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Just Another Pretty (Big) Serve 10/08/2010 - 1:27 PM

105055963 by Pete Bodo

Whatever happens in the Novak Djokovic-John Isner semifinal at the China Open will produce a bumper crop of those "irresistible force meets immovable object" moments. Tennis match-ups are tantalizing for any number of reasons having to do with strategy and/or technique, and sometimes for a variety of reasons beyond those.

For example, on any surface but clay, where the lefty high-kicking serve or forehand to the Roger Federer backhand is Rafael Nadal's version of the old Green Bay Packers' "power sweep" (you know it's coming, but you still can't stop it), a meeting between Roger and Rafa tends to play out kaleidoscopically. One of the two is doing something especially well or struggling a bit with some element in his game on the given day, which has a shaping influence on strategy and tactics. Sometimes one hot-zone in the battle cools off and another one replaces it. Suddenly, it's not about Rafa's wide slice serve to the backhand, but more about Roger's ability to penetrate and push Nadal back with his lashing, overspun backhand.

In some matches, the ability of Player A to find Player B's shaky one-handed forehand is key; in others, it's all about whether the retrieving ability of Player C will be able to handle the power and pace of Player D.

But the playbook for the Djokovic-Isner match-up will be remarkably and refreshingly thin. Nobody, regardless of details like service speed or first-serve conversion percentage, makes better use of his serve than Isner. And nobody makes better use of his return than Djokovic. It's an open and shut case. Will the Djokovic return—and return game—be unleashed, or bottled up by Isner's serving prowess? Remember, in beating Nikolay Davydenko, Isner hurled down 18 aces to Davydenko's one in the 6-3, 6-3 win. You don't need a pocket calculator to figure out the net-plus on that one. . .

But then, Djokovic is no Davydenko. I was somewhat surprised to see that Davydenko's name appears nowhere in the Ricoh ATP Match Facts statistics, at least not in the streamlined, week-to-week version that appears at the ATP website. I mean, Marcel Granollers makes an appearance (No. 10 in "Points Won Returning First Serve"), Jarkko Nieminen is No. 4 in first serve percentage (71 per cent), and Benjamin Becker wriggles in there on the leaderboard, right behind Roger Federer, at No. 7 in first serve points won. Admit it, wouldn't you have expected Davydenko to be in the Top 10 list in some serve or (more likely) return related category?

Djokovic, by contrast, is no lower than No. 4 in every one of the four Return of Serve Leaders categories, and at No. 1 on two of those lists. He's unrivaled in Break Points Converted (46 per cent) and shares the top spot with Juan Ignacio Chela in  Return Games Won (33 per cent). Incidentally, Andy Murray, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Nadal and David Ferrer are hot on the leaders heels in that latter division, all of them winning 30 percent or more of their return games. That strikes me as an awfully high percentage, given that serving is such a great advantage that the entire scoring system is based on the premise that if you break your opponent just once in a set, while you've been able to hold your own six times, you deserve the set.

One of the big-picture trends these days may be ongoing erosion of the logic behind that fundamental idea. A 33 percent conversion rate means you're winning two of every six service games your opponent is guaranteed in any set, which is actually double what you need to win the set. I'd be tempted to ask myself if my belief in the critical importance of the serve (and thus, the ability to break) isn't a bit outdated, but then there's always. . . Isner.

Ivo Karlovic, Andy Roddick, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych. . . all those guys have massive serves, yet none of them—or anyone else—seems to win simply by shooting out the lights in quite the same way as Isner. (Well, Karlovic does, but at this point he's down at No. 10 in the aces department, although he's still serving about the same percentage of aces per match as the leader, Isner.) Berdych and Soderling simply are excellent if not completely fluid or nimble players, blessed with great serves. They have more game with which to back up their serves, and in some ways I think they like for that to be known. 

Great servers can be a defensive breed because some people feel it's just not fair to win points pre-emptively. In tennis, you're supposed to show your dexterity and skill on the fly, but the serve is the only stroke over which the ball-striker has total control, because he has the right to put the ball exactly where he wants, and hit it exactly how he wants, to start a point. And starting a point the way you want, or having the opportunity to do that, is the critical advantage bestowed on the server.

In the past few years Andy Roddick has worked furiously to show that he, too, is not just another pretty (big) serve. Roddick earned a lot of respect but he also may have lost some efficiency (and he certainly surrendered a little bit of that menace that is the birthright of all big servers) when he worked so hard, and with such encouraging results, to become a more multi-faceted player. It's doubtful we'll ever know for sure about that. But a comparison with Isner is inviting, and it helps put all this in perspective.

Isner is all about the serve and he doesn't care who knows it. Oh, he works on the other parts of his game, and wants and works to improve as much as the next guy. But he admits that he cleaves to the Big Man Canon as well as the cannon. He told me in the spring that he has no overpowering desire to win the Mr. Versatility prize. He has no interest in showing off what defensive or transitional skills he has. He wants to get points over quickly; the sooner the better. This is less an attitude than a strategy, and it pops up in some unexpected places (like some Federer vs. Nadal matches on red clay, which usually feature a paucity of what we call "typical" clay-court rallies).

Isner knows that having a better backhand and service return certainly would make him more dangerous, mostly because it would enable him to put even more pressure on his opponents than he already does by virtue of his serving skills. Most of the men he plays are scared stiff, and for good reason. They know you can't afford to get broken when your chances of breaking, never mind breaking back, are slim to none. And that can affect the quality of your own serving.

A number of players said of Pete Sampras, a paragon of the serve-driven game, that his ability and confidence in his serve was such that he would just cruise along, feeling no urgency to do much of anything but take care of his serve (usually, a relatively easy job). Inevitably as a returner he'd have a lead of 30-15, or even 30-all, and then he'd strike to get the critical break, or point in a tiebreaker. A pro can lose a 6-2, 6-4 match to a guy like David Ferrer and feel like he fought a valiant, exhausting, close war. But he can lose a 7-6, 7-5 match to a Sampras, or Isner, and know deep down that he was not only never in it, but he may not even need to take a shower and massage.

So I'm looking forward to seeing how Djokovic, the most lethal return-game player on tour today, will deal with the most unapologetic advocate of the pure, serve-based game, Isner. It promises to be, like so many of the other great stories, simple and majestic, but with one brilliantly conceived sub-plot: Djokovic is mighty proud of the way he's rehabilitated his own serve, which should help him neutralize that great advantage Isner has in so many matches: his opponents' fear of being broken.

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Posted by tina (ajde, Novak: handsome and talented Balkans #1, world #2, Serbian Davis Cup hero, AO 2008 titleist, reigning USO finalist, cutest butt in tennis, hypnotizing hazel eyes and strokable hair - don't you wish your polyglot was hott like me) 10/08/2010 at 01:54 PM

Yes, I have already set an alarm so I don't miss this one. Nole tends to do okay against those big and big-serving guys, especially on this surface.

And then I'll wake up to watch Ljubicic for the third consecutive morning, before settling in with Euro qualifiers.

Posted by Pat frm Philippines... 10/08/2010 at 01:58 PM


Posted by wilson75 10/08/2010 at 02:28 PM

"Admit it, wouldn't you have expected Davydenko to be in the Top 10 list in some serve or (more likely) return related category?"

Pete: No. These stats are for 2010. Given that Davydenko has hardly played this year due to injury and when he has entered a tournament with the exception of Doha and AO he has played poorly. So, I'm not surprised he's not on the list.

Posted by SimonSays 10/08/2010 at 03:45 PM in general always says that murray is the best returner. now its djokovic... so who is it? seriously though!

Posted by Master Ace 10/08/2010 at 03:45 PM

Saturday Order of Play:

ATP: Tokyo at 11 PM(Friday) - Stepanek vs Monfils followed by Nadal vs Troicki(LIVE on Tennis Channel)
ATP: Beijing at 1 AM - Djokovic vs Isner
WTA: Beijing at 3 AM - Li vs Zvonareva followed by Wozniacki vs Peer
ATP: Beijing at 7:30 AM - Ferrer vs Ljubicic

Posted by Master Ace 10/08/2010 at 04:05 PM

Surprised that Vetmama has not let TW know the following happened:

MATOSEVIC, Marinko AUS d [2] YOUNG, Donald USA 62 63

Posted by BrooklynNY 10/08/2010 at 04:11 PM

Murray is not the best any anything except running.

Posted by Papo (Got Nadal?) 10/08/2010 at 04:16 PM

To everyone who thanked me for the Monfils/Roddick match calls, you're very welcome ; )

Just thought I'd post this link to the highlights so everyone would see what I was "ooh-ahhing" about:

There's this particular point at the start of the third set that has to be the point of the tournament. Incredible defense by Monfils.

Posted by lilscot 10/08/2010 at 04:21 PM

I really think Nole is going to handle John. He's match-ready and playing for points with a lot of confidence. Is the China Open surface as fast as Tokyo? I wonder how the big guy will move around such a quick court. We know Nole can scramble.

Really pulling for Nole to take this title again. I think he's a fitting #2 and seeing him and Rafa at the top seems appropriate right now.

That's no disrespect to Roger because ranking doesn't really mean anything at this stage when it comes to him. He's already far above all of that.

Rafa and Nole are a good representation of the "now" generation.

Posted by Tarnished Rafa fan 10/08/2010 at 04:41 PM

Well Roger needs "hair extensions" ASAP

Posted by noleisthebest 10/08/2010 at 04:45 PM

I would love a 6:3 6:2 sore....For Nole of course....I would love to see the coo-customer Isner panic and start double faulting....for the sake of tennis, of course!

Posted by Tarnished Rafa fan 10/08/2010 at 04:47 PM

Imjimmy Rafa's inside out forehand to me has been his "signature shot"

His preparation is excellent.Hard to read.I agree he needs to use that shot more.I am over a bit the cross court f/hand.Players are waiting for it and its getting a bit too readable for me.

I have seen the "inside out f/hand" on the clay where its just not returnable.

Posted by Jamaica Karen (overworked and underpaid) 10/08/2010 at 05:13 PM

Nice article about tennis. Interview of Gavin Rossdale.

Posted by lollipop 10/08/2010 at 05:34 PM

Tarnished Rafa Fan- Is that you, AM?

Posted by Lynne (Rafalite) 10/08/2010 at 05:36 PM

Roger needs hair extensions ?? Surely he is not losing his hair ?

Posted by Aube,tu es un emmerdeur mais je t'aime cheri! 10/08/2010 at 05:37 PM

Who's playing in Linz along with Serena guys?anybody knows about the draw?thanks in advance!

Posted by Tarnished Rafa fan 10/08/2010 at 05:45 PM

lollipop hmmm everyone has a 'evil twin" dont they? lol!

Posted by d 10/08/2010 at 06:09 PM

if you hold 5 (not 6) times while breaking your opponent 1 out of 5 times you win the set 6 - 4

Posted by Jackie 10/08/2010 at 06:17 PM

Deuce Club up soon ... "Tarnished Rafa fan," you better be there. :)

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/08/2010 at 06:23 PM

I think that if Isner is wise, he'l throw almost as many bombs right at Djokovic's chest as whe will at the far lines. Djokovic is nothing if not flexible--a human gumby who literally snatches balls out of the air just before they smack against the backdrop. But aim it right at him, and as agile as he is, he's still got to find a way to make something good out of it. And that's no easy task, when you're falling on your backside.

And, if Isner can get to 30 on a handful of Djokovic's serves, and is willing to take a few early cracks at the ball or throw in the occasional chip-and-charge, he should be able to pressure Djokovic into more unforced errors than he's accustomed to, which ultimatley may erode his confidence.

No matter how you slice it, though, Isner's overarching strategy must be to disombobulate Djokovic, keep him on his heels with big shots, and keep the points so short that Djokovic never find his rhythm or settles in.

Posted by Euphemism 10/08/2010 at 06:28 PM

I think Djokovic's great percentage of break points converted says as much about his mentality as it says about his return game. While Lord knows Djokovic can be emotionally shaky, his break point record means that he doesn't lay off the gas pedal when he senses that he has the upper hand; he's not a guy to let opportunity slip away easily. Of course, on his own serve in the next game he can hit one errant shot that'll send his arms flailing in despair and his strokes torpedoing into the stands, but, hey, that's part of his charm...

Posted by Master Ace 10/08/2010 at 06:32 PM

Daniela, Petra, Dominika and Jarmila are some of the players playing Linz. Agnieszka was scheduled to play before she had to quit for 2010 due to stress fracture in her foot.

Posted by Diane 10/08/2010 at 06:43 PM


You need to post duece club soon as friends are on thier way over for drinks and then we are off to dinner!

Wish that it was on a different night as I am never home on Fri.
Had a fun lunch with Ruth today and am so glad that she is now here in my neighborhood.

Posted by Jackie 10/08/2010 at 06:44 PM

Sorry, Diane! Busy day today and I'm just working at a snail's pace ...

If you don't make it today, stop by later? I always check in during the weekend.

Posted by Diane 10/08/2010 at 06:46 PM


You're forgiven!

Posted by eclipse22 (rafagirl VAMOS RAFA WINNER OF ALL FOUR GRAND SLAMS) 10/08/2010 at 07:23 PM

night people i'm tired, my scalp hurts, i did a serena to my head today, i look good though!!! lol...
vamos rafa!!!!!!!!!!!!
adje nole!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by Aube,tu es un emmerdeur mais je t'aime cheri! 10/08/2010 at 07:23 PM

Thanks MA,those are good players to grind with for SERENA...hopefully she'll get a couple of wins!!!

Posted by beth 10/08/2010 at 07:27 PM

Diane - fellow winner on the court - glad that you and Ruth had a great lunch , and have a chance to become closer
you two may just become the Southern version of me and Jenn !

Posted by Jackie 10/08/2010 at 07:31 PM


Posted by beth 10/08/2010 at 07:34 PM

'tapping foot at Jackie "

luv ya Jax !

Posted by Jackie 10/08/2010 at 07:34 PM

HAHA, love you, too, Beth. I hope I don't disappoint.

Posted by jb (FOOPs unite!) 10/08/2010 at 07:39 PM

beth! *waves madly*

we're all set for IW! tickets booked, hotel room booked, life is good! just a few short months away.... :)

Posted by Arun 10/08/2010 at 07:42 PM

Hey JB! Are you planning to attend Houston and/or Newport tournaments next year by chance?

Posted by Jackie 10/08/2010 at 07:44 PM

YOU GUYS, DON'T LEAVE! DC up in, like, 10 minutes.

Posted by avid sports fan aka "sigh-rena" 10/08/2010 at 07:45 PM

ah so everyone is here!

Hi all :)

Serena's official announcement and statement for return at Linz:

"Over the past many weeks I have been rehabbing my injury as best I could," Williams said in a statement. "While I was making great progress my doctor advised me that I was not fully healed and not yet ready to play. Just this week I thankfully received full clearance to play again and I'm excited to announce that I will be playing the Generali Ladies Linz this coming week, and assuming I stay healthy the year-end WTA Championships in Doha and Fed Cup. I'm excited to be back and want to thank my fans for their continued support.""

Posted by jb (FOOPs unite!) 10/08/2010 at 07:46 PM

Arun! i owe you an email. :(

I don't think I'll go to houston; I always think I'll get to newport, but its right after wimby, and I've usually taken time off the previous weeks, and end up working the full week of newport.

sigh. work continues to interfer with my tennis life. :(

Posted by jb (FOOPs unite!) 10/08/2010 at 07:47 PM

wait - are you thinking of roadtripping?

newport looks like it would be fun, it is after all, on grass. :)

houston would be more of a trek, that's for sure!

Posted by Arun 10/08/2010 at 07:48 PM

Thanks, jb.
I want to attend at least one of those tournaments next year. Most probably I will.

Posted by jb (FOOPs unite!) 10/08/2010 at 07:48 PM

silly jax, stop talking at us and keep focused! :))))

Posted by beth 10/08/2010 at 07:48 PM

jb!!!! waves back
yay ! for IW
so glad you are coming back
Susan , too ?

Posted by Arun 10/08/2010 at 07:49 PM

Hmm. That's not a bad idea actually. I can drive to Newport.

Posted by Cotton Jack 10/08/2010 at 07:53 PM

Isner is toast

Posted by Ruth 10/08/2010 at 07:57 PM

"you two may just become the Southern version of me and Jenn !"

That's a real possibility, beth, and, like you, Diane will have to be the playa (tennis, this) in this duo! She had a fantastic win yesterday, and we had a terrific lunch today -- good food (including mini-desserts which all restaurants should offer IMHO)and good conversation. We did limit ourselves to one drink so that Glenn wouldn't have to come and drive us to our separate abodes. :-)

Posted by jb (FOOPs unite!) 10/08/2010 at 08:03 PM

yep beth - susan too! we do like our tennis in the desert. :) there till tues, thinking about red eye back on tues nite. we'll see... :)

oof. am just pooped tonite, been out most of the week, and then up till a riddikulus hour watching RAndy and Monfils. (Monfils is an eyesore, just sayin'...)

arun, just keep me posted on the potential newport roadtrip, 'kay?!

Posted by jb (FOOPs unite!) 10/08/2010 at 08:04 PM

er - i know i'm being lazy, but does anyone know when nole / isner will go on? contemplating a nap so i can watch it...

Posted by beth 10/08/2010 at 08:04 PM

Ruth - that 's great . So glad you had fun
and exercised good judgment , too
smart ladies :)

I heard that Diane won her match yesterday , too - so we both had good weeks on the court
I hope it can continue

Posted by Jackie 10/08/2010 at 08:07 PM

DEUCE CLUB POSTED. Thanks for your patience, guys.

Now to find a photo...

Posted by beth 10/08/2010 at 08:07 PM

great news that Susan is coming , too
her husband is one understanding man
course , I guess he does come on some of these tennis adventures
I don't think he came to the desert though
This year , we need to make it to the Cliff House for dinner as a group
it is really good food
I am leaving Wednesday morning - at least that is my plan ,

and yes - Monfils and his new bizarro hairdo/ headband has been discussed around these parts

Posted by Arun 10/08/2010 at 08:09 PM

I will, jb.

Posted by jb (FOOPs unite!) 10/08/2010 at 08:16 PM

beth - i'd like to go to cliff house again, we made it there later in the week, when the tennis died down a bit. it was very good, though we terrorized the manager trying to find a good bottle of vino. the wine guy was off for the nite, and the poor manager was doing his best, lol! but it was ok, at least we did final settle on one. (or 2, now that i think of it...)

oops. OT. off to DC whilst I'm still awake.

Posted by Roddick fan from Virginia 10/08/2010 at 09:26 PM

Good luck Izzy! It would be your biggest win rankings wise.

Posted by Roddick fan from Virginia 10/08/2010 at 09:48 PM

Thanks for the write up Pete. Love John, hopeing for great career for him. Watching Atlanta this summer, I believe Cliff Drysdale was breaking down Izzy's serve showing how he could easy get to 150+ mph serves with work.

Posted by tina (ajde, Novak: handsome and talented Balkans #1, world #2, Davis Cup hero, AO 2008 titleist, reigning USO finalist, cutest butt in tennis, rapper, the face of Belgrade t-shirts, Novak water and Restaurant - don't u wish your polyglot was hott like me) 10/09/2010 at 01:44 AM

I figured people would be here for the match Pete has written about - guess I'm still looking. Isner lucked out by starting the match with a break of Nole's serve. But now it's 3-all.

He's kinda crap at net; Novak just has to draw him in and then dole out one of his laser passers.

Posted by forma 10/09/2010 at 03:41 AM

Nadal and Troicki played a great match... I'm a big Nadal fan but this was not his match to win... Troicki played the best match of his life and plainly outplayed Nadal...and got screwed by idiot linesmen... what's up with Japanese lack of precision??? it also made me see the monkey in Nadal...
he's very sensitive otherwise... this was not the match that would make his late season renaissance valid...
this was beyond ugly for him... don't care for Troicki much over the season ... but for me... he won that match...
this was just stupid.... congrats troicki for playing lights out... you won!

Posted by Gestation 10/09/2010 at 04:08 AM

Djoker made "short" work of the Pillsbury Dough-giant. Isner is nothing more than a serve. He may move better and have better groundies than Karlovic, but at the end of the day he and Querrey are nothing more than a pale, poor facsimile of Sampras's big serve game with little else after it.

Posted by noleisthebest 10/09/2010 at 05:36 AM

Well, I did see 6:2 in the second set....and a shade of panic on Isner's face, YIPEEEEEE!

Posted by John 10/09/2010 at 06:04 AM

Isner is nothing but serve and thats it. He may win lower tier event tournaments but he will never win a tier 1 masters let along a slam. Why do you think that match in Wimbledon went so long? Its because his return game sucks. Isner is another Todd Martin only a little taller, hovering in the top 20s maybe make a quarter in a slam but never going to amount to anything but perhaps being a tv commentator. Just ask Justin Gimelstob...

Posted by Nina 10/09/2010 at 08:14 AM

Or maybe it is that Nole is just too good for Isner? Novak is going to win Beijing and then he'll dominate the end of the season like he did last year, he is in that great form again, i can see it.

Posted by espnalanaldo 10/09/2010 at 09:40 AM

And Bodo, that 6-2 second set just about answered your overhype of Isner.

Posted by espnalanaldo 10/09/2010 at 09:41 AM

Although I am an American, Isner is not the next big thing for American tennis.

Big, yes. Grand Slam, no.

Posted by espnalanaldo 10/09/2010 at 09:47 AM

I do not understand why Americans tennis players and somehow, American media is bent on hyping Isner and Querry in having chances with the group of Nadal, Djok and Murray when they could have easily should be concentrating on making a name for themselves easily by beating a more vulnerable, aging Roger Federer.

Start with Roger, before you move on to the caliber of Nadal. That is how you slowly ease your way in into the rankings.

Against Djok? Against Nadal?

This is what is wrong with the international group of young players. They do not go for the OLD, AGING players like Roger, Davy, etc. when realistically, they have more chances at winning there than taking on powerhouses like Nadal. These other young players are just ... slow.

Posted by Roddick fan from Virginia 10/09/2010 at 02:47 PM

I don't think the "American Media" overhype Isner and Querrey. They almost always say they have to play their very best to upset the top stars. There is nothing wrong with supporting the home countries players. Personally I hope Sam and John use the rest of the season to cement their standings. Then come the off season work hard on their games to make it to the top 10 by then end of 2011.

Posted by vintage shoes 08/01/2012 at 06:58 PM

Lol, I set an alarm so I wouldn't miss this one too. I agree, I think Nole does well against those big guys.

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