Surprise to the strength.
The score is 15/30. You just missed your first serve and you now need to weigh up where to direct the second. Safety to the backhand return, right? Not so fast …
An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of the current ATP Top 20 identifies that a vast majority of second serves do go to the backhand return at this specific point score, but a higher percentage of points are won surprising with a second serve down the T to the forehand return.
The best way to understand this strategy dynamic is to know the difference between primary and secondary patterns. Primary patterns are the prime movers that players run most often, such as hitting forehands from the back of the court, playing cross court, and directing second serves to the returner’s backhand wing.
Secondary patterns are lethal when they are combined with the element of surprise. Secondary patterns include serve and volley, attacking down the line, drop shots, and hitting a second serve to the opponent’s more potent forehand return.
Primary patterns are run seven or eight times out of ten and are also meant to condition the opponent’s mind that a specific pattern of play will be run again in the near future. Secondary patterns are best employed AFTER primary patterns have been run.
Bait and switch.
The data set of 1489 second serves at 15/30 comes from ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events and Nitto ATP Finals from 2011-2018. The following breakdown shows just how few second serves go down the T to the forehand (24%), but how this specific location also delivers the highest win percentage (62%).
Kevin Anderson was the peak performer in the Top 20 with second serve points won serving down the T at 15/30. The top three performers at each location are highlighted below.
Jack Sock impressively featured in the top three in all three categories. Overall, 15 of the 20 players in the data set had a higher win percentage serving down the T with a surprise second serve to the forehand over the expected second serve out wide to the backhand. It’s important to note that a small percentage of returners were left-handed, which flips the side of the return stroke.
Not all players followed the same pathway with second serve locations at 15/30.
Juan Martin del Potro – the only player that served more down the T (24) than he did down the middle (23), or out wide (15).
Roger Federer – hit the most down the T (57), which was almost as many as he directed out wide (62).
Novak Djokovic – mixed a lot, with 59 out wide, 58 at the body, and 55 down the T.
Milos Raonic – hit many more serves out wide (34) than down the T (8).
The mental side of the game is clearly in play here. Hitting a second serve at 15/30 suggests vulnerability for the server. Cleverly mixing to the forehand return may seem riskier on the surface, but the element of surprise makes this specific location the highest performer.