Raducanu Returns

Return 1-2 punch > Serve 1-2 punch

Leylah Fernandez 1st serve points won by round:

  • 65% vs Konjuh in 1st Round

  • 80% vs Kanepi in 2nd Round

  • 78% vs Osaka in 3rd Round

  • 66% vs Kerber in 4th Round

  • 70% vs Svitolina in quarterfinals

  • 68% vs Sabalenka in semifinals

  • 56% vs Raducanu in the final

There are lots of impressive things about Raducanu. She’s extremely balanced on both forehand and backhand wings, her footwork is excellent from both central and on-the-run positions, she aims for safe but aggressive spots in the court and rarely overplays, and her serve is already a good weapon and consistently well placed. But it’s the Brit’s return of serve that has been most interesting to watch in the last two weeks, and the impact of that ability on the 3rd shot of the point in her return games.

Raducanu consistently made Fernandez’s life difficult when it came to the Canadian’s 2nd shot to follow up her serve, or her serve+1. Raducanu accomplished this by hitting 1st serve returns consistently and devastatingly into the red box area below.

I’ve written about this strategy quite a bit in the past. Djokovic is another player who does this exceptionally well. It’s effective because it’s relatively safe and repeatable — because it doesn’t flirt with the sidelines or the highest parts of the net…

…but also because most servers will find it very hard to generate angles and find open space in the court off such a central, deep ball. It’s orders of magnitude harder for most players to create angles from those deep central positions in the court than it is when pushed side to side on the run.

Raducanu with a nice deep return, Fernandez can’t be aggressive or find open court on her 2nd shot post-serve and so Raducanu gets to be aggressive on her 2nd shot instead. Returner 1-2 punch beating server 1-2 punch.
Raducanu actually loses this point because of a backhand unforced error but the return again sets up her aggressive 2nd shot and handcuffs Fernandez deep in a central position.
Perhaps the best example from the match. Fernandez playing her 2nd shot, after serving, falling backwards and Raducanu already central, up on the baseline, ready to attack the follow up shot.

If we quickly break down the above point by frame at the point of Fernandez 2nd shot post-serve:

This is a nice visual demonstration of the ‘returner 1-2 punch’ beating the servers 1-2 punch. Fernandez serves and then hits her 2nd shot behind the baseline falling backwards half a metre to a metre behind that baseline. Raducanu, thanks to her excellent return, is already moving up on the baseline with superior court position before Fernandez even has time to split step after her 2nd shot. This is a reverse of usual serving 1-2 dynamics and the sign of an elite returner.

// Raducanu hit 33 first serve returns not including Fernandez aces, unreturned serves or return winners. 20 of those resulted in Raducanu either having an advantaged 2nd shot or at worst a neutral rally ball. That’s 20 times in the match where Fernandez essentially had no serving advantage at all despite landing a first serve (this dynamic unfolded in both crucial breaks in each set).

So was there anything Fernandez could have done? Short of serving much bigger and better, Fernandez essentially needed to take massive risks on her 2nd shot post serve. The young Canadian is actually one of the players who has the tools to find those angles and open space from central positions, with her lefty forehand and ability to redirect pace from her backhand offering up some wonderful creativity in that regard. Fernandez found that solution a few times in the match in important moments:

Again another excellent half-volley from Fernandez (far end), this time off her backhand, to defend her serving advantage and set up an aggressive 3rd shot.

While the above examples were impressive from Fernandez, and she does have more tools than most to defend these kinds of positions to maintain serving advantage by finding open court and angles with talented flicks and half-volleys, it’s just straight up hard to sustain this kind of shotmaking against an onslaught of elite, deep Raducanu returning. Most returning opponents didn’t force this kind of pressure consistently on Fernandez’s 1st serve serve this fortnight. Raducanu did.

If you’re a player like Raducanu who can consistently ask their opponents to hit these quite low-margin and rushed groundstrokes, off the baseline as their 2nd shot after their serve, you’re going to be extremely difficult to beat, especially on hard courts and grass. The only caveat is that Fernandez doesn’t have a big 1st serve. But Raducanu landed these returns consistently against every opponent she faced in New York over the past couple of weeks. This greatness of the Brit’s game is not a flash in the pan. By negating the servers advantage in this way, Raducanu is cratering one of the most important and usually reliable building blocks of opponent’s games: the ability to find dominant patterns on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd shots of their service games.

For Raducanu yesterday, her wonderful return 1-2 punches trumped the servers 1-2 punches. A stunning first Slam title and performance.

— MW

If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.

I’ll see paid subscribers for US Open Final Analysis tonight/tomorrow!

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Top: Sarah Stier/Getty, Bottom: Elsa/Getty

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