Tennis players spend countless hours working on their serve for years, or decades, just as they do every other shot.

Yet it's entirely common to see even the top players in the world struggle to get significantly more than half their first serves in. The serve is the one shot you are totally in control for, so clearly this is deliberate - but why?

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    Your question is wrong, as the answer shows. It's a cost-benefit situation. Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 3:32
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    It's little bit like questioning race car driver's ability, as they crash way more often than average Joe.
    – phresnel
    Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 10:52
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    Not really. They don't crash out at every 3rd corner.
    – Mr. Boy
    Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 11:18
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    That's because the penalty for crashing out is much higher than the penalty of first-fault. Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 11:44
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    They're not playing it safe. They're trying to win points at the first serve and thus deliberately being risky. The fact that they rarely fail the second serve illustrates it quite clearly. It's like a seasoned driver still deliberately going for 200km/h because of his strategy. Accidents will not be a surprise under such circumstances.
    – xji
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 4:04

1 Answer 1


The strategy is indeed deliberate and it comes from a risk/reward evaluation. Keep in mind that the goal of each serve is not simply to have it be in, but to win a point. Just as the server has been practicing the serve their whole life, the other person has practiced returning serves their whole life. Pro tennis players are good enough, I'm sure, to get practically every serve in; but when that's the goal, the risk becomes having easily returnable serves wherein the opponent gets the upper hand. You could look at first serves as the server pushing the boundaries--they want to maximize the possible reward of an ace or a poorly returned serve and in doing so they risk a lower success rates. On second serves, less of a chance is taken, they knowingly reduce the effectiveness (reward) of the serve in order to minimize the risk (double fault and giving up point). It's not that they can't control their serve, it's just that they're aiming for the very best serve they're capable of.

You could liken it to a professional soccer player taking a penalty kick. Sometimes the kick ends up sailing over the goal or to one of the sides. It's not because the player isn't any good--they could hit the ball into the net 100% of the time practicing by themself--but the fact that a goalie is trying to stop him causes the player to push the limits of his skill and sometimes fail at it.

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    Another analogy might be a baseball pitcher. With a 3-0 count, he's likely to be fairly cautious. At 0-2, though, he's got a lot more flexibility to challenge the batter.
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 17:35
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    Or volleyball serves: Today’s volleyball is basically the receiving (= attacking) team almost always winning the point. To have some chance of successfully defending, the serve must be very good, there’s (almost) no point in serving easy balls.
    – Mormegil
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 19:30

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