(July 25, 2012) – After Novak Djokovic’s remarkable 2011, there are many tennis pundits who have nominated the sizzling Serb as the de facto GOAT of returning serve, but a closer inspection of the numbers proves that the argument is nowhere near as clear-cut—sound familiar, Federer and Nadal fans?—as we’d like it to be.
I posed the question to John McEnroe in February, and, while willing to place Djokovic in that holy trinity of otherwordly returners, he wasn’t willing to anoint him.
“The level that he's at for the last year, year and a half, it's like unbelievable what he does. He's in that argument without a doubt,” he said.
But Djokovic is surely the tour’s most improved returner, and he’s blown the mind of another member of the returning trinity with his stunning chops: Andre Agassi. “John [McEnroe], in 1992, sort of credited me for having the best return he’s ever faced or in some cases maybe the best the game has ever seen,” Andre Agassi said in a conference call last week. “I got news for you: I was aggressive with my return, but you look at a guy like Djokovic and he’s like the best of me, the best of Hewitt, the best of Federer, he plays defensive, he can play offensive—these guys [the big three] have taken different parts of the game and just redefined its standard.”
That’s high praise coming from someone who did a bit of redefining back in his day, and Agassi certainly would know an out-of-this-world returner when he sees one, but I wondered why Rafael Nadal is so often left out of this conversation.
Nadal is certainly the best clay-court returner of all-time, and perhaps he gets less credit for his ability as a returner on the surface, and instead just gets credit for being just simply dominant in every way on clay. But Nadal’s return numbers on clay are simply astounding, and because of them, the argument can be made that Nadal belongs right up there with Djokovic and Agassi when it comes to the “who is the best returner of all-time?” discussion.
All three players had their own signature method of returning serve. Agassi took the ball early and robbed his opponent’s of time; Nadal uses court positioning and depth of return combined with an uncanny ability to transition from defense to offense; Djokovic uses remarkable eye-hand coordination and gumby-like flexibility, and he’s the master of hammering a return right back at a server's feet.
The truth of the matter is that it’s impossible to say who is better. All we can do is lay out the numbers for you and let you form your own opinions...
Return Stats, Career, All Surfaces
1st srv pts won
2nd srv pts won
Return Games won
Return Points won
Return Stats, Career, Clay
Return Stats, Career, Hard
Best Return Seasons (return games won, %), Overall, Hard, Clay
32, 2011, 2012
*Nadal has won over 40 percent of his return games on clay for 10 years running.
*Djokovic’s 2011 return game on hard courts is the reason that he’s considered by many to be the best at the art.
*Agassi won more than 30 percent of return games on hard courts for a remarkable 11 seasons, including 6 seasons where he won 35 percent or better.
Stats courtesy of ATPworldtour.com
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