© Peter Staples/ATP World Tour

The Infosys Serve & Return Tracker highlights Novak Djokovic's return prowess.

The Best Returner Among The Big Four...

The Infosys Serve & Return Tracker shows who leads the legendary group

Comparisons between the “Big Four” have been numerous the past several years – but never regarding the specifics of their return depth and direction.

A new Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers match data platform compiles exactly that. It is the Serve & Return Tracker, and it sheds new light on where players return, and how their win percentages increase the deeper they get the return in the court.

The dataset for this analysis comes from ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events and the Nitto ATP Finals from 2011-2017, during the dominance of the Big Four. It is specific to returning first serves.

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Return Direction vs. First Serves
The first thing that stands out is that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray surprisingly return a lot more first serves to the Deuce court than the Ad court.

Big Four Average On First-Serve Returns
To the Deuce Court = 62 per cent

To the Ad Court = 38 per cent

The obvious reason is that they are essentially on defence returning first serves, and going crosscourt from the Deuce court and more middle from the Ad court simply means more returns in play. Keep in mind these returns are going back to a right-hander’s more aggressive forehand, so it’s a trade-off between balls in play and continually being attacked.

Big Four 2011-2017: First-Serve Returns To The Deuce Court / Ad Court

Big Four

Return to Deuce Court

Return to Ad Court

Roger Federer

67%

33%

Andy Murray

64%

36%

Novak Djokovic

61%

39%

Rafael Nadal

58%

42%

AVERAGE

62%

38%

Return Depth vs. First Serves
The court is cut up into three specific depths to evaluate return performance.

Short return = in the service box.

Middle return = closer to service line than baseline.

Deep return = closer to baseline than service line.

Imagine a line halfway between the service line and the baseline. That’s the barrier that separates a middle return from a deep return. Djokovic was the best of the Big Four at getting first-serve returns deep back at the server.

Deep Returns Made
Djokovic 26%

Federer 25%

Murray 22%

Nadal 21%

All four player players hit the majority of returns in the middle section of the court. Only Djokovic and Federer were able to hit more balls deep near the baseline than short in the service box.

Big Four 2011-2017: First Serve Returns Made Short / Middle / Deep

Big Four

Short

Middle

Deep

Novak Djokovic

22%

52%

26%

Roger Federer

24%

51%

25%

Andy Murray

28%

51%

22%

Rafael Nadal

32%

47%

21%

AVERAGE

27%

50%

24%

(bold = best)

We are accustomed to watching Nadal stand way back to return first serves, and we see one of the outcomes here. Standing farther back lets the ball slow down and drop into Nadal’s hitting zone where he can swing big, but the result is he hits more returns short than any of the other three players. Nadal hit 32 per cent of his returns in the service box, and was the least proficient at getting the return deep, at 21 per cent.

Return Depth Win Percentage
Both Djokovic and Nadal were the leaders at winning points with deep returns, at 58 per cent. Djokovic has had the highest win percentage of the Big Four when the return landed short and in the middle of the court.

Big Four 2011-2017: First Serve Returns Win Percentage Short / Middle / Deep

Big Four

Short Win %

Middle Win %

Deep Win %

AVERAGE

Roger Federer

44%

49%

55%

49%

Novak Djokovic

46%

51%

58%

52%

Andy Murray

41%

46%

54%

47%

Rafael Nadal

45%

50%

58%

51%

AVERAGE

44%

49%

56%

50%

(bold = best)

Overall, the honours for return performance against first serves go to Djokovic, as he led the Big Four with the highest percentage of deep returns, the least short returns, and the highest win percentage overall.

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