Rublev's Serve Problem
Standing still in elite tennis is moving backwards
Neither the men’s or the women’s Cincinnati finals were eventful at all, both completely routine. But one of the matches did feature something I want to go a bit deeper on.
Barty d Teichmann: 6-3, 6-1
Zverev d Rublev: 6-2, 6-3
After some crazy ATP semi-finals, in which Medvedev knocked over, and then kicked, an unusually placed camera, followed by Zverev coming back from a break down in the deciding set to beat Tsitsipas amidst coaching drama, the final was about as routine as it gets. The quickest Cincinnati men’s final since they began tracking them.
Funnily enough much of what I wrote last week, about Medvedev (and Zverev) representing an emerging playstyle — the ‘big serving counterpuncher’ — applies again today. Zverev, just like Medvedev, had a serve that was too hot to handle for Rublev, and yet was also consistent enough on return, and smothered enough of the deep court in the rallies, that the German stuck around in many of the return games as well. You do not need to be a crack tennis analyst to know that if a player is simply better at both serving and returning, then the opponent is not going to have a fun time on court. Zverev won almost all the short points on his own serve, and also extended plenty of longer points on Rublev’s serve. The opposite was not true.
— 1st serve points won:
— 2nd serve points won:
— Unreturned serves:
Zverev: 64% on 1st serve and 55% on 2nd serve
Rublev: 49% on 1st serve and 0% on 2nd serve
— Points won by length
Points under 5 shots: Zverev 38, Rublev 30
Points over 5 shots: Zverev 20, Rublev 6
To be generous, Rublev probably didn’t have his best day on 1st serve, finding form on it only sporadically (even though he actually out aced Zverev 11 to 6). Some of Zverev’s 1st serve returns were also incredible, leaving little that Rublev could have done better in numerous spots. But the reason I’m writing about this match at all is that Rublev’s 2nd serve issues brings up a theme when it comes to his season, and his upside. The Russian’s 2nd serve was an enormous weak spot today, winning just 13% of points when he missed that first serve. But the more specific problem was that Rublev had to hit his 2nd serve frequently when under pressure.
Rublev faced 10 break points today. When he had to hit his 2nd serve when facing break point, he lost 4/5 of the points, or 80% of the Russian’s breaks of serve. Zverev feasted on Rublev’s safe and generally underpowered 2nd serve delivery. This was a not dissimilar story to Rublev’s other Masters 1000 final loss earlier this season in Monte Carlo against Tsitsipas.
Rublev’s 2nd serve placement today:
Strangely this didn’t deviate at all from Rublev’s 2nd serve strategy this week in Cincinnati as a whole:
Rublev’s 2nd serve average speed for the week was 88mph (141kph). Today against Zverev it was 89mph (143kph). His season average of 89mph is the slowest by far of the current top 10.
There simply wasn’t a big enough adjustment from Rublev in his greatest area of weakness, against an opponent which represented a significant step up. I was hoping that Rublev and his coach, after his 2nd serve got dismantled by Tsitsipas and others earlier this, and last, season, would focus on that shot to not only beef it up in terms of speed but also placement. But unfortunately, his placement today (first pic above) was as conservative as ever (basically just kicking safe and slow serves out to Zverev’s stronger backhand wing and getting burned time and time again), and his speed was right in line with his historic average, even as the match wore on and looked increasingly like a rout. There was little indication that Rublev was even aware of the problem, let alone looking to make adjustments.
If Rublev wants to hang with Zverev, Medvedev, Tsitsipas et al in these finals, he’s going to need a bigger and better 2nd serve, with those three guys averaging around 100mph on 2nd serve (Zverev actually avg’d 106mph on 2nd serve today). Obviously those three have a height advantage, but Thiem, Nadal and Djokovic all serve on average about 8mph+ faster than Rublev, and get more aggressive with their placement, despite being the same height or shorter.
Standing still in elite tennis is moving backwards
Rublev showed a hell of a lot of heart to beat Medvedev yesterday, in a similarly brutal matchup, (although the camera gave Rublev an assist). There is so much to like about Rublev’s ‘BWEH’ laden power baseline game, but the Russian is going to need to address his weak spot of a 2nd serve, in terms of both placement and power, as soon as possible if he wants to start taking home trophies rather than runner up plates against the current crop of competition. As I’ve talked about in the last few weeks, the serve is getting bigger and bigger at the elite end of men’s tennis, and Rublev is going to need to start moving quickly so as not to get left behind.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
See you on Thursday.
The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) analysis piece every Sunday/Monday.
Top: Matthew Stockman/Getty
// Looking for more?