Best ATP Servers and Returners of 2017

Who was the best server in 2017? Who was the best receiver? Which players were the most improved servers and receivers? This post reviews the standout performances of male players in 2017 using serve/return Elo ratings.

For tennis, as with life in general, December is a time to look back, reflect, and take in what another year has brought us. If we look back over the results of 2017, which players should be the most pleased headed into the New Year?

Recently, I introduced an Elo rating system for tracking player serve and return performance. These ratings account for every point played by a player at tour-level singles events, making them the most comprehensive rating system in tennis. And this level of detail makes them particularly useful for ranking the season standout serve and return performances.

Peak Serve and Return Ratings

The chart below summarizes the serve and return ratings for ATP players who competed in 10 or more tour-level events in 2017. The vertical axis shows the peak (highest) serve rating achieved and the horizontal axis shows the peak return rating out of all points played during the season.

The four quadrants are defined by the average peak serve (1570) and return ratings (1472). Which quadrant a player lands in characterizes how that player’s performance in 2017 compared to the average. For example, the players in the top right are the most accomplished (having above average serve and return peak ratings), while the players in the bottom left have the least to be proud of (having below average serve and return peak ratings).

Unsurprisingly, the two most impressive points in the most accomplished quadrant are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer has the second highest peak serve rating at 1666, just behind No. 1 server Kevin Anderson who peaked at 1681. Perhaps more of a shock is that Nadal comes in No. 3 on serve, beating out serving maniacs like John Isner and Ivo Karlovic. As I discussed in my previous post on the ATP finalists, this can’t be attributed to Nadal’s clay court dominance and he had multiple peaks on serve throughout the 2017 season.

Kudos has to also go to Dominic Thiem, who had the 2nd most impressive return rating of the year. Thiem peaked during the clay season and, even a moderate improvement on his serve performance could be all it takes to put him on track for a French Open title down the line.

One of the least populated quadrants are the strong returners and weak servers. The king of this group is Diego Schwartzman, who is the strongest returner of the group that includes Gilles Simon, Jared Donaldson, and Next Gen Finals winner Hyeon Chung.

Some of the more disappointing performances of the season were those of Bernard Tomic, Florian Mayer, and Radu Albot, who all had some of the lowest peak serve and return ratings among top ATP players.

Most Improved

A downside of focusing on the “peak” performances is that it only looks at one point in a player’s rating trajectory over the season. This glosses over the variety of courses each player took to get to their peak. Some players could have a single high point they reached only to fall back later in the season. Some players might have had a fairly flat and consistent rating throughout the year. While others might have been steadily improving throughout the year.

Of these and the many other types of dynamics ATP players have undergone in 2017 I think one of the more interesting groups are the “improvers”. To measure the most improved, I took each player’s serve (return) rating on the first point played at the start of the season (having considered their level in 2015 and 2016) and then compare this to their median rating in the last half of season. I use the latter to capture the typical level they achieved toward the end of the season.

Using this criterion, Rafael Nadal takes the top spot as most improved server. This is an incredible achievement when we consider that Nadal started at an already high-level on serve (1524), unlike players like Alexandr Dolgopolov (No. 2 most improved) who had much more room to gain at the start of the year.

Other notables in this list of Top 30 most improved include Wimbledon semifinalist, Sam Querrey, and crowd favorite Juan Martin Del Potro. The Next Gen player who takes the highest spot on the list is Denis Shapovalov, who was the fifth most improved.

While more veterans of the tour were among the most improved servers, the top spot among most improved returners goes to youngster Andrey Rublev, who gained over 80 points in his return rating by the last half of the season. Twenty-year-old Tommy Paul should also be applauded for his accomplishments on return, as he was the 5th most improved of all top ATP players.

Among the top 10 on this list, three players began above a 1400 return rating (a high level for return). These included Stan Wawrinka (2nd most improved), Pablo Carreno Busta (6th most improved), and Rafael Nadal (8th most improved).

Improvement is something we expect to see more from players who are coming back from a slump or who are just coming into their own on the tour. So you wouldn’t usually expect the best tour players to be among the most improved. This is what makes Nadal’s top ranking on both serve and return improvement one of the most fascinating findings from this review.

Nadal also inevitably raises the issue of surface effects. I’ve defined improvement here in a way that should counteract players who are only strong on one surface, but it would obviously be interesting to look at surface-specific summaries of peaks and improvement as well, which is all doable.

But for next week, I’ll take a look at the best servers and returners on the women’s tour in 2017.

The data and code for this post can be found here.