It happens throughout every match — players uncork a first serve with as much force as possible, confident in the knowledge that another chance awaits. And on the second serve, they hit a much different, more timid, perceptibly slower serve.
The ball is more likely to go in. The subsequent rally, however, is also far more likely to be lost.
And the question persists: would players have a better chance of winning the point, even after factoring in the sure rise in double faults, by going for it again on the second serve — in essence, hitting two first serves?
The answer is yes, over time, for many of the top players.
“I’ve been saying this for 35 years,” said Bill Tym, a former Vanderbilt coach who has guided several professional players and is in the United States Professional Tennis Association hall of fame. “It’s entirely psychological.”
The topic riles him. Juniors are taught that the most important aim of the second serve is to get it in play, he said, and even top players never shake the mind-set.
“It’s an insidious disease of backing off the second serve after they miss the first serve,” said Tym, who thinks that players should simply make a tiny adjustment in their serves after missing rather than perform an alternate service motion meant mostly to get the ball in play. “They are at the mercy of their own making.”
Generally, the top men’s players make about 65 percent of their first serves and 90 percent of their second serves. But when the first serve goes in, most win about three-quarters of the points, often on aces. On second serves, the win-or-lose proposition is about 50-50.
The numbers skew a bit lower for the women, but the proportions are about the same.
Nine of the top 20 men as of the Aug. 2 rankings would be better off statistically or virtually unaffected by using their first-serve technique on the second serve. The list includes Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko, Fernando Verdasco and many of those with dominating first serves: Soderling, Roddick, John Isner and Sam Querrey.
Yet only on occasion — perhaps with a big lead in a game, like 40-love — do any dare to strike a full-strength second serve.
“You need to at least give yourself a chance to win the point,” Querrey said.
“You don’t want to give up free points,” said Jankovic, who puts in 88 percent of her second serves but loses more than half those points. “You don’t want to give gifts away by making all these double faults.”
That is the dominant thought. You cannot win a point if you do not put the ball in play. But you can lose one.
“Yes, you do have in your subconscious that you might make a double fault, so you just want to go for safe shots,” Djokovic said.
In other words, players would rather limit their risk to double faults and take their chances in a rally, even if it means they are more likely to lose the point.
“People prefer losing late to losing early,” Daniel Kahneman, a Noble Prize-winning psychologist and professor emeritus at Princeton, wrote in an e-mail.
Some of Kahneman’s best-known research, with Amos Tversky, focused on decision-making and people’s aversion to risk, even when given identical potential outcomes.
“Imagine a game in which you have a 20 percent chance to get to the second stage and an 80 percent chance to win the prize at that stage,” Kahneman wrote. “This is less attractive than a game in which the percentages are reversed.”
Either way, a player would have a 16 percent chance of winning the prize. Similar math can be applied to tennis. But something else is involved, too.
“The psychological cost of a double fault may be worse than losing a volley,” Kahneman wrote.
That is probably true. Double faults are a core statistic in tennis, often cited as a sign of mental weakness. The more practical side of a player’s psyche, however, focuses on how tennis points are counted. It can take four points to win a game. Or lose one.
This is a fascinating analysis. According to the statistics, for most tennis players (especially among the men), if a tennis player served his/her second serve with the same power as a first serve, he/she would on balance perform better.
The issue is of course about mindset. When you hit the first service, you know that you still have a second serve to hit as a backup. The first serve is hit with a little extra looseness and alacrity. If you miss the first serve, you pass into a conservative, safety stroke that carries a higher pass rate. If a player is to hit a second serve with the same power as a first service, however, this means forgetting that failure means losing the point. It is, thus, all about mindset.
Looking at the crossover at business, my belief is that many managers operate very often with the second serve mentality. Managers are often inhibited — in large part by fear of failure — prefering to go with the safer option.
I attended a conference this week, “Summer University 2010 of the MEDEF” (an association or union for French business owners), where the last plenary session was about AUDACITY. Audacity means operating without the fear of failure. Indeed, business managers would do well to operate with greater verve and a first serve myndset.