The Last of the Big-Time Servers

Wednesday, April 04, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

Among other things, my trip to Miami last week reminded me of just how quickly—and subtly—this game changes. It seems like just yesterday (or was it way, way, back in 2011 or 2010?) we were talking about a remarkable development in the women's game: The increase in the number of WTA players who could actually. . . serve.

You know, throw the ball up, drop the racquet into the backscratcher position, bend the knees and . . .  bombs awa-a-a-a-a-ay! Yep. Win points with big serves, just like the men.

For years, one of the major and most legitimate complaints about the state of the women's game was that too few women had even decent serves, never mind outstanding ones. And it was painfully obvious when you compared those wince-inducing serves with the otherwise solid technique of the women in question.

Speaking broadly, Venus and Serena Williams took real leadership in what appeared to be a gradual transformation of the serve into a weapon. I think they showed one and all, aspiring player and fan alike, that women can, and ought to, serve big. And that even those who just couldn't generate Williams-grade power maybe ought to work at their serve, instead of capitulating to the conventional wisdom that for women, the serve is just something you do to get a point started.

In general, there are far fewer really awful serves in the WTA now than at any other time in the past, and quite a few notable ones (Petra Kvitova, Sabine Lisicki, Samantha Stosur et al). And even the serves that might have been seen as weak, as in the case of new Miami champ Agnieszka Radwanska, would have been assets just a decade ago, and can be effective even today when properly employed.

After losing the Miami final to Radwanska, that other once-big server Maria Sharapova acknowledged that her return let her down. She implied that it was a form-of-the-day issue ("When I did have second serve opportunities, you know, she's serving at 70 miles per hour and I'm not winning those points. There's something wrong with that."), although spin and placement may have played a larger role in that than the loser was about to admit. 

Still, the gains brought by that evolutionary change in serve proficiency and efficiency are being significantly diminished by an even more powerful and universal trend—the search, successful on the part of an increasing number of good players thanks to a variety of factors (including string technology), for better and better service return power and efficiency. 

You know, rotate the hips, bring the racquet back in a compact backswing, uncoil, and . . . bombs awa-a-a-a-a-a-ay!"

Serve and return prowess are in heated competition these days, and not just when two women face off against each other. Often, they're competing for ascendancy within each player, and Sharapova is a great example of this dialectic—even with the obligatory footnote noting that her serious shoulder problems had much to do with her dramatic conversion from pre-emptive server to first-strike return specialist. 

Mary Carillo was the one who got me thinking about all this, while we were catching up and waiting for the press conferences after Sharapova's earlier Miami triumph over former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki—a player who might have used a more menacing serve during her tenure at the very top. Mary suggested that the return had become such a weapon in the women's game that the long quest for serve proficiency has slowed, or become irrelevant. The statistics, which are scattershot and often hard to find, seem to bear this out.

The three leaders in fastest-serve speed for 2011 are, in order starting at the top, Serena (122 M.P.H.), Venus (121) and Sabine Lisicki (118.1). Compare those to the all-time serve-speed leaderboard, on which only three of the Top 10 on that list established their marks before 2008. Seven of the women who constitute that Top 10 list are active players: Venus (No. 1, with 129 M.P.H.), Serena (No. 2, 128), Lisicki (No. 4, 125.1), Anna-Lena Groenefeld (No. 5, 125), Ana Ivanovic (124.9), Kristina Mladenovic (124.3), Li Na (123.7) and Stosur (123). 

So why are women serving with close to 10 M.P.H. less speed than in the very recent past? (Lisicki hit her 125.1 at Stanford last summer; no woman has hit a faster serve this year.) Well, part of it certainly must be the balls. Many players in Miami spoke about how quickly the balls used there fluffed up. This supports the theory that the playing field is being heavily tilted toward the returner, and suggests that the players are being pessimistic about the value of the big serve.

As if she had been reading our minds, Sharapova just a few minutes later added:

"Against someone like Caroline you're not going to get too many free points. She always retrieves so many balls back. She makes you hit a lot. I think it's more important to be aggressive in the rally (my italics), you know, and off of the return and look for the spots and maybe get an opportunity to go for the second shot instead of trying to hit bombs against someone that is a good returner that's gonna make you hit a lot of balls."

None of this means that women's tennis is going to regress to the days of the puffball serve, but it may point out the pitfalls of the WTA having to live with decisions, changes, and fine-tuning (like choice of surface and ball) intended to encourage certain outcomes in the ATP game, at least at the combined tournaments—which happen to be the most important ones.

Those decisions haven't entirely eliminated the enormous advantage of having an big serve on the ATP side. But the payoff from having a monster serve on the women's tour seems to be paltry anymore. It sure was nice while it lasted.

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