Who Has the Best Shots in Men’s Tennis?

No matter how it might look, regime change really will come to men’s tennis someday, but for now power remains concentrated in very familiar hands.

Four years have passed since the last New York Times survey of the best shots in men’s tennis, and the players who dominated that poll in 2014 continue to dominate the latest one in 2018.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are in their 30s, just like the 37-year-old Roger Federer. But the three of them remain the sport’s leading figures, even as two of their longtime rivals, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, have fallen far back because of injuries.

“I was surprised how hard it was to choose anyone other than the big three for so many categories,” said Stephen Tignor, a longtime writer at Tennis magazine. “I guess I shouldn’t be.”

The Times polled 10 active men’s players for this year’s survey along with 25 other experts, including coaches, analysts and former players. Each participant was asked to pick a top three in each category, with added weight given to the votes of current tour players and coaches.

Some of the respondents, like the big-serving American John Isner, answered off the top of their heads, basing their choices on personal experience. Others like Stephanie Kovalchik, senior data scientist at Game Insight Group at Tennis Australia, relied on detailed statistical analysis.

No matter what the method, there was a lot of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal in the conclusions. Someday, the names at the top will change.

Not just yet.

BEST FOREHAND

1. Roger Federer

2. Rafael Nadal

3. Juan Martín del Potro

4. Fernando Verdasco

5. Kyle Edmund

Honorable mention: Jack Sock, Karen Khachanov and Novak Djokovic

While Nadal’s forehand was the winner for former tour players and coaches, Federer’s was the overwhelming top choice by current ATP players. Over all, del Potro was a strong third. No one else was genuinely close, though anyone who has seen Edmund, Sock or Khachanov knows the younger set has big weapons.

BEST TWO-HANDED BACKHAND

1. Djokovic

2. Kei Nishikori

3. Alexander Zverev

4. Andy Murray

5. Nadal

Honorable mention: Benoît Paire, Nikoloz Basilashvili, Borna Coric, Daniil Medvedev

Zverev, 21, and already a fixture in the top 10, is the new arrival here. He can get very low to his backhand, even at 6-foot-6, and generate acute angles and huge straight-line power. But nobody’s two-hander can rival Djokovic’s, except perhaps a healthy Murray.

BEST ONE-HANDED BACKHAND

1. Stan Wawrinka

2. Richard Gasquet

3. Federer

4. Dominic Thiem

5. Stefanos Tsitsipas

Honorable mention: Philipp Kohlschreiber, Denis Shapovalov and Marius Copil

Wawrinka, a three-time major champion, has fallen out of the top 60 as he works his way back after knee surgery. But his backhand remains top of mind even if current ATP players gave a slight edge to Gasquet’s elastic one-hander. Kovalchik’s data-based research put Federer first, maintaining that his one-hander is the only one in the game “that has greater effectiveness against top opponents than the best double-handed backhands.”

BEST FIRST SERVE

1. John Isner

2. Ivo Karlovic

3. Federer

4. Kevin Anderson

5. Milos Raonic

Honorable mention: Nick Kyrgios, del Potro and Djokovic

Steve Johnson, Isner’s friend and fellow pro, put Isner in first, second and third place. But even without ballot-box stuffing, Isner was an overwhelming winner again. As in 2014, Federer was the only man under 6-foot-5 to make the short list.

BEST SECOND SERVE

1. Isner

2. Federer

3. Raonic

4. Karlovic

5. Anderson

Honorable mention: Thiem, Djokovic, Kyrgios and Zverev

Isner sweeps both serving categories (as in 2014). Brad Stine, Anderson’s veteran coach, calls Isner’s second serve the “best of all time.” It is not only heavy. He often takes risks with it. But according to Kovalchik’s research, he still has only a 2 percent double-fault rate against top opposition: the lowest among this group.

BEST RETURNER

1. Djokovic

2. Murray

3. Nadal

4. Nishikori

5. Federer

Honorable mention: David Goffin, Diego Schwartzman, Fabio Fognini and Zverev

Despite playing just 12 singles matches since Wimbledon in 2017, Murray still finished second to Djokovic, just as he did in 2014. Though Nadal leads the ATP’s combined return ranking this year, Djokovic’s tighter-to-the-baseline returns strike greater fear in his peers. He received more than twice as many votes as any player.

BEST NET GAME (SINGLES PLAYERS)

1. Federer

2. Nadal

3. Mischa Zverev

4. Sock

5. Matthew Ebden

Honorable mention: Feliciano López, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Julien Benneteau and Kyrgios

There is no calling Nadal’s volleys underrated anymore. He is getting to net with increased frequency and has one of the best success rates among top players when he does. He also has a great overhead. Zverev, Alexander’s big brother, is one of the rare serve-and-volleyers left on tour.

BEST VOLLEYS (DOUBLES SPECIALISTS)

1. Mike Bryan

2. Jamie Murray

3. Bob Bryan

4. Nicolas Mahut

5. Lukasz Kubot

Honorable mention: Raven Klaasen, Marcelo Melo and Leander Paes

At age 40, Mike Bryan was the clear top choice. He won Wimbledon and the United States Open with Sock this year, while his twin, Bob, was out of action.

BEST PASSING SHOTS

1. Nadal

2. Djokovic

3. Murray

4. Federer

5. Goffin

Honorable mention: Nishikori, Schwartzman and Marin Cilic

Passing shots remain relatively rare in the modern game. The top three remain unchanged from 2014, although Federer and Goffin break into the top five.

BEST TOUCH

1. Federer

2. Fognini

3. Paire

4. Murray

5. Nadal

Honorable mention: Grigor Dimitrov, Gasquet, Kyrgios, Gaël Monfils, Marc López and Adrian Mannarino

A big pool of players received votes, but Federer, with his mastery of spin and rhythm changes, received more than four times as much support as any man. The wildly unpredictable Paire’s drop shot was frequently cited.

BEST MOVEMENT

1. Djokovic

2. Nadal

3. Federer

4. Nishikori

5. Monfils

Honorable mention: Schwartzman, Goffin, Alex de Minaur, Murray, Fognini, Alexander Zverev and Coric

Four of the top five are in their 30s, and Nishikori will turn 29 in December. But the youngsters de Minaur, Zverev and Coric are coming.

BEST MENTAL GAME

1. Nadal

2. Djokovic

3. Federer

4. Anderson

5. Wawrinka

Honorable mention: Cilic, Gilles Simon and Nishikori

All veterans here, with respondents being asked to assess tactical prowess as well as mental strength.

BEST ENDURANCE

1. Nadal

2. Djokovic

3. Thiem

4. Federer

5. Isner

Honorable mention: Murray, Anderson, Nishikori, del Potro and David Ferrer

Nadal was a landslide winner despite breaking down physically and retiring against Cilic at this year’s Australian Open and against del Potro at this year’s U.S. Open.

MOST INTIMIDATING SHOT

1. Del Potro forehand

2. Nadal forehand, particularly down the line

3. Isner first serve

4. Djokovic returns

5. Karlovic first serve

Honorable mention: Djokovic backhand and Raonic serve

A clear top three among the players with del Potro’s thunderclap forehand taking the prize.

STRANGEST STROKE

1. Ernests Gulbis forehand

2. Paire forehand

3. Frances Tiafoe forehand

4. Sock forehand

5. Mikhail Kukushkin backhand

Honorable mention: Gasquet forehand, Medvedev forehand, Federico Delbonis forehand and Marcel Granollers serve

Gulbis defends his title, even though his forehand is no longer as weird as it used to be. But he apparently has plenty of company in the odd forehand department.

TO PLAY A MATCH FOR YOUR LIFE

1. Nadal

2. Djokovic

3. Federer

4. Murray

Closer than in 2014, but Nadal, despite his physical fragility, remains the clear consensus pick when you need someone most. Even at age 32, nobody competes harder for each point.

Contributors to the survey

Isner, Henri Laaksonen, Steve Johnson, Kukushkin, Schwartzman, Andreas Seppi and Medvedev (all current ATP players); Stine (coach of Kevin Anderson); Paul Annacone (part of Taylor Fritz’s coaching team, analyst and former coach of Federer and Pete Sampras); Mark Knowles (former world No. 1 doubles player, coach of Sock); Darren Cahill (coach of Simona Halep, analyst and former player); Rob Koenig (analyst and former player); Mardy Fish (analyst and former top 10 player); Brad Gilbert (ESPN analyst, coach and former top 10 player); Patrick Mouratoglou (coach of Serena Williams and analyst); Guy Forget (French Open tournament director and former top 10 player); Mark Petchey (analyst and former player); Nick Lester (broadcaster); Christopher Clarey (The New York Times); Ben Rothenberg (Times contributor); Simon Cambers (British journalist); Tom Tebbutt (Canadian journalist); Joel Drucker (Tennis Channel); Stephanie Myles (Canadian journalist); Andrej Antic (Tennis Magazin in Germany); Julien Reboullet (L’Équipe in France); Stephen Tignor (Tennis magazine and Tennis.com); Stephanie Kovalchik (Game Insight Group, Tennis Australia); and other ATP players and coaches who asked to remain anonymous.

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