Measuring the Impact of the Serve in Men’s Tennis

By just about any measure, the serve is the most important shot in tennis. In men’s professional tennis, with its powerful deliveries and short points, the serve is all the more crucial. It is the one shot guaranteed to occur in every rally, and in many points, it is the only shot.

Yet we don’t have a good way of measuring exactly how important it is. It’s easy to determine which players have the best serves–they tend to show up at the top of the leaderboards for aces and service points won–but the available statistics are very limited if we want a more precise picture. The ace stat counts only a subset of those points decided by the serve, and the tally of service points won (or 1st serve points won, or 2nd serve points won) combines the effect of the serve with all of the other shots in a player’s arsenal.

Aces are not the only points in which the serve is decisive, and some service points won are decided long after the serve ceases to have any relevance to the point. What we need is a method to estimate how much impact the serve has on points of various lengths.

It seems like a fair assumption that if a server hits a winner on his second shot, the serve itself deserves some of the credit, even if the returner got it back in play. In any particular instance, the serve might be really important–imagine Roger Federer swatting away a weak return from the service line–or downright counterproductive–think of Rafael Nadal lunging to defend against a good return and hitting a miraculous down-the-line winner. With the wide variety of paths a tennis point can follow, though, all we can do is generalize. And in the aggregate, the serve probably has a lot to do with a 3-shot rally. At the other extreme, a 25-shot rally may start with a great serve or a mediocre one, but by the time by the point is decided, the effect of the serve has been canceled out.

With data from the Match Charting Project, we can quantify the effect. Using about 1,200 tour-level men’s matches from 2000 to the present, I looked at each of the server’s shots grouped by the stage of the rally–that is, his second shot, his third shot, and so on–and calculated how frequently it ended the point. A player’s underlying skills shouldn’t change during a point–his forehand is as good at the end as it is at the beginning, unless fatigue strikes–so if the serve had no effect on the success of subsequent shots, players would end the point equally often with every shot.

Of course, the serve does have an effect, so points won by the server end much more frequently on the few shots just after the serve than they do later on. This graph illustrates how the “point ending rate” changes:

On first serve points (the blue line), if the server has a “makeable” second shot (the third shot of the rally, “3” on the horizontal axis, where “makeable” is defined as a shot that results in an unforced error or is put back in play), there is a 28.1% chance it ends the point in the server’s favor, either with a winner or by inducing an error on the next shot. On the following shot, the rate falls to 25.6%, then 21.8%, and then down into what we’ll call the “base rate” range between 18% and 20%.

The base rate tells us how often players are able to end points in their favor after the serve ceases to provide an advantage. Since the point ending rate stabilizes beginning with the fifth shot (after first serves), we can pinpoint that stage of the rally as the moment–for the average player, anyway–when the serve is no longer an advantage.

As the graph shows, second serve points (shown with a red line) are a very different story. It appears that the serve has no impact once the returner gets the ball back in play. Even that slight blip with the server’s third shot (“5” on the horizontal axis, for the rally’s fifth shot) is no higher than the point ending rate on the 15th shot of first-serve rallies. This tallies with the conclusions of some other research I did six years ago, and it has the added benefit of agreeing with common sense, since ATP servers win only about half of their second serve points.

Of course, some players get plenty of positive after-effects from their second serves: When John Isner hits a second shot on a second-serve point, he finishes the point in his favor 30% of the time, a number that falls to 22% by his fourth shot. His second serve has effects that mirror those of an average player’s first serve.

Removing unforced errors

I wanted to build this metric without resorting to the vagaries of differentiating forced and unforced errors, but it wasn’t to be. The “point-ending” rates shown above include points that ended when the server’s opponent made an unforced error. We can argue about whether, or how much, such errors should be credited to the server, but for our purposes today, the important thing is that unforced errors aren’t affected that much by the stage of the rally.

If we want to isolate the effect of the serve, then, we should remove unforced errors. When we do so, we discover an even sharper effect. The rate at which the server hits winners (or induces forced errors) depends heavily on the stage of the rally. Here’s the same graph as above, only with opponent unforced errors removed:

The two graphs look very similar. Again, the first serve loses its effect around the 9th shot in the rally, and the second serve confers no advantage on later shots in the point. The important difference to notice is the ratio between the peak winner rate and the base rate, which is now just above 10%. When we counted unforced errors, the ratio between peak and base rate was about 3:2. With unforced errors removed, the ratio is close to 2:1, suggesting that when the server hits a winner on his second shot, the serve and the winner contributed roughly equally to the outcome of the point. It seems more appropriate to skip opponent unforced errors when measuring the effect of the serve, and the resulting 2:1 ratio jibes better with my intuition.

Making a metric

Now for the fun part. To narrow our focus, let’s zero in on one particular question: What percentage of service points won can be attributed to the serve? To answer that question, I want to consider only the server’s own efforts. For unreturned serves and unforced errors, we might be tempted to give negative credit to the other player. But for today’s purposes, I want to divvy up the credit among the server’s assets–his serve and his other shots–like separating the contributions of a baseball team’s pitching from its defense.

For unreturned serves, that’s easy. 100% of the credit belongs to the serve.

For second serve points in which the return was put in play, 0% of the credit goes to the serve. As we’ve seen, for the average player, once the return comes back, the server no longer has an advantage.

For first-serve points in which the return was put in play and the server won by his fourth shot, the serve gets some credit, but not all, and the amount of credit depends on how quickly the point ended. The following table shows the exact rates at which players hit winners on each shot, in the “Winner %” column:

Server's…  Winner %  W%/Base  Shot credit  Serve credit  
2nd shot      21.2%     1.96        51.0%         49.0%  
3rd shot      18.1%     1.68        59.6%         40.4%  
4th shot      13.3%     1.23        81.0%         19.0%  
5th+          10.8%     1.00       100.0%          0.0%

Compared to a base rate of 10.8% winners per shot opportunity, we can calculate the approximate value of the serve in points that end on the server’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th shots. The resulting numbers come out close to round figures, so because these are hardly laws of nature (and the sample of charted matches has its biases), we’ll go with round numbers. We’ll give the serve 50% of the credit when the server needed only two shots, 40% when he needed three shots, and 20% when he needed four shots. After that, the advantage conferred by the serve is usually canceled out, so in longer rallies, the serve gets 0% of the credit.

Tour averages

Finally, we can begin the answer the question, What percentage of service points won can be attributed to the serve? This, I believe, is a good proxy for the slipperier query I started with, How important is the serve?

To do that, we take the same subset of 1,200 or so charted matches, tally the number of unreturned serves and first-serve points that ended with various numbers of shots, and assign credit to the serve based on the multipliers above. Adding up all the credit due to the serve gives us a raw number of “points” that the player won thanks to his serve. When we divide that number by the actual number of service points won, we find out how much of his service success was due to the serve itself. Let’s call the resulting number Serve Impact, or SvI.

Here are the aggregates for the entire tour, as well as for each major surface:

         1st SvI  2nd SvI  Total SvI  
Overall    63.4%    31.0%      53.6%  
Hard       64.6%    31.5%      54.4%  
Clay       56.9%    27.0%      47.8%  
Grass      70.8%    37.3%      61.5%

Bottom line, it appears that just over half of service points won are attributable to the serve itself. As expected, that number is lower on clay and higher on grass.

Since about two-thirds of the points that men win come on their own serves, we can go even one step further: roughly one-third of the points won by a men’s tennis player are due to his serve.

Player by player

These are averages, and the most interesting players rarely hew to the mean. Using the 50/40/20 multipliers, Isner’s SvI is a whopping 70.8% and Diego Schwartzman‘s is a mere 37.7%. As far from the middle as those are, they understate the uniqueness of these players. I hinted above that the same multipliers are not appropriate for everyone; the average player reaps no positive after-effects of his second serve, but Isner certainly does. The standard formula we’ve used so far credits Isner with an outrageous SvI, even without giving him credit for the “second serve plus one” points he racks up.

In other words, to get player-specific results, we need player-specific multipliers. To do that, we start by finding a player-specific base rate, for which we’ll use the winner (and induced forced error) rate for all shots starting with the server’s fifth shot on first-serve points and shots starting with the server’s fourth on second-serve points. Then we check the winner rate on the server’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th shots on first-serve points and his 2nd and 3rd shots on second-serve points, and if the rate is at least 20% higher than the base rate, we give the player’s serve the corresponding amount of credit.

Here are the resulting multipliers for a quartet of players you might find interesting, with plenty of surprises already:

                   1st serve              2nd serve       
                    2nd shot  3rd  4th     2nd shot  3rd  
Roger Federer            55%  50%  30%           0%   0%  
Rafael Nadal             31%   0%   0%           0%   0%  
John Isner               46%  41%   0%          34%   0%  
Diego Schwartzman        20%  35%   0%           0%  25%  
Average                  50%  30%  20%           0%   0%

Roger Federer gets more positive after-effects from his first serve than average, more even than Isner does. The big American is a tricky case, both because so few of his serves come back and because he is so aggressive at all times, meaning that his base winner rate is very high. At the other extreme, Schwartzman and Rafael Nadal get very little follow-on benefit from their serves. Schwartzman’s multipliers are particularly intriguing, since on both first and second serves, his winner rate on his third shot is higher than on his second shot. Serve plus two, anyone?

Using player-specific multipliers makes Isner’s and Schwartzman’s SvI numbers more extreme. Isner’s ticks up a bit to 72.4% (just behind Ivo Karlovic), while Schwartzman’s drops to 35.0%, the lowest of anyone I’ve looked at. I’ve calculated multipliers and SvI for all 33 players with at least 1,000 tour-level service points in the Match Charting Project database:

Player                 1st SvI  2nd SvI  Total SvI  
Ivo Karlovic             79.2%    56.1%      73.3%  
John Isner               78.3%    54.3%      72.4%  
Andy Roddick             77.8%    51.0%      71.1%  
Feliciano Lopez          83.3%    37.1%      68.9%  
Kevin Anderson           77.7%    42.5%      68.4%  
Milos Raonic             77.4%    36.0%      66.0%  
Marin Cilic              77.1%    34.1%      63.3%  
Nick Kyrgios             70.6%    41.0%      62.5%  
Alexandr Dolgopolov      74.0%    37.8%      61.3%  
Gael Monfils             69.8%    37.7%      60.8%  
Roger Federer            70.6%    32.0%      58.8%  
Player                 1st SvI  2nd SvI  Total SvI  
Bernard Tomic            67.6%    28.7%      58.5%  
Tomas Berdych            71.6%    27.0%      57.2%  
Alexander Zverev         65.4%    30.2%      54.9%  
Fernando Verdasco        61.6%    32.9%      54.3%  
Stan Wawrinka            65.4%    33.7%      54.2%  
Lleyton Hewitt           66.7%    32.1%      53.4%  
Juan Martin Del Potro    63.1%    28.2%      53.4%  
Grigor Dimitrov          62.9%    28.6%      53.3%  
Jo Wilfried Tsonga       65.3%    25.9%      52.7%  
Marat Safin              68.4%    22.7%      52.3%  
Andy Murray              63.4%    27.5%      52.0%  
Player                 1st SvI  2nd SvI  Total SvI  
Dominic Thiem            60.6%    28.9%      50.8%  
Roberto Bautista Agut    55.9%    32.5%      49.5%  
Pablo Cuevas             57.9%    28.9%      47.8%  
Richard Gasquet          56.0%    29.0%      47.5%  
Novak Djokovic           56.0%    26.8%      47.3%  
Andre Agassi             54.3%    31.4%      47.1%  
Gilles Simon             55.7%    28.4%      46.7%  
Kei Nishikori            52.2%    30.8%      45.2%  
David Ferrer             46.9%    28.2%      41.0%  
Rafael Nadal             42.8%    27.1%      38.8%  
Diego Schwartzman        39.5%    25.8%      35.0%

At the risk of belaboring the point, this table shows just how massive the difference is between the biggest servers and their opposites. Karlovic’s serve accounts for nearly three-quarters of his success on service points, while Schwartzman’s can be credited with barely one-third. Even those numbers don’t tell the whole story: Because Ivo’s game relies so much more on service games than Diego’s does, it means that 54% of Karlovic’s total points won–serve and return–are due to his serve, while only 20% of Schwartzman’s are.

We didn’t need a lengthy analysis to show us that the serve is important in men’s tennis, or that it represents a much bigger chunk of some players’ success than others. But now, instead of asserting a vague truism–the serve is a big deal–we can begin to understand just how much it influences results, and how much weak-serving players need to compensate just to stay even with their more powerful peers.