Should You Elect to Serve or Receive?
“A lot of players don’t like to serve first. I don’t know why,” commented respected Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone, who ranked No. 12 in singles in 1986 and later coached superstars Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, during the recent Canadian Open in Montreal.
That’s not the first time a renowned TV tennis analyst expressed this viewpoint. During the marathon deciding set of Fernando Gonzalez’s 6-4, 2-6, 16-14 bronze medal victory over Taylor Dent at the 2008 Athens Olympics, former world No. 1 Jim Courier said he “would love to know why anyone would not want to serve first to start a set.”
As a longtime sectional tournament competitor and USPTA teaching pro (Elite rating), I’ve pondered this question, consulted experts, and listened to and read scores of opinions on this important and surprisingly complex question.
As a result, in 2019, I wrote an essay titled “Should You Elect to Serve or Receive?” It appears in the “Tactics” section of my instruction book, The Fein Points of Tennis: Technique and Tactics to Unleash Your Talent. This decision is indeed a tactic, your first tactic in a match.
The essay lists 14 reasons to consider choosing return of serve to start a match. That probably seems like a lot to you.
Some of the reasons are fairly obvious. But other reasons are the product of considerable experience and expertise. For example, you may not have thought of Reason No. 11. Here it is.
Former world No. 4 James Blake based his decision on how many service breaks he anticipated in the match. “If I thought there would be a lot of service breaks, I’d take return of serve because I wanted to get the break early,” explained Blake, also a Tennis Channel analyst. “That was what I did when I played [Andre] Agassi.”
Although Blake won just one of five career matches against Hall of Famer Agassi, it’s worth noting that Blake won the opening set in three of those matches. The most memorable match was their 2005 US Open quarterfinal, which Agassi pulled out 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6). In retrospect, I believe Blake’s tactic was smart. In Agassi, he faced the greatest serve returner in history before Novak Djokovic emerged as a champion. Blake proved prophetic as both he and Agassi notched seven service breaks.