Peter Bodo's TennisWorld - Erasing the Asterisk
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Erasing the Asterisk 07/15/2008 - 3:11 PM

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Hi, everyone. Like many of you, I'm still in suffering from Wimbledon hangover (for a look at one tangential aspect of this condition, click here). And I still have some unfinished Wimbledon business in my notebook. Some of it may be hopelessly dated, but one item is very relevant to the coming months - with the Olympic Games and U.S. Open not that far down the pike. And that's the subject of Venus Williams.

A few of the usual press suspects, including me, had a chance to sit down with Venus shortly before the men's final for a substantial conversation on topics including her win over her kid sister Serena in the women's final. When our interview was over and everyone filed out, I had one of those naturally occurring moments when I was face-to-face with Venus and she wasn't looking elsewhere or otherwise engaged. I congratulated her on the final, and told her that the match represented the highest level of women's I'd ever seen in some thirty-odd years covering the pro tour. She spontaneously lit up and said: Really?

"Really," I replied. "Nobody - not Steffi, not Martina, not Billie Jean King ever played at so high a level as well as I remember against an equally dangerous opponent."

Venus looked pleased, and here I have to paraphrase because the tape recorder was off by then:

The funny thing about that was that because it was Serena, we both had a kind of feel for what the other person would do. So it was - it was like, a little bit weird, because I knew where she was going to go with the ball, and she knew what I was going to try to do, so both of us had to do something else. . . it was kind of strange, and that's why some of the points developed in kind of a funny way, you know, like no rallies, or both of us more or less being in the same place at the same time.

This rang true, because it rephrased in somewhat more abstract form something she had said in the mass press conference right after her epic win (a triumph that secured Venus's fifth title, and her undisputed place among the greatest Wimbledon champions of all time). Let me lift the passage from the post I wrote right after that match:

You know, uhm, I think the level of play was really high. I think a lot of the times one of us was overpowering the other . So I hit a hard ball on the line, she can't get it back. Or, you know, I tried to go for too much because I'm anticipating that she's gonna run my shot down.  Or I hit a huge serve, she hits one I can't return.

So in between us overpowering each other we had, I think, some really competitive rallies and intense points, you know, where one player would come back and take the point, when it looked like the other player was gonna win.So, you know, we're both very powerful, and I think it showed out there.

The key word here, folks, is "overpowering." And for those of you who took issue with my contention that this was the highest level of women's tennis I've ever witnessed (what, you wanted a proverbial "great match" too?), I can only say that "overpowering" is not a word generally associated with WTA tennis. Artful? Sure. Graceful? Sure. Impressive? Yeah, that too. Overpowering? Rarely - at least not in the strictest sense of that word. The word draws its meaning from the root word "power" (apologies to Mr. Webster if this somehow runs counter to his definition). I understand that many of you don't necessarily worship at that altar, and that's fine. But ignore it at your peril.

Right after the final, I almost wrote what I still think was my most noteworthy observation about the match. But I avoided it, partly out of concern the way it might be taken as a slight when it wasn't intended as one. Now, I'll come clean. When I watch a women's match, there's usually a small asterisk somewhere in the back of my mind, and no matter how enjoyable or riveting the match, that asterisk demands that I add the phrase, . . . for women's tennis. That is, I might think, "That's a great backhand. . . for women's tennis. Or, this is great stuff. . . for women's tennis. But watching as well as reflecting on the Wimbledon final later, the asterisk was conspicuous in absence. For once, I didn't have to shove it into a back corner of my mind.

Maybe I'm just confessing some deep-rooted and indefensible prejudice - I'm entirely open to that idea. But my policy, developed many years ago, was to see WTA and ATP tennis through a different set of eyes, embracing different standards of measurement. This was especially true in the service department, where you could just throw the First Commandment of Tennis (Thou Shalt Hold Serve) right out the window, and not read too much into the breakfests that often masqueraded as matches - that was the point, in fact: they weren't masquerading as anything. They were part of the women's tennis deal.

Venus The women's game  overwhelmingly tended to turn on how well the players handled the Second Commandment (Thou Shalt Play Consistently), and whether or not they managed to play with sufficient aggression - especially when they were back on their heels. It's hard, though, to draw up a specific set of criteria for all women's matches - it's always been more like looking at each match as a unique organism in which the Commandments did not always apply, or apply as forcefully and comparably.

For that reason, a serve statistic unearthed via my correspondence with Tribe member who challenged my analysis of the match might be telling: Serena Williams fastest serve was 121 mph, her average first serve clocked 109, and her average second serve was 87 mph. Venus's fastest serve was a 127 thunderbolt, she averaged 111 on her first serve, and hit her second at an average of 92.

Now let's dare compare that to the men. In the final, Roger Federer's fastest serve was 129, and he averaged 117 on his first deliveries. His average second-serve traveled at 100 mph. That was slightly better than Rafael Nadal (who, in case you hadn't heard, won that match), whose fastest first serve was 120, while his first-serve average was 112 and his average second clocked 93. The takeaway: Venus Williams topped Nadal by a whopping 7 mph in the "fastest" department, and she trailed him by a single mile per hour in the other two critical averages. Granted, Nadal is a spinmeister, which costs him mph numbers. Still, the statistics are a tribute to Venus - and they set a new benchmark for the women's game. To borrow a phrase from Barack Obama (who appears to have stolen it from that other great statesman, Bob the Builder): Yes, we can!

Regular readers of this blog know how much stock I put in the serve in the men's game; I've frequently bemoaned the slowing of the surfaces, with the attendant de-emphasis on the serve. As I've written before, the serve should be worth more (and still is worth more, which is something you'll discover if you peel the onion); after all, the entire scoring format is based on the assumption that it's a significant  advantage to be serving - to start a point with the only shot entirely at your command, the only shot that doesn't require an adjustment to a previous shot, and the only shot that you unconditionally put where you want. So the serving prowess of the Williams sisters is a critical step in eliminating one of the key elements that encourages us to view women's tennis through a different lens. It sounds too highfalutin' to put it this way, perhaps, but the Sisters have introduced real gender-equality to tennis in terms of pure athletics.

This is no mean feat, and looking at some of the other Hall of Fame women players underscores the point. Chris Evert won despite her serve, rather than because of it. The only thing that separated her from the women ranked well below her (or, for that matter, Shahar Peer or Jelena Jankovic) was her extraordinary nerve. Evert may have struggled to break 100, but more to the point she found a way to put her 80 mph second serve into the corner, or along the sideline, to keep her window of vulnerability small. That she was able to do this at the most critical of times, against the best of opponents, demonstrated that you can serve well without having or making a lot of power; in fact, some of the best servers of Evert's era (Betty Stove and Hana Mandlikova come to mind) had outstanding serves - except, sometimes, when it really counted. But Evert wouldn't last out there today.

For Evonne Goolagong the serve was nothing less than an adventure, and it helps explain why she didn't collect more Grand Slam titles. For someone as loose-limbed, smooth, and artful, Goolagong's serve was almost painful to behold. She often got tight, but somehow avoided becoming the Elena Dementieva of her era through sheer guts - you could feel with every serve, especially second serve, the battle between fear and determination playing out in her mind, traveling through her arm, expending what power it carried at just about the time the strings touched the ball - leaving little force behind the shot.

Steffi Graf certainly got the job done, but she tossed the ball straight up and went after it, without ever getting enough forward (rather than upward) momentum to get maximum weight and spin behind the shot. Working almost exclusively with the arm, Steffi produced crisp, rifle-shot like serves when she was on, but they were the shots fired by a rimfire rifle, not a cannon.

And what of Martina Navartilova, the creative, lefty, aggressive player who took serve-and-volley tennis to new heights in the women's game? She made the most of a serve that, given her player profile, was not in the same league as her volley, backhand, or athleticism. She was rarely able to exploit her left-handedness in the way some many of her male counterparts did. John McEnroe, he of the wicked "can opener" lefty slice, is the outstanding example. But Goran Ivanisevic did enormous damage with his serve, and so did Roscoe Tanner. The bottom line is none of the standout women players of the Open era used her serve nearly as effectively as Venus and, to a lesser extent, Serena. The ones who did (at times, Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, Helena Sukova, Jana Novotna, Jennifer Capriati) often didn't have enough to back it up and failed to reach the highest level and stay there. 

Venus and Serena broke new ground at Wimbledon (in our interview, she virtually crowed about the fact that she had lost serve just eight times in the tournament - twice in the final, and once in each of her previous matches). Of course, other factors contributed to the sense that they had erased the asterisk - among them the bold selection, the pace of the rallies, the general lack of hesitancy the women showed. This last quality is hard to pin down, but it comes down to this: it's a great day when choking or mysterious lapses in shot control don't figure into a match, even though those factors often make matches more compelling. Choking, for example, is understandable when it occurs at an excruciating moment, but it's a buzz kill when it happens repeatedly, at unexpected times, or when it permeates a series of points or games. At such times, it's just frustrating and inexplicable, rather than revealing.

For all those reasons, the women's Wimbledon final made me believe that either I was watching the future of tennis, or simply lucky enough to be see two young women armed with a surfeit of gifts erase the asterisk. My gut feeling is that it may be the former; when a bar is moved higher, all contestants tend to jump higher. And Venus and Serena have set the bar higher than it's ever been before.

P.S. - I got a little sidetracked here, but I'll have another full-length post on the interview with Venus at a later date - perhaps right before the Olympic Games begin.


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Posted by avid sports fan 07/15/2008 at 03:36 PM

Pete - Wow wow wow! Nicely written! Thank you and I am looking forward to the full-length interview. I never looked at the serve from this point of view at all especially now looking back to see how Venus saved all the BPs and how Serena actually gave up less BPs (although Venus did well to convert the ones she had). A lot of this depended on the serve.

Posted by prince49 07/15/2008 at 03:38 PM

Great post Pete - especially the serve speed comparisons - that really opened my eyes - always knew the Williamses were physically gifted - but they match up well with the men too ..

Posted by Tennis facts 07/15/2008 at 03:42 PM

Lost 9-7 in the 5th set.

Was just 7% on break points
Committed 52 (yes, that many, 52) UN errors
Served just 66% 1st serve.

What could have been if Federer just played slightly better than he did. If he played much better, he would've won in 3 straight sets, but it's all mental for him against Nadal.
Mental.

Posted by Mr. and Mrs. D. 07/15/2008 at 03:45 PM

Great post Mr. Bodo.
Quick question: I've heard a well placed serve is more desirable than a powerful serve. How fast must one serve this 'well placed serve' in order to be competitive with the power servers.

Posted by L.Rubin 07/15/2008 at 03:54 PM

"I've heard a well placed serve is more desirable than a powerful serve."

Yep. For proof, study Roger Federer's serve. He can, however, deliver Roddick-grade bombs, and it'll be interesting to see if he'll choose to deliver more aces as a way to win cheap points.

Posted by Pete 07/15/2008 at 03:54 PM

I don't mean to be coy,Mr and Mrs. D, but that depends on how well placed the serve is. You get very close to either sideline, especially up from the corner (closer to the net) and it doesn't take much power to hit aces and serve winners at all. It's just that the high-percentage areas of the service box also give a returner a better look at the ball. Think of it this way: the more severe the angle of the serve to either sideline, the less power you need. Other than that, the intangibles (where the opponent is lined up among them) make it impossible to quantify your question with written-in-stone numbers.

Posted by Pete 07/15/2008 at 03:55 PM

Speaking of which, Ms. Rubin, did you notice that deeper knee bend on TMFs serve?

Posted by DHAMM411 07/15/2008 at 03:56 PM

Pete this is why you are the master:
" To borrow a phrase from Barack Obama (who appears to have stolen it other great statesman, Bob the Builder): Yes, we can!"

Posted by L.Rubin 07/15/2008 at 04:03 PM

Mr. Bodo,

Deeper knee bend? No, I didn't notice that. Was it obvious?

--Liron

Posted by beth - of the blondtourage 07/15/2008 at 04:08 PM

and then there is the best of both worlds
the well placed - fast serve
one of these days I would like to have that
but for now - I will settle for not double faulting on key points

nice article , Pete
I admit that I am guilty of putting that asterisk in there,as well - I always look at the women's game as the undercard - but these two ladies take it to a whole new level
and I enjoyed that final very much

Posted by Master Ace 07/15/2008 at 04:21 PM

Pete,
Good post. At the 2005 AO when Serena was not in tennis shape, she used her serve to get out of trouble on a consistent basis. Once she got to the final against Maria, her entire game was a thing of beauty as she lost only 3 games in the final. I think Serena has the best serve in the WTA today but Venus is not far behind. Now, will Venus be able to continue her form in the Olympics and the USO? I think she can get it accomplished but when she plays a bad match, she needs to find a way to win it instead of sulking like she did against Flavia Pennetta at the French Open.

Posted by Gerry 07/15/2008 at 04:26 PM

I recall videos of Venus as a young girl hitting a pretty mature serve. It seems to me that the serve is significantly underemphasized in the junior game. Not many 8-12 year olds are going to be able to hit a big, flat serve because of the geometry of their body vs. the net so, lacking an immediate reward, kids don't work on it that much until they're older. You don't see that many kids who hit a baseball beautifully but can't throw, but plenty of highly-ranked juniors have serves that aren't up to the quality of their groundstrokes. The disparity often persists. Among the benefits of the progressive tennis concept is that it takes out some of the geometric limitations of the child in an adult court and a more mature game can be learned earlier, when it can become that much more ingrained. Sure, the slower surfaces have taken some of the importance from the serve, but big servers don't have to be limited to the Isners and Karlovics of the world who are somewhat limited in the other aspects of their games. I would bet that kids who work hard on the serve at 10-12 can reap big benefits when they become adults and still have great movement and groundstrokes. Especially girls.

Posted by Gerry 07/15/2008 at 04:27 PM

I recall videos of Venus as a young girl hitting a pretty mature serve. It seems to me that the serve is significantly underemphasized in the junior game. Not many 8-12 year olds are going to be able to hit a big, flat serve because of the geometry of their body vs. the net so, lacking an immediate reward, kids don't work on it that much until they're older. You don't see that many kids who hit a baseball beautifully but can't throw, but plenty of highly-ranked juniors have serves that aren't up to the quality of their groundstrokes. The disparity often persists. Among the benefits of the progressive tennis concept is that it takes out some of the geometric limitations of the child in an adult court and a more mature game can be learned earlier, when it can become that much more ingrained. Sure, the slower surfaces have taken some of the importance from the serve, but big servers don't have to be limited to the Isners and Karlovics of the world who are somewhat limited in the other aspects of their games. I would bet that kids who work hard on the serve at 10-12 can reap big benefits when they become adults and still have great movement and groundstrokes. Especially girls.

Posted by Sam 07/15/2008 at 04:32 PM

Master Ace: Do you mean the 2007 AO?

Posted by Kieran 07/15/2008 at 04:33 PM

Great stuff, Pete, but don't be too hasty removing the asterisk. I mean, you DID see the men's final, didn't you?

Posted by neil in toronto 07/15/2008 at 04:34 PM

I actually have just one quibble with this article, Having watched this match on tape at least five times now. Federer's fastest serve was actually 129 mph, and Nadal's was 126, At least according to those in the commentators booth. I did also enjoy the williams final , i just wonder how much more noteworthy it would have been, had it been played best of five, instead of best of 3.

Posted by Mr. and Mrs. D. 07/15/2008 at 04:39 PM

thanks for responding--all very interesting

Posted by Pete 07/15/2008 at 04:41 PM

Interesting, Neil - the serve numbers we pulled were on the Wimbledon website.. .

Posted by neil in toronto 07/15/2008 at 04:47 PM

Hey Pete...well i'm not saying that McEnroe was right either, just what i heard with my gigantic elephant ears from the tape. :)

As an aside Pete, do you know if the WTA has or ever will contemplate having at least the finals in the women's event at the grand slam be best of five? Just thinking how wonderful it would have been to see Venus and Serena keep playing like that for at least one more set.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 07/15/2008 at 04:52 PM

This one disappointed me, Pete, to be honest. I find it insulting to women in general, and to certain women tennis players, such as Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf. They all brought an element of power to the game, each in her own way, and each was a superb athlete. No comparison with their male counterparts necessary to draw this obvious conclusion.

Say what you will about Venus and Serena's play and match, but I just don't know where you're coming from on this one. Sorry, mate. Can't win me over every time, I guess. :-}}

Posted by Andrew Miller 07/15/2008 at 04:57 PM

I am moving towards the opinion that the exceptions rule in tennis and will always rule in tennis.

Venus and Serena Williams are two of the most formidable "power + athlete" women in tennis history, accompanying Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova. These players appear out of the blue and, more or less, recreate the game for the time until they either retire or the "next wunderkind" arrives.

That's what happened with Agassi and Sampras: they were the gold standards until Federer came along.

To me, the exceptions rule tennis. Nadal, Federer, Agassi, Sampras, Graf, Navratilova, the Williams, Justine Henin...they are exceptions. the exceptions may improve their competition, but
when was the last time the competition won much of anything?

Once in a while, a Krajicek breaks through and steals/earns a Wimbledon.

Posted by Nom de Blog 07/15/2008 at 04:58 PM

Nice piece. I'm not sure that the serves are comparable, ie speed is not end-all, be-all, but the point is well-made too be sure. I also agree that the level will rise up not that the bar has been set higher. Which can only be good for women's tennis.

Posted by 07/15/2008 at 05:01 PM

"They all brought an element of power to the game, each in her own way, and each was a superb athlete. "

Right on, Slice-n-dice.

Posted by JR 07/15/2008 at 05:14 PM

Pete--Any insight as to why service speeds are rarely shown on TV broadcasts anymore?

Posted by Eddy 07/15/2008 at 05:14 PM

neil in toronto...I wonder if you're not to only one who desires best of five for women.

Posted by neil in toronto 07/15/2008 at 05:18 PM

I hope i'm not the only one Eddy. I mean that final of course got buried pretty quickly by *THE* match. Just would have liked to have seen more of williams v williams. Blow out finals can be just so boring a la the F.O. even though i'm glad Rafa won ( and won Wimbledon woo hoo!!!!).

Posted by Master Ace 07/15/2008 at 05:27 PM

Sam,
Yes, I did on the 2007 AO. Serena beat Lindsay in 2005 AO.

Posted by Heidi 07/15/2008 at 05:38 PM

Pete, I liked the analysis of the importance of the serve here, as well as the quality of the match. But I don't get what the future is that you're seeing open up here. A brighter day in which "thou shalt hold serve" becomes more paramount in the WTA? I don't know if I believe that, given some/many of the younger female players. Do you think the influence will trickle very far down, the way people expect the one-handed backhand to surface soon from a legion of small Federer fans grown up?

Posted by wimby moon 07/15/2008 at 05:39 PM

The speed of the serve is one thing. The percentage of first serves gotten in just as important. It seems to me the Williamses both do not have such high first-serve percentages anywhere near Nadal's (or even Federer). Venus' serve can also be extremely erratic with numerous double faults and wild serves beyond the baseline or bouncing before it crosses the net. You rarely see any male pros throwing in such awful serves. These factors should make up a big part of any comparison of serves.

Posted by Samantha Elin 07/15/2008 at 06:01 PM

Great post Pete, I really enjoy this. What I take from this article is how key the serve is and how it sets up the ground strokes and the rallies. What is sad about Elena D is that her groundstrokes are so good and are equal to many of the top players, but her serve will always keep her from winning a slam. I think the comments she made after the match were done out of jealousy and in a sad way I understand it. Remember when Elena almost cried and said I'm getting old and I've never won a slam. I've alway felt sorry for her. She has to struggel to hold her serve while people like Venus can get so many free points. Elena reminds me a lot of Jankovic, and that first commandment of tennis, "thou shall hold serve." Or thou shall never win a slam. Go Caroline, Scandinavia's #1!

Posted by neil in toronto 07/15/2008 at 06:16 PM

I don't know how bad i can feel for a player that knows she has a big liability ( Dementieva ), and seemingly can't do anything about it.

Is it wrong i'm still holding out for a Mary Pierce resurgence?!?!?

Posted by Ruth 07/15/2008 at 06:16 PM

Thanks for this post, Pete. It is good to see the excellent women's Wimbledon final and, perhaps more important, the women's game, getting some attention. I particularly enjoyed the reference to those former great women players, including two of my all-time favorites, Goolagong and Navratilova.


Venus and Serena continue together to raise the bar in women's tennis, and I have no doubt that the other WTA women will rise to meet that bar as they have done in the past.

I cannot help thinking that one of the reasons for the improved level -- and quality -- of this V&S meeting is the fact that, finally, Venus and Serena are regularly training separately and with different hitting partners (whom I, for one, consider their assitant coaches). It was interesting to hear Serena say how surprised she was that Venus served so many times to her body -- and that she would know to look for that "next time." Surprise, little sister! And I trust that both Serena and Venus will have other surprises for us and each other in the duels that remain to be played befiore they both retire.

While I appreciate Pete's comparing of the speed of the serves of the 4 Wimby finalists, let us not forget that the fastest recorded women's serve (Venus and Brenda Schultz -- 129mph) is still 29 mph (about 20%) slower than the fastest men's serve (155 mph -- Roddick).

The reason for that lies in the simple axiom -- women are different from men -- something to which many people, including those who keep pointing to the use of the 2/3 format for women and the 3/5 for men (used ONLY in Slams and Davis Cup BTW), seem oblivious.

As for me, I always say, vive la difference!

Note to neil in toronto: Several years ago,the WTA tried using the 3/5 format for a couple years in its year-end final in Madison Square Garden (I actually remember seeing one of those finals). They found that it really proved nothing, definitely added nothing to to the game, and -- thankfully -- they dropped it!

Posted by neil in toronto 07/15/2008 at 06:22 PM

Thanks for the post Ruth, i do remember that they did try at the season ending championships for a few years. I don't think they should do it to prove anything, just that the slams are that important, and as a fan of both women's and men's tennis, it would be fun to see ( at least for me ). :)

Posted by Samantha Elin 07/15/2008 at 06:27 PM

Neil, I'm not sure she can do anything about it. I think a serve is a gift. Yes, you can work on it, but you can't change a Dementieva, Hingis or Jankovic into a Serena or Venus serve.

Posted by neil in toronto 07/15/2008 at 06:32 PM

True enough Samantha. Probably for Elena it also boils down to a lack of belief in her serve at the best of times. Her groundies are great.

Posted by the gender gap lives 07/15/2008 at 06:39 PM

Let's not remove the asterisk too fast, pete.

We can't forget the 1998 exo sets that both williams sisters lost to the 203 ranked chain-smoking Karsten Braasch who went easy on them according to Bolletieri, who watched.

Serena lost 6-1, Venus lost 6-2.

The gender gap will always live. (I just read Todd Gallagher's book)

Posted by Lydia 07/15/2008 at 06:50 PM

This was wonderful to read, Pete. Even though I tend to leap to Steffi's defense, I watched that match and felt utter pride for Venus. She was awesome and confidant and just great. I saw her look like she deserved to be there and it made me believe in her again. Since Steffi, Venus has been my favorite on the women's tour, the tour period, and I am so happy to see her do so well and believe in herself. She was better than Serena and I think Serena knew it and it's probably what made her feel sad. I'm glad you told her. Coming from you, I'm sure it carried a lot of weight. I can't wait to see her at the Open.

Posted by Lydia 07/15/2008 at 06:54 PM

Also, so many people tend to discredit or write off the girls for not playing enough or not have any real tennis skill, this article applauds that power and that's a wonderful compliment, they deserve the accolades and respect...

Posted by Tory 07/15/2008 at 06:57 PM

"Maybe I'm just confessing some deep-rooted and indefensible prejudice..."

I believe this may be the case, and you needn't have confessed it; it's been noticed before.

Otherwise, a typically compelling article.

Posted by Ruth 07/15/2008 at 07:03 PM

Math correction: 26 mph, not 29 mph, slower....

Samantha: I've heard a few people say that they've seen Dementieva in practice sessions in which she makes one good serve after another. Maybe, if she worked with a sports psychologist or some simialr expert (and spent less time thinking about the Williams family :)), she might be able to overcome her service problems in actual matches.

neil: I can't remember which of the YEC 3/5 finals I saw, but I vaguely remember seeing a longish, not very good match with an exhausted looking Steffi or Gabriela or Monica seemingly praying (along with the fans) for it to end.

Now, if they could arrange for all the 3/5's to be like the 1 hour 48 minute spectacular that the men's 2008 FO final was, the women just might consider changing their format! LOL

Posted by aussiemarg 07/15/2008 at 07:05 PM

To Lydia, totally agree with your comments re Venus,she is also my fav to,she is an amazing athlete,wonderful at the net,to win Wimbledon for the fifth time at age 28 says it all!!!!!!.

Posted by tuna fish 07/15/2008 at 07:16 PM

I believe that both V and S have hit a 129mph serve this year.
Brenda Schultz-McCarthy hit a 130mph last year in quallies of Cincinnati. Brenda is the Ivo Karlovich of WTA, while V and S are more like a Lendl or Borg of the WTA- powerful, but also great all-around players, athletes, competitors and multiple GS champions. Let Brenda keep her record. At least the detractors will have one less stat to bring up and turn against the sisters- successful only because of their unnatural power as shown by their record serves. There is Brenda- with even bigger serve but not nearly as accomplished.

Posted by Luke 07/15/2008 at 07:38 PM

again this story of "highest level" ??!! you're stubborn;-) don't agree but you were closer to the field than me. so... whatever, great article.

Posted by Andrew 07/15/2008 at 07:43 PM

It's a friendly discussion (I hope), but I fear that Pete and I come at this topic from 180 degree opposite directions.

Pete lays out his thesis compellingly - given that the serve is the most important shot in tennis, and given that the two sisters served with comparable power to the ATP finalists, the sisters brought the game to a comparable level.

To quote the article, Pete writes, "When I watch a women's match, there's usually a small asterisk somewhere in the back of my mind, and no matter how enjoyable or riveting the match, that asterisk demands that I add the phrase, . . . for women's tennis. That is, I might think, "That's a great backhand. . . for women's tennis. Or, this is great stuff. . . for women's tennis. But watching as well as reflecting on the Wimbledon final later, the asterisk was conspicuous in absence. For once, I didn't have to shove it into a back corner of my mind."

Now the reason I come at this from completely the opposite direction (and I venture to suggest that Slice-n-Dice at 4:52pm may be coming from the same direction as me) is that I've honestly never thought that asterisk should be necessary, and for the first thirty odd years I watched tennis (say between 1973 and 2003) would have been found the idea odd.

To me, a backhand was a backhand, a volley a volley, a smash a smash, and a serve was just a serve. I've had the pleasure of being coached by and watching outstanding women tennis players, and honestly never thought that they were lesser tennis players than the men.

The Karsten Brasch argument has never been about tennis ability, it's been about strength and speed. In raw terms, an elite woman player is going to be physically less strong and less fast than an equivalent male player. This has never mattered a jot to me.

When I saw Cathy Freeman win the 400m in Sydney, I didn't think, "pretty good run, for a woman" - I thought "what a great athlete."

Tennis has always been special for me because it's been the one ball sport I grew up with where women played at the same level as men. I never worried about serve speeds - I watched to see how those great tennis players, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf (for example) would try and get that tiny edge over the other at 6-6 in the third set, just as I watched (say) Becker and Edberg. I never for a moment felt that I was watching a lesser version of the game because the players didn't hit the ball quite as hard.

In the last few years I've had a different sense of the game - particularly when I've seen the top athletes in the WTA reach a final and inexplicably (to me) collapse. The Bollitieri Bash groundstroke-only version of the game has also taken its toll on my interest. I'm ever hopeful that this period is a temporary blip.

If I've been harsh on what I've seen recently in the WTA, it's been because I've never, ever had that asterisk in my head.

Posted by bluesunflower 07/15/2008 at 07:46 PM

Great article Pete. It reminded me of a clip of Venus talking about her signature shot the return of serve, saying its the opportunity to take control of the point even though her opponent has hit the first ball.

That sums up the Williams final for me. They were both aggressive and went for their shots. Starting from the serve. Sometimes when watching ladies rallies I get frustrated cause theres a lot of shrieking but the rallies are suprisingly tame and the point ends with someone dumping the ball in the net.

I can understand why the Williams esp Serena seem ungracious in defeat as they win or loose by their own hand. They dont play percentages. They ll serve a double fault or unforced error and the nxt shot will be an ace or outragious winner there s no holding back

Posted by Tom 07/15/2008 at 07:48 PM

Great read. Firstly, Venus' fastest serve was 129 equalling her record in main draw events.

It would be interesting to see how Venus would fare against even Federer. If yo look at the serving stats and see how similar they were and then look at the poor wuality of Federer's returns in that final, it begs the question, How far could Venus take Roger in Wimbledon with Venus Serving the way she did in her final and Roger returning the way he did in his one. I think she could do well. Not win, god no, but suprise every single one of us. Especially when you look at the way Serena was returning Venus' FIRST serve.

I rememeber Serena killing Djokovic on her serve when they played against each other in mixed doubles at the hopman cup...

So I think that although, as you said, the Men tend to obey the law that you must hold serve more than the women, in my opinion although the serve isn't as much as a bigger factor, the return is a much, much bigger factor. Want any more confirmation? Just go and watch a mixed doubles match in which a WTA star is featured. Again the Serena/Djokovic example is a good one but do you remember the whole Jankovic/Murray wimbledon situation and the way Jelena was returning? Yeah.

Posted by bluesunflower 07/15/2008 at 07:52 PM

the gender gap lives - I think yor moniker should be the illigical conclusion gap.
From a match of one set played when Venus was 18 and Serena 16/17 you want to nullify the Williams achievemnts, power and athletiscism. So tell me what can you conclude from the sets that Fed and the Mighty Rafa have lost to love to each other!

Posted by Ruth 07/15/2008 at 07:55 PM

Sorry if I made a mistake about Brenda Schultz's serve speed. I thought that she had served at 129 mph first and that some people were (wrongly IMO) disregarding it because it occurred during the qualies. But if her serve was 130 mph, that's the record.

Long live the "gender gap" in sports and other things physical!

Posted by creig bryan 07/15/2008 at 08:57 PM

I get it when folks don't get it, but I really don't. Get it. Get it?

Pete: Your asterisk is dead. May it rest in peace. And may it be soon joined by a good deal more asterisks-in-kind (for there are a plethora of them still out there hovering over dusty, dried-out hypotheses).

Thank you for daring to admit it, in this specific instance in particular. Challenging old maxims and retesting old dogmas is where the real action of life, er, is.

I really enjoy your story-telling, gringo-especially the serendipitous exchanges (and where they lead you). Thanks.

Andrew:

I'm with you on this one. But I think you may not be aligned with S-n-D--somehow I think his take is different.

Everyone: Please keep in mind the Larry King-Venus interview tomorrow on CNN at 9p. I know it's been mentioned-this is only a reminder.

Keep Smiling

Posted by Arden 07/15/2008 at 09:05 PM

So, what Pete is saying is even though the Wimby final only went two sets, and from what has been said, Serena didn't play that well at times and made a lot of errors on big points and seemed "out of it", it was the "greatest women's tennis ever played" simply because they had big serves and hit the ball hard? I suppose we should all be saying Ivo Karlovic is the greatest male player that ever played the game along with Andy Roddick.... how funny, not too long ago people were whining about how the power tennis game for the women was so boring, and how lacking in skill all these tall, big serving ball bashing young babes are...... how quickly things change... who spiked Pete's kool aid!!!!! And whomever said Serena "killed" djokovic at Hopman cup, lol, I watched that, she got one or two unreturnable serves at him, and he was being very much the gentleman in that match, if you know what I mean, and to be honest, he didn't seem comfortable going all out with a woman on the other side of the net either. Djokovic vs Serena in any match, on any surface, Djokovic will slaughter her.... I would rather see a woman who has all the shots, and can defend wonderfully and play the net with style and conviction all day long and an average to good serve, than watch somebody with a giant serve, and a mediocre net game and transition game and a lack of defensive skills..... I enjoy Jelena Jankovic's style of play immensely, and she's not known for a big serve, but she makes up for it in so many ways, her movement is fabulous and her defensive skills supreme. I know our writers are biased about our American players....... but now I think I've seen and read it all. Or maybe that asterisk in your head about women players Pete is the problem, because the truth is, you would never call a match the greatest men ever played simply based on serve speeds as you did with the women, what an insult to the women, especially to women who have played incredible tooth and nail matches with each other that went down the wire and a third set, giant serves or not. A new low...........

Posted by Arden 07/15/2008 at 09:22 PM

Pete says: "Now let's dare compare that to the men. In the final, Roger Federer's fastest serve was 129, and he averaged 117 on his first deliveries. His average second-serve traveled at 100 mph. That was slightly better than Rafael Nadal (who, in case you hadn't heard, won that match), whose fastest first serve was 120, while his first-serve average was 112 and his average second clocked 93. The takeaway: Venus Williams topped Nadal by a whopping 7 mph in the "fastest" department, and she trailed him by a single mile per hour in the other two critical averages. Granted, Nadal is a spinmeister, which costs him mph numbers. Still, the statistics are a tribute to Venus - and they set a new benchmark for the women's game. "

First of all, Nadal is known to not have the biggest serve in the men's game, he's at the top without the biggest serve, first or second,his serve is something that people have considered a weakness, he's at the top because of his incredible foot speed, penetrating spinny groundstrokes, endurance, and all court prowess and pure grit. Federer is one of the better servers in the game and is a powerful server often , but he as well is not in the top echelons of power servers on the men's tour I don't believe. Shouldn't that tell you Pete, that when you have the two best players on the men's tour and they DO NOT have necessarily the biggest serves on tour, or the biggest second serves on tour, that saying that the best tennis you've seen by a couple of females and basing that largely on the speed of their serves is ridiculous? Great tennis is great tennis no matter who plays it, why have different criteria on what makes great tennis for men and women? There are men ripping 134mph and up serves regularly in matches, that alone doesn't make their matches the best ever seen, not by far.

Posted by Arden 07/15/2008 at 09:22 PM

Pete says: "Now let's dare compare that to the men. In the final, Roger Federer's fastest serve was 129, and he averaged 117 on his first deliveries. His average second-serve traveled at 100 mph. That was slightly better than Rafael Nadal (who, in case you hadn't heard, won that match), whose fastest first serve was 120, while his first-serve average was 112 and his average second clocked 93. The takeaway: Venus Williams topped Nadal by a whopping 7 mph in the "fastest" department, and she trailed him by a single mile per hour in the other two critical averages. Granted, Nadal is a spinmeister, which costs him mph numbers. Still, the statistics are a tribute to Venus - and they set a new benchmark for the women's game. "

First of all, Nadal is known to not have the biggest serve in the men's game, he's at the top without the biggest serve, first or second,his serve is something that people have considered a weakness, he's at the top because of his incredible foot speed, penetrating spinny groundstrokes, endurance, and all court prowess and pure grit. Federer is one of the better servers in the game and is a powerful server often , but he as well is not in the top echelons of power servers on the men's tour I don't believe. Shouldn't that tell you Pete, that when you have the two best players on the men's tour and they DO NOT have necessarily the biggest serves on tour, or the biggest second serves on tour, that saying that the best tennis you've seen by a couple of females and basing that largely on the speed of their serves is ridiculous? Great tennis is great tennis no matter who plays it, why have different criteria on what makes great tennis for men and women? There are men ripping 134mph and up serves regularly in matches, that alone doesn't make their matches the best ever seen, not by far.

Posted by VE 07/15/2008 at 09:28 PM

"Tennis has always been special for me because it's been the one ball sport I grew up with where women played at the same level as men. I never worried about serve speeds - I watched to see how those great tennis players, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf (for example) would try and get that tiny edge over the other at 6-6 in the third set, just as I watched (say) Becker and Edberg. I never for a moment felt that I was watching a lesser version of the game because the players didn't hit the ball quite as hard.

In the last few years I've had a different sense of the game - particularly when I've seen the top athletes in the WTA reach a final and inexplicably (to me) collapse. The Bollitieri Bash groundstroke-only version of the game has also taken its toll on my interest. I'm ever hopeful that this period is a temporary blip.

If I've been harsh on what I've seen recently in the WTA, it's been because I've never, ever had that asterisk in my head."

Here, here Andrew.

My addition to the discussion reflects Andrew Miller's earlier comment, "The exceptions rule tennis."

The reason no player EVER dominates for more than a couple of years is that the field catches up. You're seeing the field catch up to Federer now, just as it caught up to the similarly dominant players of earlier eras, be they Sampras, Graf, Borg, whomever. Federer was playing a game as a pro in 2003, 2004 that a young Nadal knew he would have to combat to ever be the best. You could transpose the names Graf and Seles respectively and see the same influence. When these players came along, it was no longer good enough to be a Roddick or an Evert, those champs were getting sent back at every turn. In order to win, you had to raise your level. A rising tide raises all boats.

This is something absolutely unique to individual sports, and it's what makes the dominance of Tiger Woods so special. But of course, the life span of a top-level golfer is much longer than that of a top-level tennis player. Venus and Serena have raised the game again, it looked as if Justine Henin would be the next evolution, but we'll have to wait.

Both the men's and the women's game are moving forward, each generation is frankly better than the one that preceded it, because of the level of play the newbies knew they would need to end the reign of the current champions.

Posted by Sam 07/15/2008 at 09:33 PM

Andrew: Excellent post at 7:43.

Posted by Ruth 07/15/2008 at 09:38 PM

Anyone who is interested in statistics other than the serve speeds in the men's and women's Wimbledon finals should go to the Wuimbledon site which is, of course, still up and running.

Here are just two tidbits that you might find interesting: first, both losers had higher first serve percentages than the winners (so much for the vaunted significance of the better first serve % mentioned by one poster); second, both losers were virtually unable to break the winners' serves -- 2 breaks out of 13 chances for Serena and 1 break out of 13 chances for Federer in the "greatest match ever"!

(The Wimby site does not list UFE's, but that would make for an intersting comparison or contrast as well.)

Posted by Ben Dribus 07/15/2008 at 09:50 PM

How ridiculous for anyone to speculate that Venus could hold her own against Federer.

Posted by JillfromNY 07/15/2008 at 09:54 PM

The speed of a serve is very overrated. What makes Venus and Serena's serves so great are they combine speed with pace and placement. I have never understood the male fascination with speed (they do it in golf too with Michelle Wie and you see how that turned out). I read this article and there is a part of me that is okay with it, but the other part of me finds it rather odd that someone who calls himself a tennis writer hasn't noticed before that Venus and Serena, who've been around since the late 90's, have a high degree of skill.

Posted by Arden 07/15/2008 at 10:00 PM

Venus average 1st serve speed: 111
Serena average 1st serve speed: 109

Safin vs Wawrinka avg 1st serve speeds: 126 122
Djokovic vs Berrer avg 1st serve speeds: 121 125
Federer vs Ancic avg 1st serve speeds: 121 124
Gasquet vs Murray avg 1st serve speeds: 123 117
Roddick vs Tipsarevic avg 1st serve speed: 127 123
Kiefer vs Nadal avg 1st serve speeds: 124 113 (slow Nadal)
Tursunov vs Tipsarevic avg 1st serve speeds: 125 119
Federer vs Soderling avg 1st serve speeds: 120 126
Gulbis vs Hewitt avg 1st serve speeds: 124 116
Federer vs Gicquel avg 1st serve speeds: 119 123
Bagdhatis vs Lopez avg 1st serve speeds: 122 120

nuff said!

Posted by Arden 07/15/2008 at 10:00 PM

Venus average 1st serve speed: 111
Serena average 1st serve speed: 109

Safin vs Wawrinka avg 1st serve speeds: 126 122
Djokovic vs Berrer avg 1st serve speeds: 121 125
Federer vs Ancic avg 1st serve speeds: 121 124
Gasquet vs Murray avg 1st serve speeds: 123 117
Roddick vs Tipsarevic avg 1st serve speed: 127 123
Kiefer vs Nadal avg 1st serve speeds: 124 113 (slow Nadal)
Tursunov vs Tipsarevic avg 1st serve speeds: 125 119
Federer vs Soderling avg 1st serve speeds: 120 126
Gulbis vs Hewitt avg 1st serve speeds: 124 116
Federer vs Gicquel avg 1st serve speeds: 119 123
Bagdhatis vs Lopez avg 1st serve speeds: 122 120

nuff said!

Posted by neil in toronto 07/15/2008 at 10:07 PM

VE : " a rising tide takes all boats"...brilliant!

Posted by TMF Rules 07/15/2008 at 10:19 PM

Pete, wonderful article and may I just add that I agree with you 100%. Persons here who have read my adventures through tennis will know that one of the strokes with which I suffer is my serve. I have come here on many occasions seeking help and advice on how to serve effectively, how to stop double faulting all over the place and how not to lose my serve. I have also asked for advice on how to return balls that have been served short in the service box.

It is instructive that I played a match today (have not played in awhile due to injury) and my serve was what bailed me out more than anything else. At one point I was done 0-40 and I was able to serve my way out of trouble. The serve is the most effective weapon in a player’s arsenal and I am always amazed when people say that the reason why so and so won a match was because of their serve. I always think, the same could be said of so and so – if they had a serve they would have been able to win the match.

Also, many thanks on a post about women's tennis. Long time coming but better late than never.

Posted by Claire 07/15/2008 at 10:33 PM

Thanks for the great article and the nice Bob the builder link, I couldn't stop laughing when he popped up on my screen. I know I'm immature. Well here's to Rafa dominating (hopefully) on hard courts!

Posted by SLice-n-Dice 07/15/2008 at 10:34 PM

Andrew, you rock! And yes, I unequivocably am coming from the same direction and perspective as are you. And Sam.

I marvelled at the power and athleticism of Margaret Court and Billie Jean King; the grace and beauty of Maria Bueno (then past her prime) and Evonne Goolagong, the precision and footwork of Chris Evert and Tracy Austin; the aggressiveness and shotmaking of Navratilova and Mandlikova; the speed, power and agility of Graf; and the competitiveness of the Williams sisters.

In fact, one of the things that drew me to and continues to draw me to tennis as both a participant and as a spectator is the fact that the men's and women's games, while different in many respects, are equally compelling and athletically charged. And in how many other sport can you pit a man and a woman against another man and woman and expect a highly competitive and entertaining outcome, while the women are expected to take shots from the men directed at their navels?

Posted by TennisRone 1000 07/15/2008 at 10:47 PM

Ah yes....the 'ol significance of the serve discussion. good times.

I'd be interested to learn what the avg speed comparisons were from some of the women's matches and how much of a dispersion there may have been.

In the men's game, it's possible we may have reached a critical mass regarding how fast/effective the serve may be. Does a 155 MPH serve matter if it lands the same place every time? It's an interesting philosophical/scientific question.

It would seem like there is an opportunity for consistent upside for the women with serve speeds. One of these days someone will likely manage to avg 115 MPH on their first serve as a lady. WHo knows if it will ultimately matter...as Pete noted through examples like Chris Evert whom mastered the pressure points and made her serve less vulnerable through positioning.

All things being equal....that was easily the first time I enjoyed a S vs. V match. That was tremendous tennis. Both finals were tremendous. We are blessed to enjoy this level of tennis.

Go Isner!!! Get your confidence back bud!

Posted by Christopher 07/15/2008 at 10:48 PM

Very enjoyable post, Pete, with some great comments above as well.

One small point: I think the biggest difference between Venus's serve and that of most of the men in, say, the top 100, is not speed but spin. I have yet to see any of the WTA players, including Venus and Serena, hit anything approaching the kick second serves that Federer, Sampras, or many others can and do hit regularly. If I recall correctly, Venus herself may have noted this once as one of the things that would be the hardest about playing against male pros.

This is not to take anything away from Venus, Serena, or their match. I usually do enjoy watching the WTA. While I now focus more on the men, there was a point in the '90's where I actually much preferred watching the women's matches. The serve-and-maybe-just-possibly-a-frame-shot return of the mid-'90's men's tennis did get boring to me, much as I respected the beauty of some of those serves.

Posted by DMan 07/15/2008 at 11:07 PM

Mr Bodo-

IMHO, not one of your best articles. (Sorry, I calls like *I* sees 'em). We can't agree all of the time.

I was perplexed by admitting the asterisk. I never considered the need for an asterisk myself. I agree with Andrew that a great backhand is a great backhand, whether it was struck by Justine Henin or Roger Federer, Chris Evert or Bjorn Borg.

As to your article...the Venus-Serena final the "highest level of women's tennis in thirty-years." OK, one person's opinion (not mine). Then you said, ""overpowering" is not a word generally associated with WTA tennis."

I DISAGREE. Women's tennis is very much about overpowering. Why so many lopsided scores especially when the Williams sisters, Davenport, and in their day Pierce, Graf, Seles, even navratilova could simply overpower some opponents.

You said, "Artful? Sure"

I DISAGREE, to a point. Some women's tennis has been artful. But as of late, it is ALL ABOUT hard flat groundstrokes. There is precious little artistry in the women's game. Many lamented Justine's retirement because she represented what little artistry there was in the women's game; the ability to mix spins and placement, tactical approaches to a match. I mean these days don't 98% of the women play the same way?

You said, "Graceful? Sure. Impressive? Yeah, that too."
Um, love to know your definition, and a few current e.g.'s of gracefulness on the women's tour. Zheng Jie was impressive in her fight to the semis. But 6 weeks, 6 months from now, will she seem as impressive? Or did she just have one really good run at an important event?

So the First Commandment of Tennis was broken often in the women's game? So what. Obviously the women were not strong enough to consistently hold serve the way the men could. In some ways it made the women's game more interesting (although not the current brand of women's tennis). The women were forced to *play* more TENNIS, i.e., work the point, the angles, etc, instead of just bombing a serve, getting a fairly easy 2nd shot or volley, and ending the point. One false move or miscue in a service game would cost you a set, or more than the likely the match on a surface that was medium to fast.

As for the Second Commandment, "(Thou Shalt Play Consistently), and whether or not they managed to play with sufficient aggression"...the top women ALWAYS did this better than the rest, hence why they were top women.

But now all the B.S. abut comparing serve speed. Who gives a rat's behind about it?! It means N-O-T-H-I-N-G! Who cares that Venus hit a single serve at 129mph, faster than any Nadal serve? Who cares that her 1st serve speed was almost the same as Nadal's? Service speed is just a mindless statistic for the modern age. Venus or Nadal, Serena or Federer coudl hit the fastest serve ever. they could also return those fast serves...how many bombs has Fed spit back at Andy?

The you said, "but the Sisters have introduced real gender-equality to tennis in terms of pure athletics."

I DISAGREE, again. The Williams' sisters have already upped the ante as far as the athleticism in the women's game. But introduced real gender-equality? Somehow I think a lot of former women pros would disagree. As far as Chris Evert and her serve. Who cares that she rarely served over 100mph? Very few women did (they used wood racquets after all). But like you said, Chris had an ability to *place* her serve extremely well. And that would serve her very well if she played the game today. One only needs to be reminded of Martina Hingis. Sure she's retired but a few short years ago she was still a top 10 player and could still battle the women's sisters 120mph serves with her own 70 and 80mph puff serves.

-more to say

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 07/15/2008 at 11:12 PM

Okay, now that I've finished reading the pice (I got too miffed to finish the first go 'round), I see that Pete and I can find some common ground, after all. But before I get to that, there's one more item that struck me as just plain wrong, and here it is:

"...to start a point with the only shot entirely at your command, the only shot that doesn't require an adjustment to a previous shot, and the only shot that you unconditionally put where you want."

It starts out fine, but the idea that the serve is the one shot that a player "unconditionally put[s] where [she] want[s] is ludicrous. A player must put the serve into the service box; in fact, one of the service boxes, a particular one depending on the score. So no, it is not unconditional at al. I fact, it is full of conditions, including that it must clear the net (unless we're talking about collegiate tennis); it cannot clip the netword and land in -- that's a let, not a playable ball.

Now, where we do agree is on the general idea that the serve in the women's professional game has been gradually getting more effective over the years. It is no longer a mere point-starter, as it might have been in Evert's ealiest pro days and certainly for most female players all the way into the 1990s. There have always been exceptions, yes, but in general, the women's game has had one characteristic that separates it from men's tennis -- breaks of serve are more common than holds.

This, however, is no reason to append an asterisk to the women's game or its match results, or to utter the chauvinist aside, "for women's tennis" -- as Pete has admittedly done until now.

Let me add that even as a Division I player (at a mid-sized school, certainly not a tennis powerhouse), I respected the return games of the coeds who practiced alongside us on the university courts. Their lower center of graviity, combine with simpler, more consistent groundstroke mechanics than the men, made them formidable returners. If I didn;t get the ball up out of their strike zone or yank them wide so they'd have to reach for a return, my serve would typically be pummeled.

That said, I've always thought that if I could find a young female talent who could throw a baseball and football for distance and with good velocity, I might be able to develop in that athlete a great service motion and thus a player who could cause big problems for her peers.

Posted by Andrew 07/16/2008 at 01:17 AM

Slice-n-Dice: agree with much of what you write above in your 11:12pm, but I'd like to slay one myth.

You write: "There have always been exceptions, yes, but in general, the women's game has had one characteristic that separates it from men's tennis -- breaks of serve are more common than holds."

I'm not sure if that sentence is quite the way you wanted to express it. You may have meant to say that breaks of serve in the women's game are more common than in the men's game. It is not the case, I'm pretty sure, that at the elite level breaks of serve are more common than holds.

For example, in the QF/SF/F rounds at the recent Wimbledon, the ratio of breaks to holds in the WTA was 41/110, or 27%. For the ATP, it was 45/233, or 16%. In other words, in the ATP version there was one break for every six games, approximately; for the WTA, one in ever four games.

It bears saying that throughout the time I've watched tennis, commentators have always noted breaks of serve in the women's game, rather than holds.

I believe that placement is far more important than pure speed. Nadal's ability to consistently hit his targets is worth much more, I think, than an extra 10 mph with a wider target zone. And the elite WTA players have been able to place their serves accurately.

That's one reason why I was so gobsmacked watching Sharapova get taken to the woodshed by Serena Williams in Melbourne in 2007 - it seemed that Sharapova only had one first serve, and didn't have the ability to slice the ball and vary her placement. Throwing only fastballs isn't a recipe for a long career in the major leagues in baseball, and I'm not convinced it's an optimal strategy in high level tennis.

Posted by Ren 07/16/2008 at 02:44 AM

I appreciate women's tennis as women play them. I never expected women to play as fast and powerful as men because of physical limitations. That's why the categories are separate. No asterisks. No buts.

The Williamses in "power" sense are a cut from the rest. No argument. They shall be compared to women.

If there is any just comparison among women and men players, it is about "psychological power:" the power to stay, the power to accept defeat, the power to move on, the power to rise above any challenge are all potentials that are not limited to one gender. As a character, it is individual, yet it makes competition a lot steeper. The Williamses have a never say die attitude, and somehow, this makes them compete at a level unimaginable up until this age!

Posted by ncot 07/16/2008 at 04:09 AM

um...doesn't it sound a little childish to contradict just for the sake of disagreeing?

"to start a point with the only shot entirely at your command, the only shot that doesn't require an adjustment to a previous shot, and the only shot that you unconditionally put where you want."

obviously pete meant to put the ball where you want WITHIN THE BOX. what, was pete considering the possibility of serving into the stands as valid? the quoted statement is just so plain and understandable: the serve is the only shot the opponent hasn't touched or affected yet and so depends solely on the server.
stating the obvious details/premises seem like talking to kids.

with all due respect, btw. :)

Posted by shariq 07/16/2008 at 06:30 AM

just a quick question. i couldn't watch the womens final.

however, i thought the henin-venus us open semis was the highest level of womens tennis i've seen.

was the venus-serena final really better than that?

Posted by rg.nadal 07/16/2008 at 06:57 AM

Must read:
http://tinyurl.com/57jvb9

Posted by rg.nadal 07/16/2008 at 06:58 AM

shariq: I thought the Henin-Venus match was better than this final.

Posted by skip1515 07/16/2008 at 07:59 AM

Pete,

I think you're right about the relative frequency of breaks in the women's game compared to the men's, though I wonder whether this was as true 15 or 20 years ago. Memory tells me it was a different story then, but I have no stats to back that up.

The return game was different then, no doubt, and that's surely had an impact on how easy it is, or isn't, for women with underwhelming serves to hold. At the same time, the focus in junior training has emphasized big groundies and big returns, at the expense of serving. The attitude about girls' serving seems to have become one of accepting that the serve is a method of starting the point, with little attempt to develop the serve as a real weapon. I could be wrong here, but I don't think so.

The proof of this is the attitude about breaking. "Okay, you broke my serve. Now I'm coming after yours. Watch out." To my mind this speaks volumes about how the player's been taught to approach the game, and returning in general. The old paradigm was serve and you're being aggressive, receive and you're more defensive. Now it's serve and be aggressive *after* you get the ball in play, and receive and be aggressive from the get-go on the return. Players today see equal opportunities to win games on both their serving and receiving games; consequently they're less upset about being broken.

I have no doubt the Williams' will encourage more girls to see serving as the offensive weapon tennis' scoring makes it, and that we'll see more big servers in WTA matches. Whether they'll match the Willliams' prowess is another question. I'm inclined to see them as unique talents, but will be happy to see myself proved wrong.

Posted by nowilliamsfan 07/16/2008 at 09:37 AM

You left out that both sisters have more masculine genes than most woman. Who can compete? They need to be on the ATP tour.

Posted by Ruth 07/16/2008 at 09:53 AM

Thanks so much for your 4:09 comment, Ren. I would go as far as to say that there is often too much of a tendency to build straw men j(just to knock them down) here at TW instead of reading the posts and responding to them carefully.

In that vein, I should point out that Pete did not state, as some responding comments might suggest, that the serve was the be-all and end-all in the discussion of men's vs women's tennis. What he did say was that the serve was "one of the key elements that encourages us to view women's tennis through a different lens," and he proceeded to cite ONE of the "key elements" of the serve --speed -- in making his point.

Posted by Erin 07/16/2008 at 10:39 AM

That's one reason why I was so gobsmacked watching Sharapova get taken to the woodshed by Serena Williams in Melbourne in 2007 - it seemed that Sharapova only had one first serve, and didn't have the ability to slice the ball and vary her placement. Throwing only fastballs isn't a recipe for a long career in the major leagues in baseball, and I'm not convinced it's an optimal strategy in high level tennis."

why be gobsmacked, Sharapova had a SHOULDER INJURY... her serve was subpar most of that year for that reason, sometimes she could barely get it in. The last time Sharapova and Williams played, it went three sets,,,, not a coincidence, and that bad match was really no indicator of what Sharapova is really like on a tennis court either. That would be like judging a pitcher's style or game when he has an arm injury...

Posted by Erin 07/16/2008 at 10:48 AM

Posted by rg.nadal

shariq: I thought the Henin-Venus match was better than this final."

So did I. I thought Davenport-Venus was better too, and Justine vs Amelie was also a great display of talent and great tennis, although Justine threw in a lot of errors in the second set.Mauresmo's serving in the third was fantastic, the best I've ever seen her.

Also, I guess since big serving is what seems to light some people's fire about women, Nadia Petrova had three matches at Wimbledon with average first serve speeds of 111 (vs Radwanska), 110 (vs Kudrayevseta) and another early match with avg serve speed of 111. She is also capable of busting a first serve in the mid 120's, why aren't we talking about her? Sam Stosur had an average first serve speed of 109 in one match and 108 in another one at Wimbledon.....and Justine Henin has hit a 123mph serve (I was watching the stats on this match as it happened) and often hit second serves over 100 and had high mph on second serve avg (why she double faulted so much, she didn't spin in her second serve!)

Posted by Syd 07/16/2008 at 10:55 AM

umm. I don't know how the bar could have been set higher when two players know each others game the way they know they're own. When they win, the Williams's sisters have usually overpowered their opponents. It's been that way since they first set foot on the tour, because they are bigger and stronger than the vast majority of their opponents. I don't know if this sets the bar higher in terms of the tennis played—but it sets the bar higher in terms of musculature and height.

I've never found the Williams' game to be very interesting—power play, and huge serving, think Roddick, rarely is. The only player to set the bar higher in recent times is Justine Henin.

Posted by Erin 07/16/2008 at 10:55 AM

Ruth said: in that vein, I should point out that Pete did not state, as some responding comments might suggest, that the serve was the be-all and end-all in the discussion of men's vs women's tennis. What he did say was that the serve was "one of the key elements that encourages us to view women's tennis through a different lens," and he proceeded to cite ONE of the "key elements" of the serve --speed -- in making his point."

what it seemed Pete was saying, was that he had a prejudice vs female players due to lack of power, particularly on serve, then he compared the serves of Williams and Williams with Roger and Rafa.... two things that have to be said about that is, if you look at the stats posted on this thread for men's matches, Rafa has one of the slower serve averages on tour, yet he's number 2 in the world, and the Williams best serving day as far as serve speeds (fastest and average first serve) still would put them at the bottom of the men's tour as far as serving power. Conclusion: A giant serve does not necessarily a great match or great player make, and not a good idea to start comparing lady women's serves to mens serves either. If Pete had wanted to, he should have some how dragged up some stats on a Coria match for his serves, his second serves were probably in the 70's sometimes!..... but he was still a great player and I don't think he would have lost to the Williams sisters in a match either.....

Posted by creig bryan 07/16/2008 at 10:58 AM

> "...why aren't we talking about her? (them)"

Has she ever won a slam?

ks

Posted by creig bryan 07/16/2008 at 11:03 AM

How many different ways can 2 plus 2 NOT equal 4?

ks

Posted by Erin 07/16/2008 at 11:12 AM

Posted by creig bryan 07/16/2008 @ 10:58 AM

> "...why aren't we talking about her? (them)"

Has she ever won a slam?

ks"

No, but if as this article seems to imply, a female player is great because she serves big, then Nadia should be in the discussion. And probably Justine too, because she actually was a big server for a female player in a lot of her matches, usually had fastest serve times of between 117-121 from tournament to tournament when she was healthy.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 07/16/2008 at 11:42 AM

I too, have spent some time thinking about Pete's concept of a "different lens," and Andrew's perception that the WTA tour is a bit one dimensional in the sense of over-reliance on first strike power groundstroke tactics.

It is well known on both tours that on a singles court, an ATP player ranked almost anywhere on the top 600 or so could beat any WTA player.

What is different though, about tennis versus, say, track and field, is that we do not have to stop our analysis there.

Especially on a free blog! :) But I digress.

I've often thought that the WTA/ATP mixed doubles matches show, at least to this eye, that the main difference is movement and quickness. When the WTA pros only have to cover half of the court, I do not see that much of a mis-match. Indeed, it is not as if the men can just hit at the women to get a free point. I could go on that mixed doubles should be promoted much more, but that is for another day (its the one thing WTT has going for it).

This is then a good time to wonder whether the WTA should experiement with a narrower court. Say, four to six feet less wide, with the same dimensions otherwise? Hmm.... maybe only two to three feet?

The idea would be to discount the value of a first strike groundstoke placed into a corner, to require the point to be constructed first prior to being able to hit the ball by the opponent. It would also, of course, encourage more net play.

It will never happen, of course, but at least after I get out of the shower I can see what, if anything, the Tribe thinks of this.

We can't really hope for Williams/Williams matches all the time.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 07/16/2008 at 11:45 AM

Also, if you follow top level junior tennis, its pretty clear what the gender differences are. Until boys hit their growth spurt in terms of size and strength, and get thier bodies under control, junior girls play just as well, if not better.

Posted by Syd 07/16/2008 at 11:45 AM

Another great, fabulous women's match was Capriati v Henin in the 2003 French semis. 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-4).

Posted by creig bryan 07/16/2008 at 11:48 AM

Intentional irrelevancy is but one technique of filibusterers.

The subject of the post is reevaluating entrenched positions.

Not serve speed/accuracy comparisons. Not gender comparisons. Not athletic comparisons.

ks

Posted by frances 07/16/2008 at 11:48 AM

Intriguing piece, Pete. Didn't know you felt that way about women's tennis before the Wimby final. Fun read.

Queen V and Princess Ree-ree are the link in the evolution of the game --- Navratilova, Seles, Williams...Who will take it to the next stage? I'm excited about it, but I'm not sure she has been born yet (however there is a little Serena out there who a friend told me about, Sacha Vickery.) I have no big, big complaints about anything today. I'm just basking in Venus and Serena's Wimby victory -- they took the whole pot!! Gosh what I wouldn't do to see Tracy Austin's face right now. And the t.v. ratings were the highest in three years for a women's final! And Queen V is going to be on Larry King Live tonight. Eat it, people!! Eat it!!

--really I'm just glad I don't have to deal with M. Cronin's badly disguised love letters to Sharapova -- at least for now.

Posted by Master Ace 07/16/2008 at 12:04 PM

Frances,
By all rights, you still should be glowing. Thanks for the reminder about Venus being on Larry King tonight, Also, Serena plays at 10 PM against Michelle Larcher DeBrito at Stanford.

Posted by JMR 07/16/2008 at 12:04 PM

Bob the builder. Love it!

Posted by Carlo Centeno 07/16/2008 at 12:08 PM

"And what of Martina Navartilova, the creative, lefty, aggressive player who took serve-and-volley tennis to new heights in the women's game? She made the most of a serve that, given her player profile, was not in the same league as her volley, backhand, or athleticism"

How dare you devalue Navratilova's lefty serve. Where have you been all those years that Martina was winning Wimbledons and beating Steffi & Monica? Contrary to what you've observed, Martina's lefty serve was often used against Evert & Graf to open the court for Martina's first volley. Martina wouldn't have been able to serve & volley to 9 Wimbledons without her lefty serve. Time & time again, she would always serve that slice serve wide to players with 2 handed backhands and each time, Martina was there to volley the short reply to the open court. Besides, Martina's power was even more impressive as she was using a much heavier graphite racquet than the Williams' powerful racquets. Lastly, I would much still prefer to watch match between Graf & Martina as there were more shots & placements of shots involved. Power isn't everything. The Wiliams final was dramatic but it's far from the best as they really didn't show a lot of shots. It was boring to see winners & errors.

Posted by Pete 07/16/2008 at 12:12 PM

Not sure I need to clarify this again, but I never said this was a great match. It was not. My own favorite match, in recent years was the Lindsay vs. Venus Wimbledon final (2006?). Beyond that, sure a beautiful backhand is a beautiful backhand, whether it's hit by a man or a woman. If tennis had a "floor exercises" competition, there would be no gender gap. But tennis is a competition, and power, nerve, and athleticism unrelated to pretty technique (see "N" for Nadal)is the soul of the game, not some incidental element that happens to get in the way of all those pretty shots.

Posted by Pete 07/16/2008 at 12:14 PM

Carlo - I dare. . . Martina's athleticism and volley were more critical to her success than was her serve - or that's how I saw it, anyway. . .

Posted by misael 07/16/2008 at 12:16 PM

This is the argument that men have used to keep women down, since the begining of time, We're physically stronger, that means we're better,Bigger serves don't mean better tennis, I don't know what you saw in this match, but to me it was'nt the highest level women's match. Even Venus seemed surprised by this....Really?

Posted by Ruth 07/16/2008 at 12:33 PM

DM: Even though I'm not sure that I agree with your suggested court change, I would never object out of hand to any changes in the tennis court or equipment for women if I were convinced that the change was based ONLY on those valid physical differences that exist between men and women. But, as you say, a change in court dimensions would "never happen" anyway, and it would be mainly because of the logistics involved. Adding lines to accommodate doubles play is, probably, as far as tennis authorities would go.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping that the WTA will abandon its "experiment" with on-court coaching -- unless that practice (which I don't like) were to be adopted for both men and women. In case anyone misses my point, I am referring to the fact that needing or wanting coaching during a match has nothing to do with the physical requirements of tennis, so (for that and other reasons) I don't care to see it being used by women players only.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 07/16/2008 at 01:18 PM

ncot,

Perhaps I was being a bit too pedantic in my objection to Pete's declaration that the serve is the one shot which can be placed anywhere, without condition.

I still find this "revelation" of Pete's off-putting. I commend him on his coming out, but can't imagine how he could have thought so much less of the women's game simply because it did not feature the same power quotient as the men's game.

By the way, I suspect that in this post-Title IX world, we should see many young women with the ability to hit big serves, as they will have grown up playing baseball and generally learning how to throw a ball properly from an early age.

Still, I marvel equally at the athleticism of the great ones, women and men. And I often cringe when I hear things like, the top 600 playerrs on the men's tour could take down any WTA player. In the infamous words of our VP, "So?"

Posted by sandra 07/16/2008 at 01:28 PM

Did Brenda Schultz-McCarthy ever even serve? Each time, I hear a different serve speed. When Venus seved 127 mph, I read BSM served 128 mph. When Venus served 128 mph, I read BSM served 129 mph. Now that Venus has served 129 mph, I read BSM served 130 mph. This "alleged" serve of BSM is fast becoming something of myth!

Posted by 07/16/2008 at 02:07 PM

"Now, will Venus be able to continue her form in the Olympics and the USO? I think she can get it accomplished but when she plays a bad match, she needs to find a way to win it instead of sulking like she did against Flavia Pennetta at the French Open."


The fact is Venus and Serena usually find a way to win even when they aren't playing at their best. That is what makes a champion,but even champions have bad days-:(

Posted by 07/16/2008 at 02:29 PM

" Nadia Petrova had three matches at Wimbledon with average first serve speeds of 111 (vs Radwanska), 110 (vs Kudrayevseta) and another early match with avg serve speed of 111. She is also capable of busting a first serve in the mid 120's, why aren't we talking about her? Sam Stosur had an average first serve speed of 109 in one match and 108 in another one at Wimbledon.....and Justine Henin has hit a 123mph serve (I was watching the stats on this match as it happened) and often hit second serves over 100 and had high mph on second serve avg (why she double faulted so much, she didn't spin in her second serve!)"


When was the last time they won a GS. I forgot,the haven't. Lol!

Posted by Carlo Centeno 07/16/2008 at 02:31 PM

Carlo - I dare. . . Martina's athleticism and volley were more critical to her success than was her serve - or that's how I saw it, anyway. . .
Oh, ok. It's just that I've seen a lot of Sports books in the late 70's and mid-80's as well as media articles declaring that "Navratilova's serve is one of the most feared in tennis". I've also watched a lot of matches in which she would hit a lot of aces (specifically at Wimbledon) or service winners almost at will. And I hardly ever saw her got broken especially if she's on; I still remember her wins over Evert at the '84 French final & the '84 Amelia Island final in which her serve was just dominating and those matches were on clay.

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