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Deep Court Daniil: Inside Medvedev's Return

Try standing seven-plus metres behind the baseline to return serve. You may as well be halfway to the moon. Not only does Daniil Medvedev thrive from this ultra-deep return location, but he has also broken serve more times on hard courts in 2021 than any other player.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of Medvedev’s prowess on hard courts reveals the Russian broke serve 75 times from 20 matches up to the Olympics, just edging compatriot Andrey Rublev, who at that point had broken 74 times from 24 matches.

Medvedev also leads the Tour with total points won on hard courts this season at 54.7 per cent (1637/2992). Rublev is once again in second place, winning 54.6 per cent (1791/3279) of hard-court points. It is now hard-court season in the U.S. and Medvedev is poised once again to be a pivotal player chasing ATP Masters 1000 and Grand Slam glory.

The investigation into why Medvedev thrives from such an impossibly deep return location reveals his extreme court position successfully morphs a traditional return into a pseudo-groundstroke. Traditional tennis mantra dictates that we are on defence against the power of a first serve and should therefore employ more of a blocking strategy. The thinking is to lower the speed of the first-serve return to ensure greater control and get more returns in. It’s always been just fine to swing away against a slower second serve.

Medvedev throws traditional tennis wisdom out the window. In fact, his average first-serve return speed (110 km/h) at the ATP Cup was exactly the same as his opponents’ second-serve return speed. That’s just laughing in the face of what has been accepted for generations. Medvedev’s extreme return location and vastly superior first-serve return speed are rewriting what’s possible returning serve on a hard court.

The following Hawk-Eye graphic compares Medvedev’s return hit points to Matteo Berrettini’s in the ATP Cup final on hard court in Melbourne in January. All of Medvedev’s returns were from four to seven metres behind the baseline, while Berrettini was a metre inside the baseline to around two metres behind.

Medvedev’s Return Contact Points

Berrettini’s Return Contact Points

Berrettini Contact Point
Graphics courtesy Hawk-Eye Innovations/ATP Media
Consider the following returns speeds from the ATP Cup on hard courts at Melbourne Park:

2021 ATP Cup – Average First-Serve Return Speed

 Round/Opponent  Medvedev  Opponent
 Final vs Berrettini  100 km/h  87 km/h
 SF vs Zverev  103 km/h  93 km/h
 RR vs Nishikori  122 km/h  88 km/h
 RR vs Schwartzman  116 km/h  80 km/h
 AVERAGE  110 km/h  87 km/h

2021 ATP Cup – Average Second-Serve Return Speed

 Round/Opponent  Medvedev  Opponent
 Final vs Berrettini  125 km/h  107 km/h
 SF vs Zverev  112 km/h  114 km/h
 RR vs Nishikori  115 km/h  108 km/h
 RR vs Schwartzman  116 km/h  111 km/h
 AVERAGE  117 km/h  110 km/h

In order to fully connect the dots on what Medvedev is really achieving, the average rally speed needs to be factored in as well.

2021 ATP Cup – Average Groundstroke Speed

 Round/Opponent  Medvedev  Opponent
 Final vs Berrettini  113 km/h  110 km/h
 SF vs Zverev  116 km/h  115 km/h
 RR vs Nishikori  116 km/h  112 km/h
 RR vs Schwartzman  117 km/h  111 km/h
 AVERAGE  116 km/h  112 km/h

Medvedev’s average second-serve return speed slightly edges his average groundstroke speed (117 km/h to 116 km/h). The real benefit of standing extremely deep to return serve compared to the more traditional location up closer to the baseline was found in the speed he can hit first-serve returns.

• Average First-Serve Return Speed Difference = 23 km/h (110 km/h – 87 km/h)
• Average Second-Serve Return Speed Difference = 7 km/h (117 km/h – 110 km/h)
• Average Groundstroke Speed Difference = 4 km/h (116 km/h – 112 km/h)

Essentially, Medvedev does not want to “return” serve in the traditional sense against a first serve. He wants to back up as far as he can to let the first serve slow down and then swing as hard as he can with a lot of runway to land the ball. What he gives up in court position he gains in raw speed.

Medvedev’s success begs the question: When facing a first serve, why hit a traditional forehand blocking return when you can rope a regular forehand groundstroke instead?

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