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Thursday, 13 July 2017 15:07 PM BST
#WimbleWars: What’s more important, serve or return?
If this is the golden age for returning, is the serve really so important now? READ MORE's Nick McCarvel and Craig O'Shannessy debate the merits of the serve and the return. Have your say using #WimbleWars on Twitter!

NICK McCARVEL: It's always been about the serve

The serve has always been the most important stroke in the history of the game. And it still is today.

Roger Federer and Serena Williams have dominated this generation because of their respective serves, particularly here at Wimbledon, where they have won a combined 14 singles titles. Great tennis careers have been built on that very stroke, including those of Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport and more at this event and beyond.

I still remember my childhood tennis coach saying: “Take care of your serve and you only need one good game on return to win a set.” I didn’t understand what she meant by that at the time, but a few years later it all sunk in. If only tennis was that simple.

But to place more importance on the second stroke of a rally versus the first to me seems nonsensical. Look at the semi-finalists here at Wimbledon: Federer,Sam QuerreyVenus Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza (among others) have all served their way into the final four.

Querrey and Marin Cilic have hit a combined 231 aces in their 10 matches, enough points to win three best-of-five matches without hitting another ball. The American closed out his upset of Andy Murray in the quarter-finals with an ace, an exclamation point on what has been a startling run to his first major semi-final.

Johanna Konta and Williams are the two leaders in the ladies' draw when it comes to aces, with a combined 55 untouched serves. It's a stat that doesn’t surprise when you look at their respective marches to the final four.

Last week, the Telegraph looked at the best servers in the history of Wimbledon, via stats from IBM. On the men’s side, the best statistics all belonged to past champions here: Goran Ivanisevic, Sampras, Federer, Murray, Novak DjokovicRafael Nadal and Andre Agassi. Coincidence? Not from my perspective.

The return is always going to be important, but if you don’t have an outstanding serve, you’re not winning Wimbledon. It’s as simple as that. It's about having a complete game, and the serve leads the charge. After all, it is the first stroke in every rally.

CRAIG O'SHANNESSY: It's a new era in tennis... of returning

This is the golden age of the returner.

In the 1990s, big servers roamed the planet, with players such as Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek dominating with their thunderous serve while taking titles at SW19.

Not any more. The best returners rule the game. The analytics of Andy Murray’s 2016 season clearly confirms what our eyes suspect: excellence on the returning side of the equation elevated him to become the No.1 player in the world much more than his serving.

In 2016, Murray was second best on tour with his overall combined return metrics, but dropped all the way down the leaderboard to be 22nd best when serving. Murray is a good server. He is a great returner.

When you compare all the male players who finished the season ranked No.1 in the world, from 1991 to 2016, you see clearly that the return of serve has overtaken the serve as the most important shot in the game.

Best returning years by a year-end No.1 (1991-2016)
1 2011 Novak Djokovic
2= 2016 Andy Murray
2= 2012 Novak Djokovic
4 2013 Rafael Nadal
5 2015 Novak Djokovic
6 2016 Novak Djokovic

When you look at great serving years by year-end No.1s in recent times, they are all but non-existent. In the past 11 years, from 2006 to 2016, only Djokovic’s 2015 season makes the top 10, at number seven.

These days, returning is powerfully negating serving. Returning is the new super power in tennis.

Returning is the new super power in tennis

- Craig O'Shannessy

When you look at the statistics of the top 10 men, it’s points won returning second serves that leads the pack.

In the ladies' draw this year at Wimbledon, you would much rather be hitting a second serve return than a second serve. In 2015, female players won a dominant 54 per cent of points returning second serves. It was 53 per cent in 2016, and it is 53 per cent so far in 2017.

Ironically, the recent trend in our game has not been mirrored on practice courts around the world. Forehands, backhands, serves and volleys dominate practice, while the return of serve is barely an afterthought.

Better get to work on your returns.

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