Bouchard, Radwanska, and Second Serve Futility

In yesterday’s women’s semifinals, we were treated to some impressive return-of-serve performances. Li Na won almost 65% of points on Eugenie Bouchard‘s serve–a higher percentage than she won on her own.

A less positive view of the situation is that we saw some dreadful serving performances. In particular, both Bouchard and Agnieska Radwanska struggled to win any points at all on their second serves. Genie won just 5 of 27 after missing her first serve, while Aga won only 2 of 16.

You don’t need an IBM Key to the Match to realize that those numbers aren’t going to cut it.

The WTA features a more return-oriented game and more breaks of serve than the ATP does, but these numbers are far out of the ordinary, especially for a solid server such as Bouchard. Here are some circuit-wide averages, derived from about 1,000 tour-level matches played last season:

  • WTA players win 55.5% of service points: 62.3% on first serves and 44.6% on second serves.
  • When the second serve lands in play–in other words, excluding double faults, players win 51.8% of second-serve points.
  • In the average losing performance, players won 57.1% of first-serve points, 40.0% of second-serve points, and 47.2% of second-serve points in play.

Then again, Li and Dominika Cibulkova–especially the Slovakian–aren’t average returners. In 16 Cibulkova wins for which I have serve statistics, she never failed to win at least half of second-serve return points. Only once did she win less than 58% of them, and her median performance was a whopping 63% of second-serve points won. In 7 of the 16 matches, she won second-serve return points at a higher rate than her own first-serve points.

Domi’s dismantling of Radwanska’s second serve still stands out, but in this context, it doesn’t look quite so unusual. When Cibulkova is hitting the ball well, you might as well be throwing batting practice once you miss your first offering.

While Li’s best return performances don’t quite stack up with Cibulkova’s, she has little trouble neutralizing her opponents in Melbourne. In six matches, she has won more than half of second-serve return points in every match, peaking with a 12-of-15 performance in the fourth round against Ekaterina Makarova. Overall, Li has won 86 of 136 second-serve return points in the tournament, good for 63%.

On Saturday, one of these powerful forces will have to give way to the other. The last time Li and Cibulkova met, in Toronto last summer, Domi had one of her worst serving performances of the year, winning only 35.5% of second-serve points, 44.0% of those that landed in play. In that match, Cibulkova failed to display the dominating return game that has been her trademark in Australia, winning barely half of Li’s second offerings, and only 41% when excluding double faults.

But as Cibulkova showed by crushing Radwanska for only the second time in six career meetings, her performances aren’t predictable. Her all-or-nothing style guarantees that we’ll see some fireworks in the final from both servers and returners. And at the rate she’s going, Domi might set some more records in the process.

For even more detailed analysis of yesterday’s semifinals, check out the charting-based analysis of Li-Bouchard and Radwanska-Cibulkova.

6 thoughts on “Bouchard, Radwanska, and Second Serve Futility”

  1. “Genie won just 5 of 27 after missing her first serve, while Aga won only 2 of 16. Radwanska committed one double fault, so she won only a single point when her second serve landed in play.”

    That doesn’t make sense, or am I being dumb? The double fault was one of the 16 points she lost, not one of the 2 she won.

  2. “In the average losing performance, players won 57.1% of first-serve points, 40.0% of second-serve points, and 47.2% of first-serve points.”

    Am I reading this incorrectly, or have you given two percentages (57.1% and 47.2%) for first-serve points?

    Love the blog. Keep up the great work!

  3. Great analysis. A few questions, Jeff:

    1) How, if it all, should players alter their serving strategy as a result of this data? For example, Radwanska’s first serve percentage against Cibulkova was 68% for the match. A quick glance at her other matches indicates that her first serve percentage is frequently around or even above 70%. Wouldn’t it behoove Radwanska to go for broke and serve the same way on her second serve as she does on her first? Continually throwing Cibulkova batting practice on her second serve does not seem like the best strategy.

    2) Is there a clear correlation between second serve speed and second serve points won (in either men’s or women’s tennis)? What makes a second serve effective?

    3) Can we expect the 19 year-old Bouchard to gain speed on her serve (particularly her second serve) as she develops into her prime? To what extent can players improve their serves throughout their careers?

    1. Good questions. For 1), that may well be a good strategy playing against someone with Cibulkova’s game plan. I think most WTA players simply aren’t that aggressive (whether b/c of strategy, b/c the weapons simply aren’t there, or at least not sufficiently consistent), so Aga can usually get away with those 2nds. But yeah — if she serves 70% on 1sts and served two first serves, she’d double fault 9% of the time but effectively have 91% first serve points.

      2) and 3) would be great to know, but the data just instead there. There is embarrassingly little serve speed data available. I published some general findings here:

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