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.

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"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."

Ramping up

The progression of the fastest serves on the ATP Tour since 1991:

DatePlayer MPH
July 1991Marc Rosset134
July 1994Goran Ivanisevic136
February 1995Greg Rusedski137
March 1997Jonathan Stark138
May 1997Mark Philippoussis142
August 1997Rusedski143
March 1998Rusedski149
February 2004Andy Roddick150
April 2004Roddick152
June 2004Roddick153
Source: ATP Tour

Cranking it

The number of players on the ATP Tour who served the ball 120 mph or faster:

1992: 54

1993: 59

1994: 74

1995: 100

1996: 92

1997: 116

1998: 127

1999: 127

2000: 154

2001: 160

2002: 156

2003: 171



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