What is the value of a good serve on grass?

About two decades ago, serve and volley was the biggest weapon one could use to win on tennis’ traditional surface. But with changes in racquets, balls, conditions of the courts... it is not as popular or effective today. The style is now employed more as a shock move than a regular feature as the balance of power has now shifted to the baseline.

Nonetheless, a booming serve gives the server a big advantage on grass. Take the case of Wimbledon runner-up Kevin Anderson, whose big serve helped him reach the final, but fell short when came up against a good returner like Novak Djokovic.

The 6’8” South African, who now holds the record for most games played at a single Wimbledon, served 49 times in his six-hour-36-minute epic semi-final against John Isner, and was broken just two times. Both of them are rocket serves with serves of over 140 mph. On the other side, Isner – the most accurate server at Wimbledon as per the stats – was broken four times.

Before this match, his serve at Wimbledon was unbroken for 110 straight games. The South African did something similar in the quarter-final against top seed Roger Federer, a match he won 13-11 in the fifth set after fighting from two sets down. He ended the Swiss player’s streak of service games won (which extended to last year’s semi-final) and won more points on his first and second serve.

But holding on to his service games is exactly what he was unable to do the final against Novak Djokovic. His serve was broken four times and he just couldn’t make it click either on serves in or points won.

Djokovic, on the other hand, with a service action that had to be remodeled, maintained a level of consistency on serve that was just perfect: not too fast, not too easy. He powered through his service games, saving five break points at the end of the final as he lifted up his fourth title.

Serving on grass

A study done on the association between serve speed and court surface in tennis found that the first and second serves at Wimbledon are much faster than that at other Grand Slams. The speed, as well as the natural unevenness means low bounce, which invariably leads to shorter rallies. And a quick serve that doesn’t rise as much means the opponent has to react very quickly if he wants to hit a winner, unlike clay and hard courts.

Of course, this does not always guarantee victory. Not against a player who can slide all over and return whatever is fired at him. But what it does is give an advantage in the form of an almost infallible heavy artillery weapon. And when used well with the right amount of variation such as the occasional volley and baseline power (as Federer does), it can make a player very hard to beat.

Graphic by Anand Katakam
Graphic by Anand Katakam

When one compares the success of serves on grass to clay and hard courts, the picture becomes clearer. The stark difference in aces and first serve points and service games won across surfaces tells you a lead is almost ensured when you get the serve in right.

There are a few recurring names who have a massive serve across surfaces.

The tall, service machine from Croatia, Ivo Karlovic, leads on all counts (19.6 average aces per match, 82.8% first serve points won, 92.1% games.) John Isner also gets his serve right on all surfaces in terms of games won and aces. Between them they share the highest average of aces on hard and clay courts as well and the top three positions on the service leaderboard. But keep the freak servers aside, and the same names don’t feature for services games won, first service success rate and aces.

More than just aces

A good serve on grass usually also means a generous dose of aces. Isner leads in this regard, and his two five-setters this year meant he has a new record – most aces at a single Wimbledon with 214, breaking Goran Ivanisevic Incidentally, he also holds the record for most aces in a match, with 113 aces in the marathon 11-hour-five-minute match against Nicholas Mahut back in 2010.

However, a look at the grass-court service ace vs service games statistics makes it clear that the modern game need not rely on big aces alone. With the change of grass at Wimbledon and bigger racquets, baseliners have had their fare share of success even with longer rallies and fewer aces. Three of the four heavyweights who have dominated the Centre Court of Wimbledon for the last decade – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – prove this point.

Graphic by Anand Katakam
Graphic by Anand Katakam

Nadal, for example, doesn’t dole out as many aces, but neither did Stefan Edberg, but has a strong service game winning percentage on grass at 89.5 with 6.4 aces. Djokovic wins 89% of his service games with less than 9 aces per match while Murray has won 88.9% of service games on grass at an average of 9.4 aces per match.

First serve vs second serve 

For all the accuracy and length of the big-servers like Isner and Karlovic, the most telling statistic is the percentage of service games won. At Wimbledon, the leader on this count was someone not in the Top 5 of neither the ace not the first serve list. Instead it is the player with the most wins on a grass court – Roger Federer with a whopping accuracy of 86%.

The player who tops the all-time table in first serve points won on grass is someone who has not played for over a decade now, Goran Ivanisevic, with 87% of all service games won. He is second in the all-surface list 82.45% across, second only to Karlovic. He averaged 21.1 aces per match in his career and won 91.6% of his service games, which is seventh in the all-time records with Sampras at fifth (92.66%) and Federer sixth (92.58%).

But this picture changes when it comes to points won on second serve on grass. Ivanisevic is 156th with 50.5%, Sampras is 63rd with 53.03%. It is Milos Raonic leads the charts with 59.3% of second serve points won while and Federer is a close second at 58.9% and Rafael Nadal third 58.5%.

However, Nadal leads is the clear leader when it comes to second serve points won across surfaces at 57.33%, followed by Federer, Isner, Andy Roddick and Djokovic.

Service games under pressure 

What happens when the service game is under pressure, when facing break points. Admittedly, this is a rare scenario for the top players on grass given their impressive record and will not have their serve threatened as much.

Sampras leads the pack with a success rate of 74.1% when it comes to saving breakpoints. Karlovic makes an appearance here as well, saving breakpoints 74% of times. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Jack Sock and Raonic make the top five, with Federer and Ivanisevic at 8 and 9 saving about 71% of the breakpoints they face. Djokovic and Murray save around 68% while Nadal 67%.

But as the second serve and break points statistics show – it is in the big points; in the clutch moments where players need to stand up and deliver.

There is the added factor of pressure and its effect on service speed, accuracy and angle is different for different players. It all comes down to how players react to it. A clutch serve can either result in a double fault or an effective second serve, and it is in this area that players like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic stand out.