Wimbledon: The art of returning a serve

There was a beauty in Sir Andy Murray’s straight-sets victory over Milos Raonic in the 2016 Wimbledon men’s singles final that elevated it above a one-sided affair that might live short in the memory. It was in Murray’s plan to nullify the Canadian’s most potent weapon – a monster serve – with artfully effective responses, and it worked to perfection.

Raonic had averaged a colossal 23 aces per match on the way to the final. So to prepare against the 6ft 5in machine, No 2 seed Murray pored over performance data of his opponent and endured hours of 5ft 10in assistant coach Jamie Delgado serving at him from well inside the baseline, in an attempt to replicate Raonic’s devilish speed and elevated delivery. As a result, he managed to limit the ace count to eight in their Centre Court clash. Murray hit seven himself.

The most telling statistic in the final was that Raonic won just 67 per cent of the points on his first serve, dwarfed by the champion’s 87 per cent. Exclusive Hawk-Eye data, commissioned by The Telegraph and Jaguar, shows that Murray’s reaction time in processing information, moving and returning his opponent’s quickest serve of 147mph was a mere 0.577 seconds. Murray won the point, too

.Data obtained exclusively from Hawk-Eye highlights how Murray’s positioning to receive serves at Wimbledon has changed drastically over the years: he has shuffled back over a metre and a half to tackle a first serve. In his first appearance at The Championships, in 2005, he hit his return on average just 13cm behind the baseline whereas last year it was 143cm (and in 2013, the first time he won, it was 175cm). For second serves, it has evolved from 34cm inside the baseline to 70cm, over double, suggesting a desire to be more aggressive.

Only Andre Agassi of recent Wimbledon greats has a greater percentage of points won when returning than Murray. “It’s a constantly changing process,” Murray, the world No 1, tells The Telegraph when asked how his serve responsiveness has improved and evolved throughout his 12-year professional career. “A lot of it is just down to experience; as a player who has been around on the tour for a long time, you just do learn to rely on your instinct to make a split-second decision of which way to go. Having said that, I do put a lot of time and effort into studying my opponent’s serving, to see if there are any patterns or routines they have that might help me stand a better chance of hitting a strong return.”

Think and you’ll miss it

A tennis court is 78-feet ( 23.77-metres) long, and almost anyone who is able to see that far can, visually at least, react to a serve – it takes around 200 milliseconds. “The difficulty arises in the second stage of the service return,” says Frank Partnoy, the American scholar and author of Wait, the acclaimed study of decision-making. “The remaining period of, say, 300 milliseconds is the time players have to react physically. Most of us can barely adjust our rackets by a few inches.

“It is a largely unconscious physical reaction. It has to be, given the speed of the ball. There is not enough time to consider spin or angle,” Partnoy adds, writing in the Financial Times on the eve of the 2012 Wimbledon Championships. “Conscious contemplation takes at least half a second, so anyone who even tries to think about how to return a shot will end up helplessly watching the ball fly by.

“On the other hand, tennis involves a range of sophisticated and creative responses. Ideally, a player should react to both the placement and trajectory of an incoming ball. The position and movement of an opponent are also crucial. Great tennis returners respond to the information cascade of an incoming ball as if they had taken time to process it consciously, even though we know that is not possible.”

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005) Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell notes the late American tennis player-turned-broadcaster Vic Braden’s uncanny ability to predict when a server was going to fault, a moment after the ball had been tossed in the air. Similarly, excellent tennis players determine where a serve is going significantly earlier than those of a lesser standard, through tell-tale signs and sheer practice.

American author Geoff Colvin, in Talent is Overrated (2008), references an experiment where the eye movements of a group of tennis players – some good, and others less so – were tracked when shown films of serves. “Average players focused on the ball,” he writes. “But in the brief period between the start of the serving motion and the moment when the racket hits the ball … the best players were not looking at the ball. They were looking at the opponent’s hips, shoulders, and arms, which foretold where they would hit the ball.”

“The return of serve is widely acknowledged as the most poorly practised skill of our sport,” Dr Machar Reid, Innovation Catalyst at Tennis Australia (TA), tells The Telegraph. “Nevertheless, with modern tracking data, a player can know more about a server’s tendencies to each court and in specific game situations.”

He should know; the leading sports scientist, formerly an elite coach who worked with Greg Rusedski and Li Na, heads up TA’s Game Insight Group (GIG) alongside American data scientist Dr Stephanie Kovalchik. For five years their team, which includes eight other researchers and 10 doctoral- and masters-level students, has analysed the most advanced data in men’s and women’s tennis, including tracking data from Hawk-Eye systems and automated data capture from match broadcasts.

Reid says the best players can draw insight from the “contextual features of a point or situation” and help them “understand what opponents are most likely to do based on their strengths, weaknesses, point score, previous serves, etc”. Additionally, intent can be informed by the “kinematic features of a player’s service action”. “These are largely imperceptible differences associated with players,” Reid continues, “where they are standing, through to the magnitude of trunk rotation, or the characteristics of the toss. The game’s most elite-level servers are able to maintain kinematic consistency across serves.”

Agassi, winner of eight majors including Wimbledon in 1992, lost his first three matches against Boris Becker. And then he noticed a tiny tell-tale sign when his German rival was serving which helped him triumph in 10 of their remaining 11 encounters. The giveaway? Becker’s tongue, the American later revealed; it would point towards where he was intending to hit the serve. “Every player has different indicators,” says Murray, “and a lot of the guys on the tour are very good at disguising them, so it’s become more difficult to use them as an effective way of reading serves.”

Yet an effective and brilliant response to a serve is crucial, Kovalchik says: “The serve return is involved in more than 60 per cent of points – fewer than 40 per cent end with the serve, through aces or double faults – and 15 per cent of all points are decided on the actual serve return. Moreover, based on our research, we have found that men who use the most effective serve return shots can increase their chance of winning a return point by 15 percent on average.

“Because the serve is the most powerful shot in the game, the serve return is its counterpoint by necessity. The more a player can do with the serve return, the better they set themselves up in the rally and the greater opportunity to take away the serve advantage during a rally.”

The average speed of first serves at the 2016 Wimbledon Championships was 116.5mph in the men’s competition, while the second serve was 97.3mph, according to GIG’s research, making it the quickest of the four Grand Slams – compared to 114.5mph at Australian Open; 113.7mph at US Open; and 112.6mph at French Open.

“For a 110mph serve the typical reaction time is 0.63 seconds,” Kovalchik notes, and points out that the speed is calculated at the point of service, yet is significantly slower when it arrives at the receiver.

GIG counts that men employ 25 different forehand returns and 20 on the backhand; the women use 31 types of forehand replies, and also 20 backhand. The distinctions depend on location, shot shape and speed, but “the more players can do to hit to the margins of the court, the fewer options they leave the server if the points goes to a rally,” says Reid. “More than ever before, as serves have got bigger, there is also a need to be really physical on the return.

At one with your racket

Technology is assisting that return-serve physicality, and “modern rackets help players hit harder, because the ball comes off them quicker than ever before, and they are more stable and therefore more powerful,” says Andy Catchpole of HEAD, Murray’s racket manufacturer. He tells The Telegraph that the champion’s customised racket – weighs in at just over 300 grams, about the same as a football.

Catchpole says that Murray’s racket, made of graphene which is six times lighter than steel and 200 times stronger and tweaked in-house at HEAD “to a minuscule of a gram”, is geared for stability. “On a first serve, if it is coming at you at about 125mph, you want a very stable racket behind the ball. [Modern technology] hasn’t generated that much more power for the players on the serve … you’re trying to feed off the pace the ball that’s coming to you.”

Defend or attack?

Allen Fox, a Wimbledon quarter-finalist in 1965 who has a PhD in psychology, tells The Telegraph that “the serve return is the second most important stroke after the serve itself” and advises players to “psych yourself up to feel aggressive, so you will be more likely to throw your weight forward at impact”.

The American author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match continues: “If your opponent has a strong serve, the most dangerous mental trap you can fall into is to just try to get it back. When you do this you are not only less likely to get it back, but you are also more likely to immediately start chasing the ball into the corners as your opponent takes the offensive.”

Tim Henman, the former British No 1, agrees that a powerful response to the serve is most effective – especially at Wimbledon – and marks out his old American rival Agassi as “one of the best returners” in history. “Andre stood very close to, and sometimes inside, the baseline. He was able to pick the ball up very early, and never took a step back,” the 42-year-old Jaguar ambassador tells The Telegraph.

“Andy Murray, who is also one of the best returners in the game, has a different technique to Andre: he stands a long way back and moves forward, and he split-steps, a bit like a goalkeeper in a penalty shoot-out,” Henman says. “Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic tends to hold his ground more and then react depending on serve, and Roger Federer is probably slightly less aggressive but is good at getting the ball back in play.”

Murray himself says of his style: “The split-step is an incredibly important element of the return of serve; it enables to you push off in either direction depending on where you think the ball is heading. Tennis players can move forward and attack the ball, which enables us to anticipate a little bit better than a goalkeeper who can only move along his line. I like to attack my returns a little bit more than most, which is probably why it looks so aggressive when I do it.”

During the upcoming Wimbledon fortnight, the British public will be willing on the 30-year-old, who received a knighthood in Queen Elizabeth II’s most recent New Year’s Honours list, to achieve a third men’s singles title. If Murray does go all the way once more, you can guarantee that the artistry, effectiveness and his peerless ability to respond to a serve will be at the beating heart of the successful defence.

This article was first published by The Telegraph in June 2017

Published by

Oliver Pickup

Multi-award-winning writer, content editor, ghostwriter, and TV and radio commentator (and occasional illustrator), specialising in technology, blockchain, startups, business, sport and culture. Founder of Pickup Media Limited. Interviewer of death row prisoners, legendary athletes, influential leaders, tech trendsetters, and cultural pioneers. By-lined in every English newspaper. Contributor to dozens of multinational publications.

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