© Peter Staples/ATP World Tour

In 2017, Rafael Nadal led the ATP World Tour in winning second-serve points on both clay and hard courts.

The Rare Stat That Nadal, Isner Have In Common

Spaniard & American are only players to feature in both Top 10 lists for service points won on hard and clay

A hidden dynamic of clay court versus hard court tennis is perfectly illustrated with points won behind second serves. You would naturally think that serving on a hard court would be preferred for both first and second serves, but it’s simply not the case.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of points won behind first and second serves on both hard and clay courts last season surprisingly reveals a higher win percentage behind second serves on clay.

The data set includes the leading 20 players in the First and Second Serve Points Won categories on both clay and hard in the 2017 season.

2017 First Serves: Leading 20 Players Average Points Won

Surface Percentage
Hard court 78.0%
Clay court 75.1%

It’s clear to see that first-serve performance was superior on hard over clay, but that flips when we examine second serves.

2017 Second Serves: Leading 20 Players Average Points Won

Surface Percentage
Hard court 53.9%
Clay court 55.3%

An analysis of World No. 1, Rafael Nadal confirms the advantage clay has over hard when the point starts with a second serve. In 2017, Nadal led the ATP World Tour in winning second serve points on both hard and clay courts, with his performance on clay being superior to hard.

2017: Nadal Second Serve Points Won

Surface Percentage
No. 1 on hard court 60.3% (706/1171 in 49 matches)
No. 1 on clay court 64.1% (307/479 in 25 matches)

This dynamic was also true for one of the biggest servers on the ATP World Tour; John Isner. The 6’10” American won 56.1 per cent (510/909) of second-serve points on hard courts, but that rose to 58.3 per cent (187/321) on clay. Isner was the only other player besides Nadal that featured in the Top 10 in winning second-serve points on both clay and hard.

One reason to explain this dynamic is that raw power is sought after behind first serves, and the ball slows down less at impact on a hard court than a clay court. But power is not the main ingredient of second serves. The focus switches to what the ball does when it reacts with the court, with the granules of clay “grabbing” a ball better and producing a higher kick off clay than hard.

It turns out that a heavy kick second serve is rewarded more on clay than we ever thought.

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