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.
If we quickly break down the above point by frame at the point of Fernandez 2nd shot post-serve:
// 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:
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.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
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Yes, and I also think Raducanu successfully made Fernandez pay for missing first serves, a key macro strategy imo, but unlike so many others she moved in to do so, rather than let the serve come back to her, increasing both the angle available and her margins for error while being assertive. Not only do you gain the advantage in doing so, if not the point outright, but you push the opponent to be more careful on their first as they *really* don't want to hit a second. Do you have any data on Raducanu's hit points on second serve returns? My sense of this is entirely seat of the pants.
It's also a tremendous credit to Raducanu that while she hit only 3 serves to the outside of the ad box all match long – to the Fernandez forehand – one was the pattern-busting ace on match point. That's a lot of savvy for someone so young in such a high pressure situation.
Thanks for the interesting writeup on Raducanu's game. I tallied up her games won on serve and return to find the percentage win rates across the historic run. Over the 10 matches, she won 89.5% of service games (80 of 90) and 52.4% of return games (41 of 81). Over the 7 MD matches these values were 89.2% (55 of 62) and 53.9% (29 of 56) respectively - about the same.
Her lowest return success came against Bencic, where she broke 3 times in 9 service games. Sakkari was her only other opponent across the 10 matches to hold more than 60% of service games against her. In MD, only three opponents managed more than one hold of serve when either on serve or up a break (Fernandez (4), Bencic (4), Voegele (3)). Bolkvadze also held six times when on serve or better in QR2.
Her lowest success on serve came against Voegele (7 holds out of 9) and against Fernandez (8 holds out of 10). Will be interesting to see if she can sustain her success on serve in future when players have more opportunity to scout (and she has to play on a range of surfaces).
As a general observation, the final felt like a product of two very well rounded and players who really understand the game, have few weaknesses, and have built into their subconscious a lot of good decision making around serve & return placement. Looking forward to years of them challenging for titles, along with Swiatek, Andreescu, Osaka, Barty, Sabalenka etc.!