Anyone looking to knock off Roger Federer at Wimbledon will first need to break his serve. And if they have any hope of breaking his serve, it may die with the first point.
Simply stated: Federer loves being up 15-0.
When Federer wins the opening point of his service game, that pretty much means it’s already over. In his matches this year up to the start of Wimbledon, Federer won the first point in 278 games while serving, according to data from ATP. And in those matches where he served and scored first, he went on to win the game an overwhelming 270 times. That’s a success rate of 97.1 percent. Through the first three rounds of this year’s Wimbledon, the 36-year-old Federer did even better, winning 100 percent of the 33 games in which he served and won the first point.
Although scoring first naturally increases a player’s odds of winning because it means that they held a lead at least once, for Federer, something about that first point on his serve seems to give him an outsize advantage. It’s possible that for Federer, winning the first point helps establish his service rhythm.
How does he compare with the other top men in tennis? Favorably, of course. He’s Roger Federer, the winner of 20 Grand Slam singles titles, including eight at Wimbledon. He’s also one of the greatest servers in the history of the sport.
When the first point decides the game
Rate of holding serve when taking a 15-0 lead in 2018, entering Wimbledon, for the ATP’s top 10 men’s tennis players
|Up 15-0 On Serve|
|Juan Martin del Potro||309||285||92.2|
In the 52 weeks heading into Wimbledon, Federer has been a maestro at holding serve — winning 92.1 percent of his service games, good for third best on the ATP Tour.
For reference, Rafael Nadal, the world’s top-ranked tennis player, has won his service games 89.1 percent of the time, which is stellar but not on Federer’s level.
The two players ahead of Federer in percentage of service games won are serving powerhouses John Isner and Ivo Karlovic.
However, Isner, Karlovic and Kevin Anderson, who ranks just behind Federer in service games won, are all flamethrowers. They regularly serve at speeds in excess of 135 mph. Federer’s serves aren’t slow, but he’s a different kind of server than the other guys at the top of this list, whose height gives them a superior trajectory on that stroke. Rather than blasting his serve past opponents who can’t catch up, Federer hits his spots. He uses a variety of spins and placements to hang with the ATP Tour’s most successful servers.
Through Week 1 at Wimbledon, Milos Raonic had recorded the tournament’s fastest serve, at 147 mph, according to statistics from IBM. Isner was second at 144 mph. Federer was way down the list, tied for 39th, with a max speed of 128 mph.
Even without otherworldly speed, when it comes to holding serve after taking a 15-0 lead, Federer is outperforming even dominating servers like Isner.
Still, critics will point out that Federer’s recent success rate in games where he leads 15-0 while serving has been made possible by his skipping the clay court season entirely this year and sticking to his favored surfaces. Rallies are longer on clay, which reduces the importance of the serve. In fact, anyone surprised to see Nadal and his sterling service stats hanging back in fifth place on the table above would do well to remember that he plays many of his matches on clay.
But Federer has always done well on Wimbledon’s grass. During the first week of the tournament this year, Federer won the first point of his service game 80 percent of the time. Between 2004, when he first ascended to No. 1 in the world, and 2017, Federer was winning the first point of his service games 75 percent of the time at Wimbledon. And while he’s topping himself this year, he’s also crushing the field: Last week, all the men in the competition won the first point of their service games only 66 percent of the time, on average.
This is not to imply that there’s only one way Federer can win — he also holds serve plenty of times when he loses the first point of his service game. In 2018, up to the start of Wimbledon, he lost that first point 80 times. In 62 of those games, he went on to win anyway. That’s 77.5 percent to the good for Federer. Not bad, considering he started the game behind, but still nearly 20 points worse than when he wins that point.
That gap may offer his opponents an opportunity. Knowing that, statistically speaking, they have a much better shot at breaking Federer’s serve if they can steal the first point, they might choose to be more aggressive on the opening point of his service games, particularly if they see a second serve. It’s worth a try.
But if an ambitious opponent looking to break Federer does lose the first point, that opponent better make sure he wins the next point or he’ll be left with only the barest sliver of hope. When Federer has won the first two points on his serve this year, up to Wimbledon, he went on to win the game 99.5 percent of the time.
So what happened when he won the first three points? Federer went up 40-0 while serving 151 times, and he won every one of those games.