Serve Big, or Serve Well?

Monday, December 12, 2011 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

Many of you know that Goran Ivanisevic hit more aces than any other ATP player since the inception of the statistic; in fact, he hit quite a few more—1,325 more, to be precise, than career ace-maker No. 2, Pete Sampras. And Ivanisevic did it in 796 matches, 63 fewer than Sampras played in his career.

But do you know where Ivanisesvic ranked in career first-service percentage? He was tied for No. 192 with such prodigious servers as Galo Blanco and Benjamin Becker, and nine other men who made their first serves at a 55 percent rate. This underscores an interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive idea, which is that having a really big serve, a la Goran or Pete, almost automatically dooms you to a lackluster percentage. 

In a way, it makes sense. A big weapon is useless unless it's put to use, which automatically goads a man with a lot of firepower to take more chances with his serve.

That No. 2 man on the ace list, Sampras? He made the first-serve percentage honor roll at No. 97, tied with Ramon Delgado, Renzo Furlan, and about three dozen other men who served at 59 percent (all stats courtesy of the ATP's Ricoh MatchFacts). This tells me a few things that Sampras already told me when we collaborated on his autobiography (A Champion's Mind) a few years ago: That you're only as good as your second serve (the distinguishing characteristic of the players Pete feared and respected the most, as well as an vital component in his own success). And when you have a monster of a second serve, your first-serve conversion rate doesn't matter all that much—and that was certainly true for Pete.

A comparison of the ace and first-serve percentage statistics underscores the idea that you either serve big, or you serve well (meaning, you observe that cardinal rule of tennis by putting your first serve into play). The top 10 career ace blasters of the ATP are pretty much the usual suspects. You'll recognize most of their names, although I was slightly surprised to see No. 4 Ivan Ljuvicic's name so high up on the list. But that doesn't hold true for the top 10 percentage servers, a list topped by—get this—Gilbert Schaller, who served at 76 percent. Who?

Schaller, an Austrian whose ranking topped out at No. 17 in 1995, the year he won the lone ATP tour title of his career at Casabalanca (d. Albert Costa in final), is all alone at that lofty number. The next three men in the top 10 are also sole occupants of their niches, respectively: Alberto Berasategui (74 percent), Potito Starace (73 percent) and Jordi Arrese (72 percent).

What do all four of the percentage leaders have in common? They're all clay-courters; the best result among them was Berasetagui's surprising 1994 run to the Roland Garros final (l. to Bruguera). Berasategui, who used such an extreme western grip on his forehand that he ended making contact with the back face of the racquet, won 14 career singles titles, so it's not like the guy couldn't play. 

The next most consistent servers will be familiar to all of you: Rafael Nadal, Fernando Verdasco, and Victor Hanescu are tied for No. 5 on the list, with a 69 percent success rate. Still, only three of the top 10 percentage servers also cracked the top 10 in the rankings at any point in their careers, and two of them did so only briefly (Verdasco and Berasategui). 

Two men are tied for sixth on the percentage list, Filippo Volandri and John Isner (68 percent). I was surrpised to see Isner ranked so highly among the percentage servers, especially when you compare his stats with those of the other ace machines. Isner is already No. 43 on the career aces list (3209), even though he's played only 207 matches.

The takeaway here is that Isner may be the best—not just the biggest—server of them all. No other player even comes close to serving both big and consistently the way Isner has thus far in his career. No wonder Jim Courier calls him "the most disruptive force in the game." Other big servers who are also surprisingly good percentage servers include Andy Roddick and Ivo Karlovic (tied with numerous others at No. 18 on the percentage list, No. 3 and 8 as acemakers, respectively). But those who serve big and also consistently are a rarity.

At some level, though, it makes sense that the top percentage servers are mostly men with little pop to the serve. Without the option of the ace or service winner, modestly gifted servers are less likely to take chances or really load it up and throw caution to the wind. In striving to get the first serve in they hit with more spin and greater control, the result of which is a much more impressive first-serve percentage. That's why the most telling set of stats would be one that gave us both the first-serve conversion percentage and the number of aces and service winners the player hit.

For now, though, we'll have to settle for tennis's version of that old maxim, "Those who can't do, teach." Those who can't serve big, serve consistently.

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