Daniil Medvedev wins the Toronto Masters: Return of Serve Analysis
Reilly Opelka beat Stefanos Tsitsipas but lost to Daniil Medvedev at the Toronto Masters. I've analysed the two return styles to determine why Medvedev succeeded where Tsitsipas failed.
On paper, last week’s Toronto Masters final could have been a damp squib.
The combined heights of the finalists, Daniil Medvedev and Reilly Opelka, made for the third tallest final in ATP Tour history1, standing at 6 ft 6 in and 6 ft 11 inches, respectively.
A damp squib it was not, however, for two good reasons.
Opelka, the ATP’s tallest man, said it best earlier this week:
“Isner’s more than a serve, as am I. You don’t get to be 20 in the world with just one shot. It’s just silly. It’s ridiculous.”
More than a sErVeBoT, Opelka displayed tennis IQ and cracking groundstrokes aplenty in the final.
The key ingredient to a fantastic final formula? Medvedev’s return game was off the charts this week2 and his dismantling of Opelka’s serve was an absolute masterclass.
Opelka’s final two matches at the Toronto Masters give me a perfect opportunity to explore this second point.
In the semifinal, Opelka won against Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Greek failing to break serve once throughout the match. Tsitsipas is ranked #3 in the world but, within the world’s top 50, ranks #18 for return games won on hard courts this year at 24.8%.
In the final, Opelka lost to Medvedev, the Bullshit Russian (please follow the link if you haven’t seen the spat between Tsitsipas and Medvedev in Miami) breaking serve three times in a far shorter match. Medvedev is ranked #2 in the world and ranks #4 for returns games won on hard courts this year at 29.5%.
There’s me getting analytical already and we’ve not even finished the intro! You get the idea - the gulf in return effectiveness between Medvedev and Tsitsipas is vast, despite their proximity in the world rankings, so that’s what we’ll be exploring today.
A tale of two returners?
Let’s get started!
Comparing Return Styles: Medvedev v Tsitsipas
First things first, scrutiny taking a sidebar, let’s take a look at how the two players decided to tackle Opelka’s serve.
Medvedev: Medvedev took on Opelka’s first serves from around seven metres behind the baseline. This gave him more reaction time and, given the ball had slowed down by the time the ball reached him, made it easier for him to time the return.
Both of these factors allowed Medvedev to take a heavy cut at the ball, opting for a topspin return rather than a block return.
Medvedev’s return position was closer for second serves but still deep in the court, at around five metres behind the baseline. He stepped up to take the second serve early three times as a surprise tactic.
So, very far on the first serve and closer on the second serve (but still pretty far) with a sprinkle of baseline to keep Opelka on his toes, choosing to topspin the return back into play. There was very little lateral change in his return position throughout the match.
Tsitsipas: Tsitsipas took on Opelka’s serves from a variety of positions but, overall, was far closer to the baseline than Medvedev. For first serves he was consistently around three metres behind the baseline, on second serves, he was just behind the baseline or he mirrored his first serve return position.
Tsitsipas chose to take the Opelka serve earlier, mostly opting to block the ball back into play with the occasional topspin return.
Perhaps the most blatant difference, however, was Tsitsipas’s ready position (you couldn’t miss him jumping about the back of the court).
Tsitsipas chose to skip about the court (you’ll see GIFs soon), often exposing one wing for an easy ace, trying to guess which way Opelka was going to serve and/or throw the American off of his service rhythm.
So far closer than Medvedev, mostly opting to block rather than take a cut at the ball, with more frequent forays to the baseline and a lot of lateral movement to try and predict and/or disturb Opelka’s serve.
Enough talk - let’s scrutinise!
Tsitsipas’s Return Woes
Credit where credit’s due - Tsitsipas’s return game has improved this season (and not just on a clay court).
Tsitsipas hard court return games won % pre-2021: 17.5%.
Tsitsipas hard court return games won % 2021: 24.3%.
A nice improvement of 6.8% as he slowly but surely starts to get accustomed to using the block return.
It won’t be nice enough for the ever-ambitious Stefanos Tsitsipas, however. Out of the top eight players in the world, 24.3% leaves him dead last in terms of hard court return games won.
This was put under the spotlight by Opelka - it wasn’t pretty as Tsitsipas failed to break serve in a 7-6 6-7 4-6 loss.
Block Return = Good?
Block returns or topspin returns…
Is one technique superior to the other? Clearly Medvedev had more success on return so you’d imagine the topspin return would be more effective, right? A block return isn’t going to work against someone who likes to serve and volley as much as Opelka, surely?
Well, when Tsitsipas was finding the court with his returns against Opelka, he was finding similar success to Medvedev in terms of points won. Plus, Tsitsipas varied his return of serve enough to keep Opelka from serve-volleying him to death - here are the stats to prove both of those statements.
There’s more support for the block return
When Tsitsipas was able to hit the return deep in the court (i.e. past the service line), he won a higher percentage of points than Medvedev.
Opelka, a veracious spokesperson for our sport, said it best.
“[Tsitsipas] has the best forehand in the world right now and he moves very well.”
When Tsitsipas was able to neutralise the return, he was arguably better able to assert himself in the rallies than Medvedev.
That’s the good stuff…
Rule #1 of Returning
Where Tsitsipas drastically failed to keep up with Meddy was in his percentage of returns made3.
Tsitsipas total returns made = 57/108 = 53%
Medvedev total returns made = 51/72 = 71%
Tsitsipas’s block return still isn’t reliable enough to find the court as consistently as Medvedev’s top spin return. Taking up an aggressive return position against Opelka made it far harder for Tsitsipas to get a racket on the ball.
It all sounds obvious enough but an aggressive return position isn’t necessarily a bad play against a big server if you can anticipate the direction of the serve. As mentioned previously, Tsitsipas was often left guessing rather than anticipating.
I know what you’re thinking - if you bumped into Apostolos Tsitsipas on the street, you’d tell him to get his son to take two big steps back in the court.
Let’s move on to Medvedev to explain why this works for him and why it doesn’t work so well for Tsitsipas.
Medvedev’s Return Joys
“Medvedev is top three best returners in the world… He can afford to stand far back, because he’s lanky… He’s got a good wingspan.”
He’s technically right but exclusively on a hard court, Medvedev’s even better - where Tsitsipas was dead last in the world’s top eight players for returns games won on hard courts, Medvedev’s break rate of 29.5% makes him the number 1 hard court returner within the world’s top eight.
And yes, those gangly arms certainly do help Medvedev get strings on generally unreturnable balls.
Here are a few of the other reasons Medvedev was able to succeed where Tsitsipas faltered, generating at least a break point in over half of Opelka’s service games.
The Quality of the Double-Hander
From so deep in the court, Tsitsipas struggles to get the ball with pace when the ball is hit high to the backhand. This is only exacerbated by someone like Opelka who has an incredible kick serve and isn’t afraid to serve and volley, forcing the opponent to avoid hitting high.
Medvedev is able to control his backhand returns from up high, negating the effects of the kick serve by virtue of having two hands on the racket.
The chances of seeing the same shot from Tsitsipas are near zero as this deep a return position would run the risk of him having to return a kick serve using his backhand.
Medvedev was much more deliberate with his return movement as well.
Well aware that Opelka likes to serve and volley on big points, here is a brilliant example of Medvedev moving very quickly up to the baseline to take time away from Opelka.
Medvedev employed this proactive strategy about three times during the match, opting for his more reliable return position the majority of the time.
Tsitsipas’s return tactics were more reactive than proactive.
The cherry on top of Medvedev’s return position, power from deep in the court and his tactical astuteness?
Opelka was unable to win the majority of his service points when the ball landed short in the court against Medvedev.
One reason is a topspin return is generally faster and sits lower in the court than a blocked return and is therefore more difficult to attack.
The more relevant reason is that Medvedev is one of the best counter-punchers in the game. Opelka was under serious pressure from any position in the court to hit a spectacular shot or Medvedev’s movement and passing abilities would prevail.
The above GIF is also a good example of the advantage of Medvedev’s return position against body serves. With plenty more time to adjust to the ball, Medvedev is much less likely than Tsitsipas to get handcuffed on return (more stats available below4).
Medvedev was confident a return in court would give him a good chance of winning the point, taking the pressure off hitting a perfect return every point.
Bullshit Russian vs A Small Kid Who Doesn’t Know How To Fight
In the battle of the returns, there is a lot of progress to be made by young Stefanos.
Here’s Tsitsipas’s post-match analysis:
“But there is hope for next time, it’s all right. I struggled with my serve, it was obvious. When you get no rhythm it’s difficult. It silently ruins your game.”
He’s still missing the point - he gets broken once in a mammoth three-setter and he thinks his serve is the problem. Maybe he believes his return potential is limited - I beg to differ, even with one-hand on the racket.
Just take a look at recently sidelined 2021 US Open champion Dominic Thiem for inspiration. Thiem stands very far back in the court, dealing with the high ball to the backhand head-on (this takes A LOT of power), by letting the ball drop to waist height by moving further back in the court (this also takes A LOT of power) or by using his vicious slice which has easily become one of the best in the game.
Alternatively, Tsitsipas could look to his nemesis for inspiration. By improving his movement and on the run passing shots (both good but could be better), perhaps he wouldn’t be so reliant on a deep return - he is more compact than Medvedev after all so there may be potential to match the Muscovite Mutant in this department5.
As for Medvedev, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
The North American hard courts are lively and he’s returning sublimely - with a few tweaks on the serve (he wasn’t serving fantastically against Opelka), he may go into the US Open the favourite6.
Whatever happens, Medvedev gets the last laugh in Toronto.
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Second tallest: 2019 Maharashtra Open, Kevin Anderson defeated Ivo Karlovic.
First tallest: 2013 Atlanta Open, John Isner defeated Kevin Anderson.
Literally. Medvedev’s return position of 7 metres behind the baseline is further than most Hawkeye graphics.
Bonus stat: Tsitsipas made five returns in Opelka’s first four service games!
Opelka frequency of body serve vs Tsitsipas: 17/105 = 16%
Opelka success of body serve vs Tsitsipas: 11/17 = 65%
Opelka frequency of body serve vs Medvedev: 9/75 = 12%
Opelka success of body serve vs Medvedev: 5/9 = 56%
The US Open has always statistically been Djokovic’s worst Slam and is likely to be his biggest hurdle yet in achieving the Calendar Slam. Don’t flinch if Djokovic loses to Medvedev in a thrilling final!