Landing lots of first serves is a good thing, right? Actually, how much it matters–even whether it matters–depends on who you’re talking about.
When I criticized IBM’s Keys To the Match after last year’s US Open, I identified first-serve percentage as one of three “generic keys” (along with first-serve points won and second-serve points won) that, when combined, did a better job of predicting the outcome of matches than IBM’s allegedly more sophisticated markers. First-serve percentage is the weakest of the three generic keys–after all, the other two count points won which, short of counting sets, is as relevant as you can get.
First-serve percentage is a particularly appealing key because it is entirely dependent on one player. While a server may change his strategy based on the returning skills of his opponent, the returner has nothing to do with whether or not first serves go in the box. Unlike the other two generic targets and the vast majority of IBM’s keys, a first-serve percentage goal is truly actionable: it is entirely within one player’s control to achieve.
In general, first-serve percentage correlates very strongly with winning percentage. On the ATP tour from 2010 to 2013, when a player made exactly half of his first serves, he won 42.8% of the time. At 60% first serves in, he won 47.0% of the time. At 70%, the winning percentage is 57.4%.
This graph shows the rates at which players win matches when their first-serve percentages are between 50% and 72%:
Different players, different keys
When we use the same approach to look at specific players, the message starts to get muddled. Here’s the same data for Novak Djokovic, 2009-13:
While we shouldn’t read too much into any particular jag in this graph, it’s clear that the overall trend is very different from the first graph. Calculate the correlation coefficient, and we find that Djokovic’s winning percentage has a negative relationship with his first-serve percentage. All else equal, he’s slightly more likely to win matches when he makes fewer first serves.
Djokovic isn’t alone in displaying this sort of negative relationship, either. The three tour regulars with even more extreme profiles over the last five years are Marin Cilic, Gilles Simon, and the always-unique John Isner.
Isner regularly posts first-serve percentages well above those of other players, including 39 career matches in which he topped 75%. That sort of number would be a near guarantee of victory for most players–for instance, Andy Murray is 32-3 in matches when he hits at least 70% of first serves in–but Isner has only won 62% of his 75%+ performances. He is nearly as good (57%) when landing 65% or fewer of his first serves.
Djokovic, Isner, and this handful of others reveals a topic on which the tennis conventional wisdom can tie itself in knots. You need to make your first serve, but your first serve also needs to be a weapon, so you can’t take too much off of it.
The specific implied relationship–that every player has a “sweet spot” between giving up too much power and missing too many first serves–doesn’t show up in the numbers. But it does seem that different players face different risks. The typical pro could stand to make more first serves. But a few guys find that their results improve when they make fewer–presumably because they’re take more risks in an attempt to hit better ones.
Demonstrating the key
Of the players who made the cut for this study–at least 10 matches each at 10 different first-serve-percentage levels in the last five years–9 of 21 display relationships between first-serve percentage and winning percentage at least as positive as Isner’s is negative. The most traditional player in that regard is Philipp Kohlschreiber. His graph looks a bit like a horse:
More than any other player, Kohli’s results have a fairly clear-cut inflection point. While it’s obscured a bit by the noisy dip at 64%, the German wins far more matches when he reaches 65% than when he doesn’t.
Kohlschreiber is joined by a group almost as motley as the one that sits at the other extreme. The other players with the strongest positive relationships between first serve percentage and winning percentage are Richard Gasquet, Murray, Roger Federer, Jeremy Chardy, and Juan Martin del Potro.
These player-specific findings tell us that in some matchups, we’ll have to be a little more subtle in what we look for from each guy. When Murray plays Djokovic, we should keep an eye on the first-serve percentages of both competitors–the one to see that he’s making enough, and the other to check that he isn’t making too many.