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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Blast serve, win point, repeat. Will today's torrent of aces make tennis a smashing success? Some wonder.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 27, 2007
Hall of Famer Tony Trabert, whose voice was once a fixture of U.S. Open television coverage, says the time has come for tennis to put its foot down. ¶ Down behind the baseline again - the place where players once had to keep a foot firmly planted while serving. ¶ Of course, that was before the Open Era began in 1968, back in the game's bygone days when wooden rackets and a rigorous foot-fault rule prevailed. That made it difficult for big servers to dominate the way they are capable of doing these days. ¶ Powered by high-tech graphite rackets and stronger athletes, the modern era continues to serve up some of the biggest hitters the sport has ever seen. Top speeds for men and women, measured by modern equipment: Andy Roddick's record 155 mph delivery in the 2004 Davis Cup, and Venus Williams' 128 mph offering in May at the French Open, the fastest main-draw match serve in women's tennis history. ¶ But, as the 77-year-old Trabert notes, there's one big difference between now and then.e_SClB"As the serve has evolved, it's the change of the foot-fault rule," he says. "When I played, No. 1, you had to maintain contact with the ground. You couldn't jump. And No. 2, you couldn't break the plane of the baseline with your back leg until you hit the ball.
"So there are all kinds of pictures of us leaning into the court, hitting the ball. But the back foot was behind us. As a result, you didn't have as good an angle into the court, and you didn't get the head start going to the net."
And servers couldn't unleash the full-body power of later generations. Now, explains Trabert, the server can jump and have both feet off the ground and land 4 feet inside the baseline.
Aces are flourishing, while the "volley" component of the game's traditional serve-and-volley style with long, hard-fought points has taken a hit, much to the dismay of many fans - not to mention the likes of former tennis great and current commentator John McEnroe. "You're not seeing as many kids learning to volley as well," he says. "The ball's being hit with more pace than ever, and the volley in some cases is becoming a dying shot."
The serve issue came up in July when Trabert asked longtime champion Pete Sampras about the old style during his induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame: "He said, 'I wouldn't have beaten anybody if I had to serve like that,' " Trabert recalls. "Which isn't true. But when people ask me - 'If you were going to make one change to the game, what would it be?' - I would say go back to that original foot-fault rule."
Players with killer serves are nothing new. Every era has had its share. But there appears to be more blast masters than ever. With another U.S. Open starting today in New York, we've asked an array of tennis experts to weigh in on some of the great servers they've seen, how the serve has changed - and how that has changed the game.
Spice is nice
Big serves are not unlike a dazzling slam dunk in the NBA, a fastball that blows by a batter in the big leagues or a knockout punch in boxing. And some, such as former No. 1 Jim Courier, note that big serves have an added entertainment value. "I think with the radar gun, people really get a kick out of seeing how hard these players can hit the ball, compared to what they're capable of doing in their amateur tennis," he says. "I think spice is necessary, so it's good to have variety."
Courier is quick to point out that early stars such as Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales and Roscoe Tanner "were hitting serves with wood rackets close to the speeds players are hitting them today. But since the 1990s, he adds, serve speeds have increased dramatically for both men and women. "Particularly the second serve was looked at as a potential weapon, and certainly not a weak shot any longer." Courier's list of great servers of the '90s: Pete Sampras, Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivanisevic and Boris Becker. "All of them possessed the ability to not only ace you with their first serves, but also their seconds."
The reason was not so much technique or technology, but an attitude. "It was a mind-set jump," Courier says. "Because the technology that all those players had was created in the early '80s, these graphite rackets. The first serves have always been good. But what changed was the mentality - a go-for-broke aspect on the second serve."
Players of today grew up watching that style and have emulated that aggressive second-serve style. "Even the smaller players have big serves now, and big second serves, averaging 90-100 mph. When I first turned pro (in 1988), the average second serve was in the high 70s to mid 80s, and through the course of my ATP career, those serves increased on average by 10 mph."
Return to sender
Legendary coach Nick Bollettieri sees a cause and effect. "Return strengths have improved so much over the years, it has forced the need for bigger serves," he says. "No doubt the equipment has driven all this."
Courier, who trained with Bollettieri in his formative years, agrees. "The aggressiveness of the serves were really in response to the aggressiveness of the returns," he says. "So it's been a tug of war between the servers and returners. And there are times when it seems like the returners have the upper hand, and then the servers catch up. It's a little bit of an arms race."
When it comes to returning prowess, many agree that another Bollettieri product, Andre Agassi, was one of the best in the business.
More power to you
Volley back to Bollettieri, who drives home another point. More athletic players with more strength and power have made a big difference, he maintains.
"While the big servers of the '70s like John Newcombe (6 feet) and Stan Smith (6 feet 4) had a height advantage, which allowed them better margin, (but) they didn't put too much effort toward powering it past players like they do today," he says.
Various stars since the '80s and '90s have fueled the trend. A brief history: "(Stefan) Edberg brought increases in power and speed capability," Bollettieri says. "Becker with his unorthodox technique stepped up the power even more. McEnroe and Sampras combined great placement followed by a volley attack game that made them hard to break, but they didn't win on sheer power.
"(Roger) Federer is another who uses his serve as a great set to control points, but doesn't blow his opponents away with power. Roddick is responsible for the biggest increase in power in the modern era."
Speaking of Roddick
Roddick doesn't look fearsome at 6 feet 2, 180 pounds. So what accounts for his ability to serve faster than anyone on the planet? "It's his combination of explosive leg thrust, hip snap and tremendous quickness in the rotation of his shoulder mechanics that generates his speed," Bollettieri says.
But why hasn't his big serve helped propel him past world No. 1 Federer? "What happens is a guy like Andy comes onto the tour and he has a new weapon that people aren't familiar with, and he capitalizes on it for a while," Courier says. "Some players start to be able to neutralize it, like Federer. Others start to emulate it. But people get used to the fastball."
Collins calls it
Bud Collins, venerable TV tennis analyst and longtime member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, is a historian of the game he has covered since the '60s. Here are some speedy hits from the master:
- "Serve and volley is practically gone, which I think is too bad because I like to watch a variety of play."
- "Pancho Gonzales is the greatest server I've seen. He had perfect timing and he could hit it anywhere; he could hit it hard."
- "All this timing of serves, nobody knows what the hell it's all about. Because there are different machines. Is it measured from the moment of impact, or landing or whatever? "
-"These days, Ivo Karlovic (of Croatia) is a hell of a server. He's 6-10 and he's the tallest player ever to play at the upper reaches. He doesn't have much besides the serve, but it's served him in good stead. But because he's not one of the real stars, he usually plays on an outside court where they don't measure the speed of his serve." (Karlovic is the ATP's leader in aces per match this year, 19.8, and in service games won (94 percent, ahead of Roddick's 91).
- "I think Federer is a great server from the standpoint that, though there's not much speed - 120 is pretty fast for him - he's always hitting the corners or hitting the lines. His accuracy is phenomenal. I think he gets more out of his serve than Roddick gets out of his speed."
- "McEnroe was a good server, and like Federer, he placed it well. As a left-hander, he had a great hook serve to the opponent's backhand, and he followed it up very well, because he was a serve-and-volley player."
- "Roscoe Tanner snapped the net with a serve (clocked at 140 mph) against Bjorn Borg in the quarterfinals of the 1979 U.S. Open. Borg was 0-10 at the Open at the time. It was a cold night and you could just see while he was waiting for a new net to be replaced, he must have thought - this is the handwriting on the net. I'm not going to win this tournament." (And he never did.)
Venus and Serena Williams, Brenda Schultz-McCarthy and Maria Sharapova stand out with their high-velocity serves. ButMary Joe Fernandez, ranked as high as No. 4 in 1991 and now a commentator for ESPN, says the women's game is less about power serving than power playing style. "Serve and volley is practically nonexistent nowadays - there's none of it on the women's side," she says. "I think the return has become such a big shot, and the girls hit the ball so hard, that's one of the reasons you don't see that anymore."
During her career from 1985-2000, she said the best servers included Martina Navratilova ("It wasn't a powerful serve, but she had a lefty serve and placed it so well and the spins.") and Steffi Graf ("She had one of the more powerful serves.").
"To me now, Serena Williams possesses probably the best serve just because her first and second serves are high quality. And you watch her sister, Venus, and she serves it 128 mph. It's crazy. But by and large, I don't think the serve has caught up to the rest of the women's power game."
Pam Shriver, who teamed with Navratilova to form one of game's best doubles teams, winning 20 Grand Slam titles, rates her old partner, Graf and Lindsay Davenport as the top servers of her time. Like Fernandez, she thinks the serve lags somewhat on the women's side: "I feel like there's still so much more aggression and purpose that the top women players can have on their first serve. ... In the last 10 years, it's been the returner who's had the server more on their heels."
But Larry Scott, CEO of the women's tour, believes the serve is coming on strong. "I think the most dramatic development of the serve is evidenced in the women's game," he says. "Over the last five years, I've seen a dramatic change in the women's players approach to the serve and the role of the serve - and its importance in the overall game. Ten or 15 years ago, when you watched women's tennis, most people looked at the serve as just the way to get the point started. It ain't that today."