Serve or Receive?

Hank Irvine serving (Crootof pic)

TV coverage rarely comments on it, but the coin/racquet toss choice can impact the start and structure of a tennis match.  This reader question focuses the issue …

To Serve or To Receive?

“Brad Gilbert says you should choose to receive if you win the coin toss.  A pro here says you should ALWAYS serve first as it will give you a slight edge if you go to a tie break plus you can establish momentum early.  What do you think??,”

Dave Spilseth, MN

My Opinion…

Dave, Good question!  There are many variables to consider.  The first one is (in singles or doubles), are you a better server or a better returner?  I, for one, think I am a better returner, so I normally choose to receive.

Other Factors…

  • If you receive first and break, you are ahead of the game. But if your opponent(s) hold serve, they were supposed to.
  • If there is a strong wind or blinding sun, choosing serve OR receive then puts the choice of side to start in the hands of your opponent. You can also choose to “Defer” and make them choose serve/receive and then you choose side.
  • If you choose to serve first, you will be serving in the “less pressure game” e.g. 4-4, 5-5, etc.; as compared to 3-4, 4-5, 5-6.
  • But on the other hand, if it is a brutally hot day and you choose to receive, you will always be starting to serve right after the change of ends rest, rather than after another grueling game.
  • And if you are playing doubles with a lefty partner, you want to arrange it so you are both serving with the sun NOT in your toss.

What do YOU think?

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9 thoughts on “Serve or Receive?

  1. The primary focus I have on coin toss is warming up on the bad sun side – do not want me or my partner having the first serves and overheads in the sun being when match started instead of during warm up. If no sun factor, I prefer receiving first as more errors in 1st game usually than afterwards and I prefer early unforced errors to not contribute to my side getting broken. Grass court tennis a little different as the serve has extra advantage, will still want warm up on sun side but all things equal will choose to serve first.

    Winder, i have a friend who always walks to the sun side to warmup; and then puts his opponent(s) in the sun after the toss. (Yes, you should toss BEFORE warmup). george

  2. I totally agree with Winder on warming up on the sunny (or otherwise “bad”) side of the net. If it’s a hot, humid day I will usually choose to receive first so that I can serve after the change-over when hopefully my hands and racquet handle will be a little dryer.

    Terry, the changeover strategy is often over looked. thanks, george

  3. All other things being equal, I sometimes prefer to defer the choice to my opponent if I lose the toss.

    If he elects to serve, then I choose the side that maximizes my chances of breaking him to start the match (e.g., he serves into the sun; he serves looking at a distracting background behind me while I am receiving; etc.).

    If he elects to receive, so I therefore will serve first, then I pick the side that is easier for me to serve from (e.g., the sun is behind me; he is receiving while looking at the distracting background behind me; etc.)

    If he elects to choose sides instead of serving or receiving first, then I decide whether I will serve or receive using the principles above.

    Where it can get hairy is if there is wind. Is it moving cross court, is it in the server’s face on one side, or is it behind the server’s back at that side? A lot of good servers — all other things being equal — would prefer to serve AGAINST the wind instead of having it behind them. The thought is that while having the wind behind might add a few MPH to the serve, it can also push a serve wide or long more often and that neutralizes the extra pace advantage. This increases the risk of double faults. If that happens, then a strong server might not choose to go for the extra velocity with the wind at his back and might choose to hit more kickers as first serves, giving the receiver a slight edge on returns. OTOH, when serving into the wind, the server can hit out more with less worry the wind will carry the ball long. However, if the server does not have a particularly fast or flat serve to begin with — say he naturally prefers to hit 3/4 pace kickers or sliders as his first serve — serving into the wind can actually induce MORE double faults, especially if the wind is strong enough, as it slows down the serve speed. A slower serve is, obviously, also more easy for a receiver to get back even if it does go in. And of course, side wind is the bane of everybody’s existence because it is so difficult to hit any ball well in.

    Therefore, SOMETIMES if I cede the toss I will also endeavor to factor the wind direction into whether I choose to serve or receive first. But often I feel it just gets too complicated to try to figure out the probable impacts of wind direction on who serves or receives first and I will just focus in the other factors above and leave it at that.

    Finally, in doubles, it is necessary also to ask one’s partner all of the above questions and factor that into the decision making. Maybe the sun is in the server’s eyes on one side of the court but it is in a position where it affects a lefty much less than a righty, AND your partner happens to be a lefty. In that situation this can change the dynamic of who serves and receives first, and it can also affect the choice of which side to start the match from.

    Marty, even tho i am not a strong server, i do prefer to serve into the wind for the very reasons you cited. thanks, george

  4. George, I’m with Gilbert. In the first game nervousness , new opponent, new conditions all add to anxiety and best chance to break in the first game. Otherwise you are the one under pressure. It doesn’t always work, and if you don’t break you get chance to settle down yourself.

    Larry, you may be “with Gilbert,” but your winning is anything but “ugly”! Thanks, george

  5. Great question, and I almost always choose “receive”, just because I have a mediocre serve and a pretty good return (usually!).

    Scoot, me too! george

  6. George, I played a doubles match where my partner wanted to serve second on our team but wanted a certain end of the court. Try figuring that out. That’s why I prefer singles (lol)

    OhioJack, when playing with my lefty friend Bob Wilkie, i have the exact same challenge! Deferring usually helps. george

  7. George, Senior doubles can be a challenge holding serve. If I have a partner with a strong serve then I choose to serve first. My partner usually has a stronger serve than me so first I ask him which side he prefers to serve from and go from there. I think all things
    being equal its better to start off with a break of serve than a hold of serve. If the sun
    is a big factor then everything can revolve around that. I believe the weaker server
    should serve into the sun. Of course the best situation always is to play with a lefty
    like you. Not everyone has a Bob Wilkie or Matt Davie to play as your partner.

    Phil, i agree, having a lefty doubles partner is a big advantage (for many reasons). thanks, george

  8. Superb insights all-around. I always opt to serve. One reason is that as a left-hander, my serve is one of my key assets that helps me build and earn points. But even if that weren’t the case, my thinking — and I’ve spoken about this with Brad Gilbert — is that down the road, I want my opponent serving at 3-4, 4-5, etc. At the pro level, I get value of snagging that early break. But with us, there are likely to be several breaks, so I want to be on the upside of the score. As much traction as Brad got with that idea of receiving first, I think it’s often used-understood as some sort of fashion statement rather than a genuine form of taking responsibility. As I write this, I also realize: We darn well better be in shape to serve out a set at 5-3 or 5-4. So why the abdication of the serve at 0-0? Why go so reactive?

    As far as doubles goes, I grasp those nuances around sun, lefty-righty, strong-weaker serve.

    Joel, i agree that your serve is one of your prime weapons; so serving first makes sense! thanks, george

  9. As Marty commented, communication with your partner ahead of the toss is important.
    Not only on practical issues of having the sun side, whose serving first of you two, whether to start serving or receiving, trying to make the other side stronger server either serve 2nd or serve into the sun but also to start the match with good communication.
    If I have a clear and appropriate plan for the toss but do not get my partner’s active approval, understanding, then dominant, not equal roles are set from the beginning of the match. Partnerships are better with balanced communication, not a dictatorship.

    Winder, i am with you … one of the first things i discuss with a new partner is: “are we stronger with you serving and me at the net, or the other way around?” thanks, george

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