewitt. But that gets into the weak era argument, and with that you can arbitrarily dis any player in any year. People are doing that right now with Novak, and I don't agree. Also, Hewitt played 12 matches, not just 7 as some players have done who won Wimbledon.

What you may not know: Hewitt won around 29% of his return games in three years, which is VERY rare for any player. The last time was in 2013. It was his serve that usually let him down.

With a better serve and better health things at Wimbledon might have been very different.
 
#22
Yes, that is the usual knock against Hewitt. But that gets into the weak era argument, and with that you can arbitrarily dis any player in any year. People are doing that right now with Novak, and I don't agree. Also, Hewitt played 12 matches, not just 7 as some players have done who won Wimbledon.

What you may not know: Hewitt won around 29% of his return games in three years, which is VERY rare for any player. The last time was in 2013. It was his serve that usually let him down.

With a better serve and better health things at Wimbledon might have been very different.
Fair enough but I just cannot overlook that draw Gary. I just can't. Now I'm not saying he won because it was a weak era. I'm just pointing out that his stats look better because of who he played.
 
#24
One other thing:

NO single stat is without flaw. But if you had to go with just one stat, other than tournaments won, what would you pick?
Just one? How about 3. :D Break point conversation rate, % of return points, and % of service points. Those are the stats I always look at.
 
#25
The best servers are rarely real athletes. These guys - Raonic, Karlovic, Isner, and Kyrgios are just unathletic. They shouldn't be professional athletes.

The best returners, like Novak, are often good at everything. So the server is better at serving and the returner is better at everything else. That's where the mismatch is.

These serve bots are no different than the 8 foot tall white guys in the NBA. They're only in the NBA because they're good at one thing. Being tall.
 
#28
I'm not saying as a whole. I'm just saying at that one particular tournament. His USO run was much stronger opposition.
Also: I think 7 of his titles were on grass, and that's a LOT of grass titles for a surface that is played on so little each year.

Hewitt was very good on grass. Not only the year he won W, and again, he was injured most of his career.

It would be much easier to discount some of Novak's slams based on competition - which I absolutely am not doing.
 
#30
Also: I think 7 of his titles were on grass, and that's a LOT of grass titles for a surface that is played on so little each year.

Hewitt was very good on grass. Not only the year he won W, and again, he was injured most of his career.

It would be much easier to discount some of Novak's slams based on competition - which I absolutely am not doing.
He was a very good grasscourt player. I'm not doubting that.
 

Peters

Professional
#34
Also, we currently have 2 utterly insane returners operating on tour: Andy and Novak.

They're not just excellent returners, they're borderline freakish with their ability to send back a ridiculous serve, deep, often at the feet of the server - who immediately is wondering how the hell he's suddenly being faced with a half volley on the service line.

Some of the big serves these 2 get back with interest, well, I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. So many free points are ripped away from big servers' game when playing them. If one of them has an off-day, a Querrey might be able to blast their way through, but if either of them are anywhere near decent form, a big server always gets nullified.
 
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#35
Just one? How about 3. :D Break point conversation rate, % of return points, and % of service points. Those are the stats I always look at.
BP conversion is usually 1 to 2% above % of return points and explains why return points are not enough to explain return games.

So if BPs are more than 2% above return points for a year - very rare on any surface other than grass, where there are a limited number of matches - then that stat shows clutch. Clutch on defending BPs shows the same thing on serve. Combining those stats is great for showing WHY a player is winning games, but it still comes down to games won.

The reason why games won is such a good metric for different eras is that often it is the only thing we can find. If I needed points won for slams I would never have compiled anything for slams.

For the ATP over the last 25 years I try to use all the stats, the same as Meles. ;)
 

Meles

Bionic Poster
#37
Also, we currently have 2 utterly insane returners operating on tour: Andy and Novak.

They're not just excellent returners, they're borderline freakish with their ability to send back a ridiculous serve, deep, often at the feet of the server - who immediately is wondering how the hell he's suddenly being faced with a half volley on the service line.

Some of the big serves these 2 get back with interest, well, I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. So many free points are ripped away from big servers' game when playing them. If one of them has an off-day, a Querrey might be able to blast their way through, but if either of them are anywhere near decent form, a big server always gets nullified.
You can add Goffin to that list who dominated on clay with the most return games won short of Nadal (who's stats may have a bit of a boost from retiring early in the French Open undefeated.) Goffin won 37% of his return games on clay; Djoko 34%, Murray 33%. He's probably significantly better on the actual return itself.

Murray won Wimbledon with a big serve game in the final. He won 87% of his first serve points and got in 68% of his first serves. That's why he beat Raonic. Goffin is a perfect example of what a return game gets you without a great serve. Djokovic's run these last few years had been built around alread solid first serve points won numbers (still nothing compared to Sampras) and then he's added a superlative 2nd serve game. Murray is trying to match suit. If Murray had served like today in the French Open final we might have been looking at a very different result. The 4 French Open semi-finalists all dominated with good first serve points won numbers. The serve game is still dominant and Murray and Djokovic have aided there games tremendously by improving their serves. Its why Federer is still incredibly dangerous despite his movement declining.

Cilic and Tsonga show the threat of a big first serve game and they almost knocked out two of the favorites. We just don't currently have a slam caliber player who's got a great serve and nearly good enough movement. Federer is the closest thing and he nearly won the last 4 majors he played in. He might have won three of those if Djokovic had not improved his overall serve game with his fantastic 2nd serve. The return game is not dominating the tour; two great returners have improved their serve games. That's the story.o_O (@Gary Duane @falstaff78 )
 
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#38
@Meles
@falstaff78
You can add Goffin to that list who dominated on clay with the most return games won short of Nadal (who's stats may have a bit of a boost from retiring early in the French Open undefeated.) Goffin won 37% of his return games on clay; Djoko 34%, Murray 33%. He's probably significantly better on the actual return itself.
And this makes him a lot like guys like Coria. He has everything it takes to win really big matches except the serve itself.
Murray won Wimbledon with a big serve game in the final. He won 87% of his first serve points and got in 68% of his first serves. That's why he beat Raonic.
That's the one thing Murray has lacked to win slams in the past, a really solid service game. What was great about today is that even though he was unable to convert BPs, something he is normally very good at, he didn't lose serve. That has been rightfully the knock against him for years - that at any key moment he could lose serve.
Cilic and Tsonga show the threat of a big first serve game and they almost knocked out two of the favorites. We just don't currently have a slam caliber player who's got a great serve and nearly good enough movement. Federer is the closest thing and he nearly won the last 4 majors he played in. He might have won three of those if Djokovic had not improved his overall serve game with his fantastic 2nd serve. The return game is not dominating the tour; two great returners have improved their serve games. That's the story.o_O (@Gary Duane
And that story is right on the money. ;)
 

Meles

Bionic Poster
#39
@Meles
@falstaff78

And this makes him a lot like guys like Coria. He has everything it takes to win really big matches except the serve itself.

That's the one thing Murray has lacked to win slams in the past, a really solid service game. What was great about today is that even though he was unable to convert BPs, something he is normally very good at, he didn't lose serve. That has been rightfully the knock against him for years - that at any key moment he could lose serve.
"And that story is right on the money. ;)" you typoed that as if I wrote it, but thanks for the analysis. This will make Murray much tougher at the slams and if we get a similar draw at the US Open he might be able to squeek that one out even if Djokovic is waiting in the final.
 

Peters

Professional
#40
Murray won Wimbledon with a big serve game in the final.
(@Gary Duane @falstaff78 )
Andy's serve (in reasonably good form) was always going to be good enough to win the requisite 6 games per set against a guy like Raonic. The match was won in 3 key moments: The break of serve in set 1 and the 2 one-sided tiebreaks.

Those key moments that differentiated the two players were purely down to Andy's return game. And that factor won each set.
 
#41
Two words: Slower courts.

Bring back the grass of the 80s and 90s and get the courts of New York as fast as it was before and you'll see Djokovic and Murray bowing out before the Semis. On New York Novak could still win but not against the best serve and volleyers, on grass, no way.
 
#41
Two words: Slower courts.

Bring back the grass of the 80s and 90s and get the courts of New York as fast as it was before and you'll see Djokovic and Murray bowing out before the Semis. On New York
 
#42
Quite simple, the current court conditions favor the returner. Slower courts, slower balls, higher bounce are all attributes that favor the defender more than the attacker. Larger frame size also make it easier to return the ball into play even if it's a mishit.
 
#43
Quite simple, the current court conditions favor the returner. Slower courts, slower balls, higher bounce are all attributes that favor the defender more than the attacker. Larger frame size also make it easier to return the ball into play even if it's a mishit.
 

Steve0904

Talk Tennis Guru
#44
It's just slower courts in my mind. That's the primary reason. Secondary would be as some have already pointed out, Isner, Karlovic etc are just nowhere near good enough at anything else in comparison to Sampras, Becker, et al.

Another thing I would like to point out is how Djokovic still struggles to beat a guy like Federer in Cincy and Dubai. Largely regarded as the 2 fastest courts left on tour along with Halle and Basel.
 

Steve0904

Talk Tennis Guru
#44
It's just slower courts in my mind. That's the primary reason. Secondary would be as some have already pointed out, Isner, Karlovic etc are just nowhere near good enough at anything else in comparison to Sampras, Becker, et al.

Another thing I would like to point out is how Djokovic still struggles to beat a guy like Federer in Cincy and Dubai. Largely regarded as the 2 fastest courts left on tour along with Halle and Basel.
 

Steve0904

Talk Tennis Guru
#45
It's just slower courts in my mind. That's the primary reason. Secondary would be as some have already pointed out, Isner, Karlovic etc are just nowhere near good enough at anything else in comparison to Sampras, Becker, et al.

Another thing I would like to point out is how Djokovic still struggles to beat a guy like Federer in Cincy and Dubai. Largely regarded as the 2 fastest courts left on tour along with Halle and Basel.
 
#46
It's just slower courts in my mind. That's the primary reason. Secondary would be as some have already pointed out, Isner, Karlovic etc are just nowhere near good enough at anything else in comparison to Sampras, Becker, et al.

Another thing I would like to point out is how Djokovic still struggles to beat a guy like Federer in Cincy and Dubai. Largely regarded as the 2 fastest courts left on tour along with Halle and Basel.
Djokovic and Murray have combined won like what...1 set in their dubai and cincy meetings dating back to 2012? I believe so, 12 Dubai final was straights, 12 Cincy final was straights, 14 Dubai semi Djoker got a set, 2014 Cincy was straights, 2015 Cincy was straights against both.

10-1 in sets LOL...not a coincidence these are widely regarded as the two quickest courts on tour. If only the USO was this speed.
 

Steve0904

Talk Tennis Guru
#47
Djokovic and Murray have combined won like what...1 set in their dubai and cincy meetings dating back to 2012? I believe so, 12 Dubai final was straights, 12 Cincy final was straights, 14 Dubai semi Djoker got a set, 2014 Cincy was straights, 2015 Cincy was straights against both.

10-1 in sets LOL...not a coincidence these are widely regarded as the two quickest courts on tour. If only the USO was this speed.
It's not only that either. It's seeing how serve dominated all those matches were by Federer. He didn't get broken at all at Cincy 2012. Obviously the courts have something to do with that.
 
#48
It's not only that either. It's seeing how serve dominated all those matches were by Federer. He didn't get broken at all at Cincy 2012. Obviously the courts have something to do with that.
didn't get broken cincy 2015 either haha. Or in the Dubai 15 final..only once in the Dubai 12 final.

Fast courts vs slow also influences the stats and perception of returners.
 
#49
surfaces are ok as they are
i doubt many people want isner and raonic in the top five
raonic will get there regardless
only nishi and nadal out of top 10 have a subpar serve
 
#50
looks like the serve vs return thing only comes into play assuming both players have a very equal and balanced game

for example raonic, cilic and isner would probably have very stable H2Hs vs the usual top 4 counterpunchers if the rest of their games (outside the serve) were equally matched against their opponents

in their case, it's not evenly matched by far (groundstrokes, ROS, movement, etc. ) although raonic is proving to be a challenge as he improves
Exactly. Of course you can't take players, who are hardly top-10, but have massive serves and pin them against some of the greatest players of all time and say: Why aren't they winning more? (Karlovic is doing pretty well vs. Djoko though).

As for the Courier-comment, look a few seconds later in the video, where Martina says Andre couldn't compete with Pete as an athlete. Raonic, Isner, Karlovic can't compete with the big 4 in terms of athleticism. Their vastly better movement is a difference maker.
Had Andre had the movement of the big 4 - and thus a better defense - he could have been a bigger problem for Pete on grass.

Changes in the game wise, it also must be mentioned that life as a volleying playing has become vastly more difficult these days, cause everyone can belt groundstrokes from whatever position in the court (and Rafa, Andy and Djoko can all belt passing shots from impossibly stretched out wide on the run positions) with enough spin to land in or dip low at the volleyer's feet with tremendous pace on.
Those kind of shots weren't quite in the game for most of Sampras' reign and they have tipped the balance somewhat towards the better baseliner.

It also must be said that Novak, Andy and Rafa all have tremendous hold games as well, especially in the years, where they do go deep at Wimbledon (Rafa not so much in recent years).
 
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