Serving Notice

Sunday, June 27, 2010 /by

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by Bobby Chintapalli, Contributing Writer

If Serena Williams wins Wimbledon, I’ll remember Dominika Cibulkova’s smile. The way she was beaming during the handshake after her third-round match against Serena you’d think she won, maybe even served up a bagel along the way. (She lost 6-0, 7-5.) I can only guess what the smile was about, and I’m going with disbelief and relief. Disbelief that Serena served like that, relief that finally it was over.

I saw the stats before I saw the match. They showed that Serena served 20 aces. I was suspicious, because who does that?  Not Lucie Hradecka, I knew; she served the most aces in one WTA match this year, but that was a mere 18 in a French Open first-round match against Alexandra Dulgheru (Hradecka lost). Not even Serena Williams, I thought; she served 17 in that I’m-awake-now-and-ready-to-play Australian Open quarterfinal win over Victoria Azarenka. To make things more perplexing the stats showed Serena served no double faults. (Incidentally the Wimbledon website’s match stats, which first showed 20 aces for Serena, now show 19; I counted 20. They also show 13 aces for Cibulkova, and that’s not close to true, by my count.)

I also read Serena’s presser before I watched the match, and her words suggested she had a good serving day, even by her standards. She wasn’t thrilled with her whole performance, but she was happy about the same thing that stood out in the stats: “Serving that well feels awesome… I wish I could serve like this every tournament.”

The only thing left to do was watch the match. And count. The aces were there all right, all 20 of them. Watching Serena in that match I didn’t think of those things I call her out for off the court, not even about that "strawberries and cream" tennis kit or those eye-popping nails. I thought about that all-powerful serve. What must it be like to possess a shovel you know can dig you out of almost any hole, and for your opponent to know it too? It was the most dominating WTA serving I’ve ever seen.

First Set (6-0, 6 aces)

The serveathon began as you’d expect – with Serena serving an ace, about as out wide as you could go. A point later she served another ace, about as down the middle as you could go. Six games and 18 minutes later, the first set was over. Cibulkova had won one point on Serena’s serve, and Serena had racked up six aces.

“As a player you just feel so helpless playing against a player like Serena when she’s playing this well,” said ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez of Cibulkova. “It’s crossing her mind right now that this could be a love and love match.”

Second Set (7-5, 14 aces) 

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Things changed some in the second set though. Cibulkova showed she “packed a punch”, as Serena put it. She served better and went for her shots more. (Billie Jean King cautioned Serena that if an opponent gets bageled “you’ve got to expect them to really come out loose, like they have absolutely nothing to lose.”) Serena made a few more unforced errors and didn’t return serve as well.

But her serve never went away, not to Hawaii or anywhere. She served two aces in every game except one – in that one, she decided to serve four. By the end of the second set she’d served 14 more aces, taking her match total to 20. ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez and Dick Enberg couldn’t help but feel for the unwitting participant in Serena’s serving practice.

Enberg: “This is a heavyweight fighting a bantamweight.”
Fernandez: “My goodness – this doesn’t seem fair sometimes.”

Cibulkova, like Azarenka at the Australian Open, seemed calmer than you’d expect. She twirled her racquet, bounced around, prepared for every serve like she had a shot at it. If it was another ace, she walked quickly to the other side of the court and started her routine all over again. A few times she shrugged, threw her hands up or looked up at the sky or her box, but for the most part she seemed resigned to her fate.

After 20 Aces

After match point it was Serena who looked annoyed. She looked at her box and shook her head slightly. A few minutes after walking off the court she said, “I served well in the second, and that’s about all I did well. Hopefully I can keep serving well, but I have to play better than I did today.” Surely she’s thinking about the level of tennis she’ll need to summon for her fourth-round match against Maria Sharapova, the only former Wimbledon champion in the draw who’s not her sibling.

If Sharapova remembers one thing about this match – she’ll study it, won’t she? – it will be the 20 aces. They’ve taken Serena even higher on the ladies’ singles ace list. She now has 43 aces. That’s more than twice as many as Jarmila Groth, who’s in second place with 21, and more than Venus Williams, who served 18.

How does she do it? John McEnroe has commented that Serena practices her serve more than others do, in a way that others don’t. Maybe. And the serve seems too simple to be so effective, but is the simplicity the secret sauce? There are no long rituals beforehand, few retosses, hardly any moving parts. It’s toss, hit, ace… and, on a special day, repeat 20 times.

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