In five Olympic sports, with medals in 18 events up for grabs, a net separates players from their opponents. In each case, before a point can get underway, someone has to serve. On a crucial point, as you watch the medal rounds of badminton and volleyball this weekend, would you rather see your team start with the ball or shuttlecock in its court or in its opponent’s?
I tried to find out. It turns out the data isn’t readily available.1 But after digging through PDFs and doing a lot of data entry and copy and pasting, I got data for hundreds of matches and thousands of points across 18 variations on the theme of serving. I was looking for how often the player or team that serves ends up winning the point. The conclusion: In tennis, the serve is a weapon. In badminton and table tennis, it’s just a way to get the point started. And in volleyball, it’s a vulnerability.
|SPORT||EVENT||SERVE SUCCESS RATE|
|Table tennis||Women’s singles||53|
|Table tennis||Men’s singles||53|
|Table tennis||Men’s doubles||51|
|Table tennis||Women’s doubles||50|
The sports divide into a few tiers of serving advantages.
Tennis is at the top. Within tennis, the serve is a bigger weapon for men than for women, in part because men are taller than women, on average, and so they can hit down on the ball with less risk. And the serve is more valuable in doubles than in singles, because the returner is trying to avoid the server’s partner and so has to aim for a narrower window than in singles. So at the very top of the server pyramid is men’s doubles, followed by mixed doubles — a man is serving in at least half of the games — and men’s singles. Then come women’s singles and doubles, where the server’s advantage is slightly smaller because of returners’ comparative advantage in the women’s game.
In badminton and table tennis, it doesn’t matter all that much who’s serving. But there are some nuances. In both sports, servers do better in singles than in doubles. This is different from tennis because the serve functions differently in these sports. In table tennis, when playing singles you can serve to either side — left or right — on each point, which is not true in tennis. So if your goal is to hit it where the returner isn’t, singles provides a big advantage. And in neither sport is the server’s partner as likely to smash away an errant return as in tennis. (Table tennis doubles rules also restrict where the server can hit it.)
In volleyball, a point when you serve is considered one on which you’re playing defense. That’s especially true for men. Most serves don’t win the point outright, and when they don’t, the receiving team has three hits to control the ball, set it and smash it, and the sport has developed highly complex plays designed to win the point outright with its first possession. But as tough as it looks for servers in volleyball, the numbers in the table slightly understate the challenge a typical volleyball server faces. That’s because the numbers are aggregated over all teams. But in volleyball, the team that won the prior point gets to serve. So the stronger teams get to serve more, which weighs their serving success more heavily than that of weaker teams. Some of what looks like the limited serving success for volleyball players in the table is really strong teams’ overcoming the serving liability to withstand their opponents’ attacks and get the point.2
The stats are pretty consistent at other levels of the game. Todd Dagenais, coach of the University of Central Florida women’s volleyball team, said teams in his team’s league, the American Athletic Conference, win on the serve between 38 percent and 45 percent of the time. Alan Reifman, a Texas Tech University professor who is also a volleyball analyst, said 40 percent is typical in the women’s college game. Top men’s World League Volleyball teams score on 31 percent to 38 percent of their serves.
In a way, volleyball servers have it easy. They’re not expected to win the point anyway, so success is a pleasant surprise. And they get to take more risks. When you’re probably going to lose the point if the ball goes in anyway, you lose less by missing, so why not aim a little closer to the top of the net or toward the sidelines or back line? In beach volleyball at the Olympics, men have lost the point by missing their serve about 13 percent of the time, and women 11 percent, according to data provided by Giuseppe Vinci, founder of the analysis site VolleyMetrics. That compares to 3 percent to 4 percent in tennis and less than 1 percent in some of the badminton events. Not all the sports record aces, and some define them differently than others, but tennis players also hit more of those than some of their peers — in part because they get two chances to serve, so they can take big risks on the first serve.
“A ‘just keep it in, let them make mistakes’ philosophy used to be more common,” Joe Trinsey, assistant coach of the U.S. women’s indoor team, said by email. “But with the speed and power of the attacks (as well as the tactical complexity and deception of the offenses) increasing each generation, it is becoming more common to see coaches pushing their teams to attack more from the service line, even if it means more errors.”