Have you seen tennis players opting not to serve first upon winning the coin toss and instead choosing a side from where they would prefer receiving their opponent’s service and wondered why? Our tennis expert has the answer why players go down this route.
Tennis matches are usually preceded by quick tosses which decide which of the players will serve first.
The player winning the toss can decide between serving first or choosing a side from where they would like to receive the serve. And statistically speaking, very low percentage of service games are broken in tennis, especially in men’s tennis.
The official ATP website shows us a career record list some of the best service holders in the game and Ivo Karlovic, at 92%, is the best in the business. More vitally from this article’s point of view, a quick look at how many service games are won tells us that even the worst player in the list of top 100 of those who hold their serves, do that at least 70% of the time.
Look at it from another perspective.
Some of the best returners of the tennis serves, noted from the point of view of the percentage of service breaks earned in their career include Rafael Nadal, Diego Schwartzman and Novak Djokovic and even they have broken their opponents about 30% of the time.
It should, therefore, be a logical no-brainer for tennis players to start serving first and get themselves on the board, right?
Instead players are often found choosing to return serves on winning the coin toss, causing some of those looking on to feel surprised.
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So why do players opt to receive a serve upon winning the coin toss as opposed to drilling home the advantage by getting their serve in first and notching up a game win first?
Players typically do that to relieve themselves of the pressure that comes with the need to win their opening service game. It gives the player a feel for the court and warmed up, and also gives them a better chance at getting that early break in if their opponent isn’t in a great serving rhythm.
Let’s dig deeper into the reasons,
Why Tennis Players Opt to Receive Opponent’s Service
Helps Receiving Players Warm Up
Sure, players are given some time before the start of the match to warm up but nothing beats the warming up in a live encounter.
By receiving serve first up, the player can focus on getting into the groove of things without being worried about losing his or her serve. It gets the player to limber around more freely on the court before getting into action on own service game next.
And it’s not just about the physical warming up associated with receiving the serve; it also helps players mentally get down to the business of executing their strategies.
One of the strongest factors in the favor of receiving service instead of serving first up is it acts as a pressure reliever.
Breaking a player’s serve, as the statistics show above, is a difficult proposition but at the very start of the match one could be at his/her most vulnerable. An early break of serve could be all the opponent needs to seal off the set.
This is also why players opt to feel their way into the encounter by opting to receive the serve and take the pressure of holding on to their own serve first up off themselves.
Good Chance to Get an Early Break
As mentioned above, there’s always a possibility, especially at the lower level or amateur level of tennis for a player to not be properly warmed up or exhibiting nerves at the start of the encounter.
This could give the receiving player a chance to break early and give oneself a buffer against a later break.
If you feel you are a solid returner of serve, then this could become an even better tactic given the slight advantage you might have against players still building into some sort of an early match rhythm.
Not to mention, for the strong servers in the game, this might be a very good chance to exert pressure on their opponents who would know it might become difficult to break back once broken.
Personal Choice or Superstition
Some players look to receive first as a matter of habit or superstition. Rafael Nadal is the one player who comes to mind who almost inevitably wins the toss and decides to receive first because he has always done that.
Interestingly, according to DataBuckets.org, Nadal has a slightly higher win percentage while he is serving first as compared to when he is receiving in the opening game.
Now obviously the sample size in question is a small one – includes only Grand Slam tournaments – but it does give an idea about how serving first or second might not matter too much to some players as much as it might to others (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, for instance wins 88% of his matches while serving first and only 59% while receiving it in the opening game).
Feel for the Court
Some players also like to get a feel for the court in the early parts of the match and the best way to go about doing that without feeling too much pressure is to ask one’s opponent to serve first.
The receiving player could lose the opening game but he/she is anyway ‘expected’ to do that when not serving but in turn it helps the player get used to the court conditions – the slipperiness, the speed, the crowd and so on.
Disadvantages of Opting to Receive Serve First Up
So yes, there are definite advantages to wanting to take a first look at your opponent’s serve after winning the coin toss but are there any disadvantages? Well, there is one big one.
The problem with receiving serve arises when such a player fails to break his or her opponent’s serve throughout the set and is then required to serve to stay in the set (or match).
This usually happens when the player is serving at a 4-5 or 5-6 scoreline and knows that a break of serve at this juncture could end the set or even the match for the player.
It could lead to oodles of pressure as a result and often also to a break of serve leading to the loss of the set.
Final Words on Tennis Players Choosing to Receive Serve
While the common wisdom is to win the coin toss in tennis and opt to serve first, there are more and more players opting to receive their opponent’s serve first up. And while this could be down to a mere case of personal choice, there is a method to this madness as explained in the piece above.