Sunday, August 8, 2004
Hitting fast forward in evolution of serve
Players blasting harder, but more returning, also
By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer
MASON - In 10 years, the top recorded service speed on the ATP Tour has gone from 134 mph to 153 mph, and the number of players recorded hitting serves 120 mph or faster has grown from 74 to 171.
Changes in technology and an onset of bigger, stronger players have fueled that arms race. But here's the unsung story: Those serves are coming back.
"The biggest difference these days is guys' ability to return well and pass well and hit winners from the baseline," big server Taylor Dent said.
Returners have adjusted to tennis' faster pace. Aces are down slightly. The serve-and-volley style is hardly employed anymore.
Servers are upping the amperage now almost out of necessity. Second serves, previously a conservative venture, often now are being struck in excess of 120 mph, too.
"Guys are returning better, so you have to go for more," said Greg Rusedski, who had two stints as the sport's fastest server. "You have to be aggressive on first and second (serves), or else guys are going to get a bead on it."
Andre Agassi often is cited for revolutionizing the service return. It's worth noting that when Andy Roddick hit a then-record-tying 149 mph serve last June, Agassi safely returned it.
"I think Andre revolutionized the game by taking full cuts at returns," Roddick said. "That's become almost more important than the serve itself. If you look at guys from the top 10 last year, you'd be hard-pressed to find a guy who returns weakly."
The big-server-vs.-baseliner trend is cyclical.
In 1991, when baseliners ruled, the total aces by the 10 highest-ranked players numbered 5,003. In '96, big servers swung that total wildly: 7,912 aces by the top 10. But by 2002, it had swung back again, to 6,257.
The average number of aces per match has fallen in all four Grand Slams after peaking in 2000-01.
"Athletes are getting bigger. ..." Agassi said. "(But) guys have adjusted to the big serve by standing pretty far back. If they can get their racket on it, they can get the ball back. ... There's a lot of things improving that will always keep checks and balances."
The ATP Tour has slowed some of its indoor courts considerably and, to a lesser degree, some outdoor hard courts.
That's notable, because those jaw-dropping radar readings are the speed of the ball as it leaves the racket. Friction on the bounce slows it; by the time it crosses the opposite baseline, the ball is going about half its initial speed.
Still, if that initial speed was 130 mph, the returner has only about a half-second to react and hit the ball.
"I think if your body sees one thing faster, it'll acclimatize itself to be a little quicker," Dent said. "I know I serve sometimes and (opponents) have no play on the ball, but as they get used to the pace, they start to get their rackets on more and more balls."
The increase in the game's speed long was credited to updates in racket and string technology. Graphite rackets were introduced in 1978 and quickly replaced wood, and larger racket heads also increased power.
Still, some Tour players have engaged in tests with both graphite and wooden rackets, and generally served only 1-2 mph slower with the outdated model.
So the principal difference probably comes from emphases on fitness and technique. Whereas strength training was a novelty a generation ago, many pros now employ their own trainers.
"I hate making comparisons to other sports, but why is (Barry) Bonds hitting 73 homers now?" said Roddick, who holds the speed record at 153 mph.
"Ten years from now, someone will be hitting a lot bigger serves than I do. It's just the evolution of sports."
Roddick entered his match Saturday with 765 aces, tops on the Tour. He also ranks second in service games won (90 percent).
His coach, Brad Gilbert, cites the deep knee bend and wrist snap Roddick was taught as a youth, as indicative of current coaching philosophies.
"When I was a little kid, they'd say, 'Throw the ball up and hit it nice,' " Gilbert said. "Now at 11, 12 years old, you're seeing them use the bigger knee bend and trying to crack those serves."
Successful serving is about more than just speed. Top-ranked Roger Federer hits his first serves in the range of 112-124 mph but leads the Tour in service games won at 92 percent.
The best way to counteract powerful returners is to emphasize placement. Federer and Roddick, among others, often succeed with topspin "kick" serves.
"It's more important to be consistent with where you want to serve," said Max Mirnyi, who ranks 12th in aces. "It's pointless to be just trying to chase the speed gun."
The progression of the fastest serves on the ATP Tour since 1991:
Source: ATP Tour
|July 1991||Marc Rosset||134|
|July 1994||Goran Ivanisevic||136|
|February 1995||Greg Rusedski||137|
|March 1997||Jonathan Stark||138|
|May 1997||Mark Philippoussis||142|
|February 2004||Andy Roddick||150|
The number of players on the ATP Tour who served the ball 120 mph or faster:
BENGALS / NFL TRAINING CAMPS
He's a man of great size - and wisdom
Palmer grades himself a 'C' after first weekend of action
Bengals notebook: Ross signs contract with Steelers
Meet the Bengals: Elton Patterson
Manning likes what he sees from Colts' WRs
Browns' Boyer could miss 10 weeks
Coaches, players ready for camps to get going
REDS / BASEBALL
Wilson not up to form in loss
Reds insider: Has Lindner had enough?
Book signing on deck for Nux
Larkin lessons helping Lopez
Still waiting on Larkin, Griffey
Knight reveals battle with heart condition
Around the majors: A jersey for a promise
Maddux wins No. 300
Playoff possibility lures Walker to Cards
Seattle manager Melvin ejected before game
NL: Standing ovation for Walker in win
AL: Lawton's homer sends Tribe to 2nd in Central
AAA: Bats, Tides split twin bill
MASTERS TENNIS IN MASON
Finally - Andre's back
Agassi wins in one for the ages
Hitting fast forward in evolution of serve
10th-seeded Hewitt gaining momentum
Woodbridge building another dynasty
In for the fight of his life
Lords of the ring
Billy Joiner embodies city's boxing legacy
Olympic boycott unlikely to occur
Edwards suspension merited, IAAF finds
Olympics special section
Photo gallery: A look at local Olympians
Editorial: Congratulations to our local Olympians
2004 Summer Olympics schedule
Olympics guide, multimedia
MORE SPORTS HEADLINES
Watanabe looking for another shot at title
Good Sports: Cyclists create a park for pedaling
What's up with that?
Sports this weekend on TV, radio