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We return serve the most to Position C, but win the least. We return serve the least to Position A, but win the most.

When Dominic Thiem upset Novak Djokovic 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(5) at the 2019 Nitto ATP Finals, Thiem peppered Position C with 26 returns, winning 58 per cent (15). This better-than-average performance returning to this specific location was a key component of his stunning victory.

Thiem reached the final in London, losing 6-7(6), 6-2, 7-6(4) to Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek returned seven times out wide in the Deuce court to Position A, winning five (71%). It was the only location to which he had a winning percentage.

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Where to target your return of serve is a dilemma that returners at all levels of the game wrestle with as they battle risk and reward of returning to forehands or backhands, and middle or wide. An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of four specific return locations – A. B, C, D – identifies hot spots in the following three areas:

•Which location attracts the most returns;
•Where the returner wins the most points;
•Where the server commits the most Serve +1 errors.

The analysis is a snapshot of 1003 returns in play from 10 recent ATP matches (see chart at bottom of story). The data set included only right-handed players for continuity.

1. Most Returns Go To Position C
More than one-third of all returns were directed back down the middle of the court to the server’s backhand wing to Position C. Forty per cent (397/1003) were hit to Position C, with the main goal of avoiding the server’s more powerful forehand wing, while also not getting too close to the doubles sideline in Position D. Overall, 67 per cent (672/1003) were hit to the Ad court, trying to make the server hit a backhand shot as their Serve +1 groundstroke.


Percentage Of Returns Hit To:
•Position C = 40% (397)
•Position D = 27% (275)
•Position B = 24% (237)
•Position A = 9% (94)

This strategy weighed heavily in Thiem’s three-set victory over Djokovic at the Nitto ATP Finals in the round-robin stage. Overall, 46.4 per cent (71/153) of returns for the match went to Position C, which was the most from any match in the data set. Thiem won an impressive 57.7 per cent (15/26) of return points he hit to Position C, while Djokovic only won 28.9 per cent (13/45). Djokovic’s hot spot was returning to Position D, where he won 80 per cent (20/25).

2.Returner Wins More In Position A
Position A has very specific roles in a rally. It’s not a place to rally to; that honor goes to Position C. But it is a place to finish. Overall, most forehand and backhand winners are directed to Position A. It’s a location to go for the “knock-out” punch after rallying to Positions C and D earlier in the rally.

Percentage Of Return Points Won When Return Hit To:
•Position A = 62% (58/94)
•Position D = 48% (132/275)
•Position B = 47% (112/237)
•Position C = 43% (171/397)

When Jan-Lennard Struff upset Roberto Bautista Agut 7-6(2), 7-5 in Dubai earlier this year, he won 86 per cent (6/7) when he made a return to Position A.

3. Most Serve +1 Errors Are In Position B
The first thing to recognise is that the backswing on forehands is significantly bigger than the backswing on backhands. It takes more time to complete and get organised. Most Serve +1 errors occur in Position B, because the forehand backswing can be pressured by time. Both Positions A and B have a significantly higher percentage of Serve +1 errors than Positions C and D.

Most Serve +1 Errors
•Position B = 15.2% (36/237)
•Position A = 14.9% (14/94)
•Position C = 11.6% (46/397)
•Position D = 10.2% (28/275)

The most Serve +1 errors in B in the data set was seven between Kyle Edmund and Felix Auger-Aliassime in Acapulco earlier this year, with Edmund committing five and Auger-Aliassime committing two.

Want to play it safe? Return to Position C. Want to force a Serve +1 error? Return to Position B. Feeling aggressive? Aim at Position A. Want to mix in a surprise to keep the server off balance? You still have Position D for that as well.

10 Matches In The Data Set (1003 Returns)

Year

Event

Round

Match

2020

Dubai

R32

Struff d. Bautista Agut 7-6(2), 7-5

2020

Dubai

QF

Tsitsipas d. Struff 4-6, 6-4, 6-4

2020

Acapulco

R16

Edmund d. Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 6-4

2020

Rotterdam

F

Monfils d. Auger-Aliassime 6-2, 6-4

2019

ATP Finals

F

Tsitsipas d. Thiem 7(6), 6-2, 7-6(4)

2019

ATP Finals

RR

Thiem d. Djokovic 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(5)

2019

ATP Finals

RR

Federer d. Djokovic 6-4, 6-3

2019

Paris

SF

Djokovic d. Dimitrov 7-6(5), 6-4

2019

Paris

QF

Dimitrov d. Garin 6-2, 7-5

2019

Shanghai

F

Medvedev d. Zverev 6-4, 6-1


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