Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - A Leap Ahead
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A Leap Ahead 09/03/2009 - 7:03 PM

Sw We’ve heard a lot about women serving lately. The central question is simple: Why can’t they do it? Thus far the answer has been equally simple: No one really knows. In recent years, though, a story that’s almost as mysterious, but which is mentioned much less often, has been running along a parallel track with that one. Why are the men serving so well?

On opening night at Flushing Meadows, John McEnroe hit on the subject with his usual incredulous perceptiveness. He rightfully couldn’t believe that Andy Roddick was routinely bombing the ball in the 130s and even 140s while maintaining a first-serve percentage in the low-80s for much of the match. McEnroe and his brother Patrick agreed that they had been happy to keep their percentages in the 60s when they were on tour two decades ago. They didn’t even need to mention that they were serving a good 30 mph slower than a typical Top 20 pro does today.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Paul Annacone, former coach of Pete Sampras and Tim Henman, and a former serve-and-volleyer himself. “That kind of pace with that kind of consistency was unheard of in the past.”

Roddick is a special case in many ways. Aside from Ivo Karlovic, no one owes as much to one stroke. Roddick is currently tied for third on the ATP’s list of first-serve percentage leaders behind Potito Starace and Fernando Verdasco, two guys who don’t serve with anything like his pace. At the same time, Roddick is second in aces, but the guys who join him on that list, Ivo Karlovic, Sam Querrey, and Roger Federer, can’t hang with him when it comes to first-serve percentage. Throw in the fact that Roddick is also the co-leader, with Federer, in second-serve points won (right behind them is Rafael Nadal—maybe you really are only as good as your second serve) and you can see that Roddick is a renaissance man when it comes to his signature shot.

But he isn’t the only one doing good things with it. While the ATP doesn’t consistently keep the stat, the double fault is rare among top players today. Federer and Nadal played for 5 hours and 5 minutes, into a fifth-set tiebreaker, in the 2006 Rome final, and committed, as I recall, less than four between them (I can’t find the number). In their 20 matches, Federer and Nadal have played more than 4900 points and committed a total of 88 double faults combined. On a wider scale, few crucial points are decided by doubles. This only made Federer’s miscue to lose to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Montreal this summer that much more shocking.

You’ve always needed a competent serve to survive on the men’s side—that’s nothing new. But even guys like Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, and Andy Murray, none of whom started their careers with flawless deliveries, have smoothed the hitches and made their serves into either fierce weapons, like del Potro’s and Murray’s, or deceptively tricky point-starters, like Nadal’s. It seems that, at the very least, a solid serve is more attainable than ever, if you’re willing to work for it.

“As the equipment changed,” Annacone says, “the serve and return have evolved together. The returns got better, which kept people from volleying as much, but to get any kind of edge you need a serve that can at least move your opponent out of position and stay out of his strike zone. If you can’t do that, the guy who’s returning is going to be all over you.”

As for the increased control at higher speeds, and the decline of the double fault, Annacone offers more prosaic answers. “The guys are taller now, which helps, and they’re smoother and more coordinated than the really tall guys were in past generations.” As for the improved quality of the second serve, “I think that has to do with the strings,” he says. “The guys are using Big Banger [Luxilon’s stiff poly], which gives you more spin to pull the ball down. Just like with ground strokes, you can hit harder but still safely. And you also don’t have to worry about the other guy coming in on your second serve. That takes some pressure off.”

Watching Federer and Djokovic serve up close, a viewer might be more impressed by their second deliveries than their first. Djokovic’s rotates heavily, seeming to pick up spin as it goes, and jumps forward off the surface. Federer generates a startlingly high bounce with seemingly little effort. So why can’t the women, who also, after all, are the product of the same evolution and can take advantage of the same advances in equipment, serve with the same increased competence?

The answers vary. There’s not as much spin in the women’s game, and full-blooded, high-bouncing kick serves are fewer and farther between. But while the women can struggle with their motions, it would be wrong to say that the men are all technically efficient. Walking around the Open today, you could see Mikhail Youzhny lope toward the baseline to start his delivery and Roddick himself take a tiny step backward with his front foot to begin his. Then again, there were also serves of beauty on display: James Blake’s statue-like balance after his ball toss; Robert Kendrick’s diving topspin serves into the far corners; Tommy Haas’ flowing forward motion; Sam Querrey’s brutal yet natural, throw-ball-up, hit-ball-hard approach; even Robin Soderling’s towering bludgeon job. There were bombs going off all over the grounds.

The women offered a sketchier picture. Dinara Safina was her usual elaborate and laborious self, while Jelena Jankovic and Sabine Lisicki, both products of the Bollettieri academy, each lost power midway through their motions—they led with their hips as they tossed the ball and didn’t explode upward after that. A coach told me recently that some women have trouble controlling their tossing arms; like the nose of an elephant, it can travel too far back after they release the ball and push their upper bodies out of kilter. I noticed something like this Tuesday as Anastasia Pavyluchenkova sent ball after ball into the bottom of the net in her loss to Melanie Oudin.

But that relatively arcane technical glitch can’t explain the disparity that has opened up between the men and women. Like everything else in tennis, the serve begins in the head and ends on the strings—you might look in those two places for explanations. As it has with ground strokes, racquet technology has allowed women to go for a lot more on their serves, but hasn’t allowed them to do it with as much safety and variety as the men. Watching them try to negotiate this precarious balance, I got the feeling today that it has left many of the women in a nether zone, confidence-wise. When they get nervous, they fall right through it. The power game on the WTA side has also shifted the advantage to the return. The women are playing defense when they serve, which makes them even more jittery.

The opposite is true for the men; they know their second serve has their back. On Wednesday night Roger Federer was full of that self-assurance, taking virtually no time between points or between first and second serves, even though his match with Simon Gruel was a tight one. I thought: Why should he worry? What could possibly go wrong? How could a serve be any more simple and smooth than Federer’s?  Well, the one that followed his into Ashe Stadium came close. Like Federer, Serena Williams makes the serve look preposterously easy and clickingly rhythmic—toss ball where you want, hit ball where you want. And as with the rest of the women’s game right now, her serve is still an evolutionary leap ahead of everyone else’s.


Posted by TennisFan2 (vamos flying under radar) 09/03/2009 at 07:51 PM

The df # between Rafa and Roger is astounding.

Posted by ladyjulia 09/03/2009 at 07:56 PM

Well, last year's Davis Cup between Spain and Argentina, the deciding rubber...was DF after DF towards the end. Even the commies said "Wow..they..really can't serve". Ofcourse, Verdasco and Chucho usually fare allright except for that one match. Both of them had trouble holding their nerve under the circumstances.

But, the women's game,...think the more they think about it, the more they stress about it, the more they DF.

Posted by jsmauger 09/03/2009 at 08:00 PM

I agree that Roddick's pace and his high percentage on both first and second serve border on the unbelievable, but I think there's an obvious explanation for both of these aspects of his serving. Roddick lacks variety on his placement; he serves to the same places on a regular basis. This allows him to dial in, but also explains why he still loses matches to guys who figure out his predictable serve placement. Compare Roddick's placement of his first serve to Federer's, and it's easy to see why Roger has a lower first serve percentage-he moves the ball around the box and has far more variety of placement than Roddick. Federer takes risks on his first serve in terms of placement-Roddick doesn't and chooses to rely on almost strictly on pace to make his serve effective.

Posted by Andrew 09/03/2009 at 08:09 PM

Steve: a decade ago, I was told at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch that I should be aiming for a 65% first serve percentage and a 95% second serve percentage.

I like your two pronged approach to the question. If you look at the evolution (pre-injury) of Nadal's serve, or Del Potro's gains over the last 18 months, you do see great skill, under pressure, at a high level - something which we should expect from our champions. Why we don't get it from many at the top level in the WTA is quite mysterious to me, but I like the way you're asking the question.

Posted by Deuce 09/03/2009 at 08:24 PM

Steve - as always Great read! As a female I've wondered why the women can't come up with a good consistent serve. Other than the Williams sister the last female I can recall whose serve was truly a weapon was Davenport.

Posted by darthhelmethead 09/03/2009 at 08:55 PM

There is a trend in the women's game toward the slice second serve. Very few players in the WTA have really mastered the kick serve. Serena Williams, Stosur, and occasionally Kuznetzova are the ones that come to mind. I think the reason might be that most of the women might not have the core strength to reach behind themselves and hit up and through the ball to get that topspin. The players I mentioned are exceptionally athletic so that might explain why they have an easier time with the kick serve than some of their slighter peers. But then again I might not know what I'm talking about.

Posted by Michael 09/03/2009 at 09:27 PM

The Titleist Pro-V1 has added a few yards to the drives of recreational golfers, but has absolutely transformed the pro game. To get the most out of the technology you need world-class clubhead speed.

I wonder if something similar is going on with the Luxilon strings. Perhaps the incredible spin that can be achieved with these new strings requires racquet head speed that only men can generate. John McEnroe has often made the point that players HAVE to hit out with Luxilon - that if they don't swing big the ball comes off the strings dead. By contrast the old gut strings were more lively at slower swing speeds.

I'm sure women benefit from Luxilon - else they wouldn't use it. But the benefits may not be proportional to those enjoyed by male pros.

Posted by Josh 09/03/2009 at 10:21 PM

I think it's pretty simple: if you can't throw, you can't serve. If you throw like a girl (that is, throw only with your arm, not your whole body) you'll serve like a girl (that is, without power or rhythm). Super sexist comment, sure!, but we know that many guys also throw like girls. In cultures where boys don't play throwing sports, or start serving young, men and women both really struggle to develop a serve. My impression is that the motor 'program' for throwing, and serving, is learned easier by boys, but both boys and girls can fail to develop it.

Richard Williams is said to have had Serena and Venus practice throwing their racquets over the fence and out of the court. The theory being that if they could throw a racquet with power out of the court they could throw their racquet with power into the ball - they could serve.

When my serve breaks down I practice throwing a ball almost straight up. This reminds me of the proper rhythm and relaxed whole-body coordination necessary to avoid 'arming' the serve. I think if you can use the smooth rotation and explosion of your lower body and trunk for power, this leaves a relaxed arm and hand to control the racquet head - leading to power, spin and accuracy.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 09/03/2009 at 11:52 PM

Height is the issue. My son is 14 and about 5'8" or so. He just does not have the angle yet to really hit it. He can go over 100 mph, but they are just not going to go in until he grows another three or four inches.

You can see guys like Isner and Karlovic are literally hitting down. Guys over 6" tall can clear the net by 6" plus and still hit over 120mph.

The really tall WTA players are still a bit gawky, they are on the outside of the bell curve of coordination.

Posted by Shiv 09/04/2009 at 12:29 AM

Interesting article. As a regular weekend hacker, I find it equally tough to get a consistent second serve and when I watch the women going through similar process, I always wondered what their coaches are upto.The best example is Sania, Indian no.1.First time someone has pointed out the head more a cause than the technique or the equipment.I have some pointers in this article to work on!!

Posted by Pspace (Lestat de SW19) 09/04/2009 at 12:47 AM

Glad that this got your attention, Steve. DFitis is the most puzzling and displeasing aspect of the WTA today. The only people who can control their serves against an attacking returner are Serena, Venus and to a lesser extent Stosur on her good days.

A lot of the attacking returners - Safina, Serena, Venus, Dementieva, Sharapova, Azarenka, Bartoli - will just destroy most players' second serves.

Perhaps it's the lack of a consistently good first serve. I mean, if you can get a first serve with 65% in and about 80% points won, the second serve becomes a much more precious commodity to the return player and they can't afford to miss it. Most players have their % in the mid fifties, and they're not winning anywhere close to 80% of the points.

One way to test the "aggressive returner" theory would be to count the average no. of DFs per game against an aggresive returner (like Sharapova) vs a not-so aggressive returner (like Wozniacki). Jankovic may be somewhat of a half-way house.


Posted by Cosi 09/04/2009 at 01:35 AM

Lisicki actually has a really big serve, one of the biggest, she can serve one 120-ish or bigger serve after another in a match, not just one or two per match, I've witnessed her doing it. So if her motion is causing her to lose power, I can only imagine how consistently big her serves will be if she remedies that. Azarenka has a pretty decent serve, just doesn't have quite the power it needs, same with Jankovic, she serves usually at a pretty high percentage but often lacks oomph, especially on the second serve. What is really puzzling is how much time and effort is supposedly put in by some players to fix their serves, yet it never happens, they continue to have weak or flawed serves for years. hard to understand considering the excellent coaching most of them can get. I do think we may just have a really choky bunch of female players who are playing and prominent in the rankings right now, and that choky mentality causes alot of the doubles, they are too nervous to even serve, that too is hard to figure out with some of them, it's not like they never lost a match before or played in big match in front of gobs of people, yet they act like they are scared to death and it's their first time at the rodeo.

Posted by kurt 09/04/2009 at 02:09 AM

I think darthhelmethead may be onto something there, however i think there is the more fundamental fact that there is not as much spin in the womens game,( not trying to be sexist but women just do not have the same wrist strength)

Posted by Ro'ee 09/04/2009 at 02:22 AM

When I face a good returner I usually play the first delivery safer to avoid the second serve. If the women are like me, then their first-serve percentage should be up compared to 10, 12 years ago.
It just seems that the power-tennis mentality has settled in too deeply in the women's psyche, so they're trying to use their first delivery as a weapon, despite serving much slower (women have better reflexes, so their ability to contend with a 110-mph serve should be the same as a man's, and thus going for "relative broke" on your first serve seems disadvantageous to me).

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 09/04/2009 at 02:32 AM

Steve! I was wishing for a piece exactly like this a couple of days ago. :)

Like Andrew, I like the way you ask the question. :)

Posted by fmplayer 09/04/2009 at 04:10 AM

About double faulting : A few years ago, soon before retiring, Guillermo Coria made more than 40 DF during a match ...

About the male/female difference, I think the main difference is explosiveness. Women can hit hard, with a great racquet head speed too (see Venus W speeds), but this speed is achieved with a more fluid motion, with a less but more continuous acceleration, where men achieve the racquet head speed with a terrific acceleration later in the movement. Remember that different types of muscular fibers exist

If I'm right, it can explain why they have worse results when kickin' the serves (very important in todays second serve), because the body position then doesn't allow for a fluid motion.

Posted by JohnC 09/04/2009 at 04:28 AM

One word: confidence. Perhaps, belief. Whatever, but when that goes then so does the game, with the serve just being the most obvious casualty, since it is the most complex and yet common stroke for every player.

So, why? Watching Safina's match I was struck by how the commies were talking about here like she was a 12yo. The world number one infantilized in front of millions of people!

There seems to be something fairly complex going on here, since I cannot imagine anyone talking about Graf or Navratilova or Evert in this way, even if they were having a bad day. And not Serena either, or Henin, as best as I can recall.

One question that occurs to me: why do almost all of these women have MALE coaches? Follow that thought.

Posted by reckoner 09/04/2009 at 05:02 AM

steve this is an incredibly insightful read, nice job

its amazing that roddick is so efficient on serve and still seemed to have lost out in that department against federer in the wimbledon final... by sheer recollection and not recounting the service stats, whatever they were, it seems like federer simply outserved roddick during that match, even though he never managed to break serve until the final game

in any case, i like what mcenroe said about the law of averages in favoring 1 of the 2 andys winning the open this yr

i wouldnt count nadal out either

Posted by JohnC 09/04/2009 at 05:40 AM

And right on cue, Safina offers this about her performance:
"Another tough day in the office" said Safina who d/f 15 times, including 3 times in the t/breaker. "There is no problem in the technique or nothing. Just in my head."

And then we have Stosur explaining her loss: "I knew what I had to do,but I just couldnt excute it. I wasnt able to concentrate out there and found everything distracting".

Posted by jojo 09/04/2009 at 06:00 AM

Great comments everyone......But don't forget how much the women's serve has IMPROVED. I remember about 10 or 12 years ago, Steffi Graf had the fastest serve at the French Open (about half way through the tournament) at 104 mph. Today that little 5'5" girl from NJ, Melanie what's her name, hit one at 113, and the comments were that she doesn't have a big serve! Little Justine Henin could hit 120 at her top, and 115 regularly, the Williams girls hit it in the 120's all the time. In the early 90's, Roscoe Tanner had the fastest serve of the year one year (when he was 40 and playing on the senior's tour) at no man on tour hit there are a dozen players doing that, and at least 2 hitting 150 (Roddick and Ivo) 150 is the new 140.
The top women have the kind of hard, flat stokes that make going for the big return of serve a good percentage play. The men have a longer, heavier topsin stroke against faster serves, and the men servers cover the court better, and can get to those big returns quicker....These thing combine to put less pressure on the server. (Sometimes I wonder if Venus, Serena, or Sharapova could get in a groove and really pound away at some of the weaker men's serves....Santoro, Clement, etc.....)
But the biggest element that no one has yet touched on is DISGUISE.....the girls tend to be younger, and excuse me, they seem to be less CREATIVE in their games at this point....they all seem to be what we call in the USTA tournamnets "Lesson players".
They go by the book....and for the most part, it works.....but how many vary the grips on their second serve? How many change speeds on either their first or second serve? They all seem to have ONE second serve.....of course, height is an issue..... When I watched Sharapova kill little Melanie's first and second serve today, I started asking myself, "Why doesn't she hit it underhand with a lot of sidespin, just to neutralize the return a little?" Or just slap the second serve in flat, like Myskina did against Capriati int he French Open final, completely confusing her for a straight sets victory....there are ways to keep a returner off balance with change of speed, placement and spin, but you have to be creative to find them.

Posted by Aussiemarg aka Madame President Its Time To Rock and Roll,US Open 09/04/2009 at 06:09 AM

Thanks Steve A very good question you poised,

With the new power head racquets these days one would think they assist every player men and women.

The serve is the single most important shot in tennis.

Though we are seeing many variations here.

Woman for one havent the overall power their male counterparts have.Their wrist action for one,as a poster here pointed out also has some bearing as well.

In todays game Serena,also her second serve is the best,Venus,Sam Stosur who's serve when on,especially her kicker serve is great.

The woman need to try more variety in their serve as well I feel.

Maybe they need a tape of Federer who is the master in this area.

I also notice the Ball Toss which in some cases is far too high aka Safina and more lately Anna.

Gee one day their balls aint going to come down.

As a junior your basic technique is formed in many instances,though changes and adjustments are crucial in anyones game.

Height is also a factor,Davenport,Maria Sharapova their serves are based around their games.

Maybe a visit to Phil Dents academy may be a sound piece of advice.

Its never too late you know.

Posted by JohnC 09/04/2009 at 06:43 AM

"Maybe they need a tape of Federer who is the master in this area"

Recommend watching the Fed-Roddick Wimby final. Superb quality highlight series on youtube, and here's link to the last set:
But there are also clips of each of the other sets there, all of which are worth watching, particularly for service action although there's much else besides.

And notice something. Neither man makes so much as a grunt on serve or even the most vigorous stroke. Perhaps the women could start by shutting up.

Posted by eugene Waterval 09/04/2009 at 07:31 AM

For Russian women tennis player like safina,dementieva,sharapova should open double fault academy. especially world number one she deserves to own double fault academy.

Posted by Texas tennis 09/04/2009 at 07:59 AM

Serving hasn't improved - the racquet technology has improved. There's no comparison between Graf's serve and Oudin's - and if Graf was serving today with these racquets she'd be still one of the biggest servers. (She probably served faster than 104 in the Wimbeldon exo as a total part tme player...) So just looking at serve speed isn't very helpful.
Many aspects of the game have changed and you see a lot of great ball striking (if not much thinking), but serving in the women's is worse now than it's ever been I think. Look how Graf , Navratilova and even not all time greats served 10-20 years ago.

Posted by embug 09/04/2009 at 08:15 AM

If I remember correctly, Verdasco lost to Nadal at the AO when he double faulted. The one error vindicated every club player in the whole wide world.

Girls don't run outside at the age of 3 or 4, grab a basketball or baseball or softball and run to the park. They are not taught how to throw, when to throw. They are made fun of, though, when they throw incorrectly... 'you throw like a girl.' Well, duh, yeah!

Billy Jean King was on Tennis Channel yesterday morning. She said she'd hadn't ever seen anything like it -- the serving mess coming from the WTA. Her suggestions were quick. She was not given enough time, but to start asking questions (Steve). "Teach them how to throw a ball," she said.

My first serious tennis coach taught me 'to throw a tomahawk.' Probably doesn't resonate much with girls or boys these days and may even be viewed as politically incorrect (at least in the DC area), but the motion is cooly and precisely like a serve. Watch tapes of Roscoe Tanner and imagine the racquet being a tomahawk. Pretty similar. He didn't toss the ball high because you don't need to.

Pronation is something of a foreign word to women, let alone to girls. "What's that?" the ask. Explanation leaves the listener watery eyed, her mind on picking up the kids. But throwing any ball will aid the movement and the movement can be grooved and learned.

Safina, Sharapova, Dementieva, Venus, to name a few, have really high ball tosses, but nothing that compares to Dominick Hrbarty. That thing's about to go into space with the height he gets. High ball tosses open up changes for errors because all sorts of timing issues come into play.

Hips, too, are problematic for women. We are wider and don't move them forward into the court as the serve moves through its motions.

BJK is right... teach the kid how to throw. Take a look at some of the pee wees at the regional USTA development centers, such as the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, MD. Those girls can swing a racquet and have the motion of a serve DOWN.

Quick Start programs let little kids play with little racquets and puffy balls. I watched a bunch of them on court before an exhibition match in Toronto and they were awesome. All their motions were grooved, all the equipment scaled to their sizes. I smiled the whole time.

Pressure... fear of failure... constant criticism.. all have an effect.

More questions, please. A great discussion to keep moving.

Posted by JohnC 09/04/2009 at 08:27 AM

btw, in the Roddick-Federer Wimby there were a total of 436 points, 8 double faults (4 each), and 77 aces (50 for Roger).

Of second serves, Roddick got in 94.37% (of 71) and Federer 94.29% (of 70). And that over the longest slam final in terms of games in history, though not in terms of time since neither man was dilly-dallying around agonising over whether they could get their next serve into the box.

Posted by mwu 09/04/2009 at 09:13 AM

It's because women choose their string tension to allow for more pace on their groundstrokes. They hit a flatter ball, which tends to sail without diving topspin, but on groundies, the margin for error is large enough for the lack of control to be worth it.

So when serving, the inaccuracy that comes from loose strings and lack of accompanying topspin is magnified.

Posted by smashbear 09/04/2009 at 09:38 AM

One of the things to consider is that women lacks the physical strength to compensate for average technique. On the men's tour, a lot of players don't serve with the same smoothness or technical perfection in their motion as Federer or Ivanisevic (my favorite all-time serve motion) for example, yet they can still generate enough spin and power to have strong serves.

Having said that, I am still baffled that the women are not taught better technique at a younger age on their serve to compensate for lack of physical strength. After all, great technique is the most important factor for control and power. If I were a coach, you can bet I would force my young student to change her motion until it is technically sound, instead of working on a deficient motion that will always limit the player even during her professional years. I still can't believe how many girls still throw the ball so high, forcing them to pause in their motion, or hit with their legs too far apart (thus not pushing enough with their back leg), or jump up too much instead of jumping into the court.

Posted by Joseph Zohar 09/04/2009 at 10:25 AM

I believe that there are three factors which help men, such as Andy Roddick, hit fast serves at a high percentage of 'serves in'.

One, Roddick, for one, produces a great deal of topspin (as Sampras did) to match the speed of his serves. Topspin 'bends' the trajectory of the ball and brings it into the service box.

Two, men, on the average, are taller than women, so their contact point with the ball is higher.

Three, men have larger muscles than women, with more motor units (groups of muscle fibers), which gives them better MUSCLE CONTROL, as well as power, which allows them to hit their serves with their muscles relatively RELAXED.

Joseph Zohar, PT, USPTA
Irvine, CA

Posted by magritte 09/04/2009 at 10:30 AM

I think there's not as much difference on the return between the ATP and WTA, because the return is mostly reaction time and coordination. Height and physical strength play a bigger roll on the serve. The men can hit their second serve at about 75% of the speed of the first and still have the edge on the returner, but 75% speed for the women just isn't good enough. Most women--even with these modern women who are much stronger than in the past and have space age racquets--can't hit a 90 mph serve with much spin for safety, which the men do routinely. And if they hit a 75 mph serve, they know it's going to get killed unless it's very well placed. So they can either hit flat, or try for fine placement and either one risks the doublefault.

The women always had weaker serves than the men, and they've always had more trouble holding serve. But the increase in doublefaults is because back in the '80s and even the '90s, there weren't that many women that would crack a lot of clean winners on service returns. Graf was probably the first and then a handful of top players followed her, but now there's an army of women with attacking returns. Hingis' serve was adequate in '97, but a crippling weakness five years later. The women are under more pressure on their second serve than ever before. And once you start to lose confidence in any stroke, it tends to snowball, so it's not that surprising that it's the biggest vulnerability for most woemn on the WTA.

Posted by feedforward 09/04/2009 at 11:01 AM

If you don't throw overhand as a youngster, your shoulder does not become loose enough for a really good service motion. There used to be many men from soccer oriented countries who had poor serves, but now they start early enough that country of origin is of little consequence.

I don't see many young women players practicing their serves or overheads nearly as much as they groove their groundstrokes.

Technically, women tend to toss their ball much further to the right. They thus have far less topspin (most notably the old Dementieva serve) using more side spin or slice. The toss problems drive Martina N nuts when she is commenting.

Serena is one of the few women who has a motion like the men, in fact, hers is better than most.

While the women have approached first serve speeds of the men, they are much farther behind on the second serve. And, missing from the data normally presented, is the fact that the men have serves with more top on them and thus more zing when they hit the court. Keep in mind that Sampras top speed was about 10 mph less than Ruzedski's, but Pete had his speed with top spin (even his flat serve) and thus his serve was usually harder to return.

And Sampras contacted all his serves about two feet farther to the left than most women. Pete had a bionic shoulder (he could touch his elbows behind his back with just a bit of help--try that). Brenda Shultz (who used to have the women's speed record) and Serena are among the few women I have seen who could hit hard with near-Sampras like topspin as well. They thus had the room for error that comes with topspin on groundstrokes as well. It is great to have the second serve with something on it grooved.

Posted by Johnboy 09/04/2009 at 11:06 AM

This is the highest quality discussion I've ever seen in blogging.

Couple of issues: Boys mostly aren't taught to throw. They just do it as kids. It's more a mindset thing, a joy thing. Even so, soccer nation boys from, e.g., Spain, most of Europe in fact, hardly ever throw balls. Rafa and Verdasco probably never did. Did Fed throw balls growing up? He was a fiddler of all games, so maybe. But I'm starting to think ball throwing helps but is far from the key.

I'm afraid it's in the genes. Girls that are more guy-like serve better.

The beautiful thing about the serve is that NONETHELESS, right now, even the best men in the world have a competitive good time in mixed doubs. The girls can simply hang with them, no prob!

I dearly hope that Fed, Nadal, others continue playing for a long, long time in doubs and especially mixed, into their 40s. THAT would be good for tennis. Why walk away like Sampras did?? To do what, play poker?? How about a cushy doubs and mixed schedule, hanging out with the girls, drawing crowds? Why wouldn't you?? Get ohwn it, boyz.

Posted by Michele 09/04/2009 at 11:37 AM

This whole phenomenon brings to mind a theory that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in the Tipping Point. How behavior can be transmitted within a certain subculture from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can. So while the women are transmitting the bad serve to each other, maybe the men are doing the opposite? Either way, it's clearly contagious!

Posted by Scott 09/04/2009 at 12:21 PM

You simply cannot compare men to women. A woman's center of gravity is much lower, near her waist, than a man's, near his chest. This is why a woman's hip placement causes her more difficulty than men. Another is flexibility in the shoulder. Venus' forearm is parallel to the ground when her shoulders are level. You don't see this on many of the other women, specifically because they lack the flexibility in the shoulder.
The solution is simple and perhaps too obvious even to professional coaches. If a woman player doesn't have the physical ability to serve like one of the Williams sisters, then she needs to work not on power, but placement, change of pace, change of the amount and type of spin and how to disguise their serve.

Posted by jo 09/04/2009 at 01:00 PM

Serena Williams- the best female tennis player in the world, knows how to serve!

Posted by pogiako 09/04/2009 at 01:31 PM

Roddick and Sharapova are getting an unfair advantage. They both are assigned a night session always. They both avoid the angry hot sun.

Posted by pk 09/04/2009 at 01:43 PM

Have not read thru the entire comments and maybe someone already mentioned this. Only the top 10-15 men serve well with the top 7 or 8 being head and shoulders above all. (exception and no offense, the "freakishly tall" isner, karlovic, querrey, del po, goran, ancic, cilic, enjoy height advantage when it somes to serving...if we had 6'6" or 6'10" women on tour, I bet they would have serving advantages too...

when nerves come into play, men have the same serve issues as women.

sharapova, williams sisters, kuzzy, safina all have fantastic serves...when nerves are not in play and when their games are on...

I think the more intriguing question will be consistency among women vs men...then again, it is this generation of top 4 to 5 men that are more consistent year round that any prev generation of men.

Posted by Andrew 09/04/2009 at 04:09 PM

I don't think any argument that starts with the premise "women can do X, men can do Y" works, simply on the basis that this hasn't been a problem (that I can recall) until very recently.

So the three kinds of answers that make most sense to me are some combination of

(a) the current crop of top athletes are unusually bad at what they ought to know how to do
(b) technology changes have affected an aspect of play
(c) changes in tennis tactics or strategy have affected what players are tring to do.

(a) on its own is very unappealing. I think the WTA version of the singles game has become more rudimentary in the last 8 years or so - you could say stripped down to a core of serve, return and topspin groundstroke. But the serve and return still start every point. There's no reason I can think of why "unwillingness or inability to learn proper technique" is a tenable argument.

This gets us to a combination of (b) and (c) - together with a pinch of the psychodynamics of some of the recent top players. Interesting to think about which is first, the chicken or the egg - if a top WTA player is unhappy and her serve suffers, or she has difficulty with the serve and becomes unhappy.

Posted by feedforward 09/04/2009 at 05:46 PM


I hardly ever disagree with you, but I would encourage people to watch old videos of Evert and Austin when they won their early USOpens. Both had what could be charitably called powder puff serves using obviously studied but not natural movements.

Yes, there used to be some fine servers (effective natural motions) in the women's game including Court, Bueno, Navratilova, even Wade, and of course, BJK. Billie grew up as a tom boy playing softball and had an older brother who pitched in the major leagues. But "throw like a girl" used to be all too evident as much as dislike gender and ethnic stereotypes. Most girls my age were simply not encouraged, even allowed to play ball games like boys until Title IX changed things. I had a cousin who grew up playing baseball with the boys and she could throw as well as any of us guys, but she was a real rarity.

Back to the technical stuff I mentioned earlier like the toss, most women don't have the combination of flexibility and strength needed to hit big second serves. That being said, they could do better than they do with some work. For example, Dementieva has improved her serve recently a good deal with better technique including ball toss and moving or jumping into the court rather than having her rear sections move the opposite way of the serve.

But if all the 12 year old boys I see play here in Greensboro in the national 12's each year can have a kick serve, anyone can if he or SHE wants to work on it. Sure men being taller is an advantage especially when serving, but having just watched 5' 5" Olivier Rochus play Blake last night and serve pretty well, we cannot simply give women a pass because few of them are as tall as Del Potro and Querrey.

Posted by feedforward 09/04/2009 at 05:48 PM

a couple of more things.

Announcers just mentioned yesterday how much Serena practices her serve. Keeping one's strength top notch is often overlooked.

Dulko who is pretty slight and not all that tall has a pretty good serve with a toss that is more like the men's so once again, it can be done.

Posted by Jim McNamee 09/04/2009 at 07:31 PM

Great article Steve.

Certain aspects of the question posed by your article that are not investigated sufficiently are the biomechanics of the female service motion. Not only is the center of gravity in women lower than in men but their upper body strength is lower.

Therefore women's service motion should differ from that of men.

You correctly point out that Serena's service motion is far superior to other female competitors. Could this because with her heavy-set lower body her gravity center is lower than her competitors, particularly tall thin women like Sharapova and Serena therefore recovers her balance much more quickly after delivering a powerful serve?

Posted by Andrew 09/05/2009 at 12:53 AM

My main point is that biomechanics haven't changed - both men and women still have the same body structures they had 30 years ago. Women are better conditioned now than their counterparts of old (as are the men), so you'd expect (with lighter racquets with larger sweet spots and modern strings) that the top players in the WTA could hit serves with more hand speed and spin.

On the whole, though, I think pace has gone up, but variation has gone down. For many top women players, it's flat first serves or bust - I was amazed and a bit horrified to see that Sharapova simply had no variety to call upon in her service games when Serena Williams was going after her in AO F 2007.

Nadal made a living from slice and placement for several years. I'm not sure why top WTA players don't seem to choose to do this. I think part of the reason is nervousness about getting clobbered by a big return, but I'm not convinced that's the full story.

Posted by Anand 09/05/2009 at 01:02 AM

Nice one. By the way they've played 4394 points so far.

Posted by Jim 09/05/2009 at 12:35 PM

Interesting subject choice, only one day after the NY Times published a lengthy article on the same subject.

Posted by Rosheem 09/05/2009 at 10:32 PM

The men are using more of a torque action in their motion: their motion is a bit slower coming into contact, but they pronate forcefully right at the moment of contact with a concentrated twisting motion. This allows them to keep the racquet head more in-line with the swingpath, which helps with consistency.
The women, either because they lack the strength or haven't adopted the technique, use more of a brushing/glancing motion to apply spin. This means they must generate more head speed earlier in the motion. As a result, they don't have As much control of the head at the moment of contact.

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