Weapon of Choice

by: Peter Bodo | January 18, 2010

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Howdy, everyone.  Thanks for getting the Australian Open off to a great start - over 2,000 comments on a table-setting post. That's something to crow about. I expect more of the same tonight, and this will be your venue. I watched last night, of  course, and thought that Maria Sharapova's loss was a little sad - not because I have a particular soft spot for Sharapova, but because of what I'll call the Arias Syndrome. Those of you who remember Jimmy, one of Nick Bollettieri's first successful proteges, may already know what I mean.

Jimmy reached as high as No. 5 and was in the Top 10 for two years in the early '80s. He pre-figured the game to come with his huge forehand and emphasis on racket-head speed - no mean feat back in the day when most pros still played the standard-sized rackets and sought to control, rather than liberate, their swings. But the outburst of innovation that brought us mid-sized and larger rackets raced through the game like a prairie fire, and soon everyone was swinging from the heels, using large-head rackets, different new string combinations, and frames made from exotic materials.

I simplify, of course, but Jimmy felt (rightly, I believe) that he lost a big advantage when others could get comparable pace with more forgiving rackets and other technological aids. Technology leveled the playing field. Jimmy came along a few critical years too late, but late enough to show the way to the emerging gestalt. He got caught up in the gears of change.

I thought about Jimmy watching Sharapova last night, because I think she's in similar trouble. This time, though, the issue is less about gear and more the evolution of women's tennis (although I'm sure polyester strings have some role in this - can anyone shed light on that for us?). Some time in the last few years the women as a group figured out that they didn't have to work extra hard, and often with scant reward, to develop the same chief attack weapon the men use, the serve. They would focus instead on the return. Built-in limitations on power make owning a big serve an unattainable dream for most women, but the return, which feeds off the pace of the serve, can be transformed into a fearsome weapon even a woman with less than outstanding power can have.

Or, let's put it this way: Given reasonable mechanics, a player (man or woman) can work his tail off and realize perhaps a four or six percent gain in serving velocity and spin; bump that up to eight or ten percent if we include second serve quality and placement. Most players of either gender basically serve with what Godot gave 'em.

But the return - that can be improved more dramatically, partly because the returner isn't obliged to provide all the power, and thus face a self-determined ceiling. When you return, you're not just trying to get the most out of your shot; you're trying to get the most out of your opponent's shot (the serve) as well. This is a dangerous gambit among the men, because great serving can shut down great returning. But since very few women can serve an opponent off the court, the serve -- especially on the second ball -- is clay with which the returner can work.

This explains quite a few things about women's tennis, including the nearly comical way (from a narrow, traditional and gender-blind view) that service holds sometimes seems a more important stat than breaks of serve.The most dangerous shot in men's tennis remains the serve. Among the women (with a few choice exceptions, led by Serena Wiliams), the most dangerous shot is the return. Remember that big story that developed at the last U.S. Open, about why women had such miserable serving statistics? The answer is fear - fear of the return. It's as if the WTA rank-and-file realized, heck, why bang our heads against the wall, trying to become something beyond our grasp? Let's be something attainable - great returners.

And that's where Sharapova is in trouble, any time she can't serve at her absolute best. If she were, say, Justine Henin, she might be able to compensate for this vulnerability with other elements in her game. But given her limitations as an athlete, she has a declining ability to repel attacking returners.

There was a moment last night when Mary Jo Ferandez, Mary Carillo, Brad Gilbert and Pat McEnroe were discussing Sharapova's loss to Maria Kirilenko, and about three-quarters of the way through the analyses, McEnroe cut to the chase. Watching the match, he and Gilbert decided that Sharapova simply didn't move well enough when Kirilenko managed to pressure her. That, to me, was the key to the match. And more and more these days, when it comes to attacking, the service return is weapon of choice.

Thus, it was poignant when Sharapova, in a revealing moment of bitterness, said in her presser that she would be back to play on the second Saturday in Australia one day. She even added something like, "you just watch." More power to her if she can; she certainly works hard enough to maximize her potential. And she's an extremely determined and focused individual. But, like Arias, she may be a victim of history - caught in the gears of a churning, ever-moving game. 

-- Pete

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