January 24, 2010

Who Has to Hold?

I hate serving. Always have. When I was kid breaking my opponent was not the issue, and I could almost guarantee that the player who held his serve first was the one who would win. Even now I still find myself playing First-Ball-In or Three-Fault tennis. No one wants to win a match on double faults.

I feel bad about it -- it's frustrating that the one shot in a match over which I really had total control could go just about anywhere it wanted to. But I wrote it off to the fact that 1) I'm pretty short, 2) no one ever taught me proper ball tosses and racquet swings, and 3) I'm only an amateur.

Turns out those three factors don't matter -- the pros, even the tall ones who've trained for years with the best coaches, can't really hold their serve either.

Now that's not totally fair, of course. Rafael Nadal and Ivo Karlovic only broke each other once per set last night, with Rafa happily coming out on top of that battle. And during the marathon, historic Wimbledon final last year, Andy Roddick wasn't broken until the very last, seventy-seventh game -- there were only three breaks total during that four-hour-plus match, and Andy had two of them!

Is it just on the women's side then? Maybe. But even players like Karlovic, who fired off 121 aces in four rounds, can't advance well into the draws of Majors. And typically strong women like Serena Williams can also struggle. In her third round match when she was serving at 5-0 against Carla Suarez Navarro, about to close out an easy first set, she hit nine errors, endured thirteen deuces and faced six break points in a twenty-three minute game that more than doubled the length of that entire set. Serena advanced of course, despite the little hiccup, but others found themselves going through a little more trouble in order to advance.

It shouldn't be surprising that 5'5" Justine Henin has trouble holding her serve -- it's really her beautiful backhands and crushing groundstrokes that have won her seven Grand Slam titles. In her second round match against Elena Dementieva she had two chances to serve for the match and ceded both of them -- more than half of the games actually went to the server. In her fourth round Sunday against fellow Belgian Yanina Wickmayer, Justine was broken four times and even lost the second set 1-6. Wickmayer was not much better, allowing Henin to convert on sixty percent of her break opportunities, including two of two in the deciding set. But mediocre serving aside, the more experienced champion was able to pull through when it mattered, making the quarters in Melbourne for the sixth time in her career.

Earlier in the day world #35 and former top-twenty player Jie Zheng was similarly unimpressive in her service games against Hobart champ Alona Bondarenko. The seeded Ukrainian actually won slightly more on her first attempts -- fifty-one percent to Zheng's even fifty. But the woman who ousted Jelena Jankovic in the previous round was even worse on second tries, winning only a third of those serves versus 56% for the Chinese #2. The ladies traded breaks through the first set -- three a piece -- before Zheng, a shrimpy 5'4", finally won in the tiebreak. The server lost another five games in the second, but Jie was able to hold when it counted, winning the last game of the match for a chance to play in her first ever quarterfinal here.

They weren't the only ones. Five-foot-ten Nadia Petrova lost her serve three times in her defeat of reigning French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva traded breaks with Gisela Dulko five times in the second set of their third round match. Apparently, it would seem, losing your serve doesn't guarantee your opponent a win, a hard lesson Alexandra Dulgheru learned when she broke a six-foot-tall Wickmayer nine times in the first round and still lost.

Of course, this isn't an argument that players shouldn't work on improving their first serve percentage, or that having the ability to bomb ace after ace won't serve you in the long run. But it is amusing that the usual race-to-break mentality of tennis can be so easily turned on its head. And it highlights just how important an all-around game is on Tour. Maybe when we start to see some real, legitimate big servers or even -- God forbid! -- serve-and-volleyers, especially on the women's side, we could start to see a whole new style of tennis, and a new crop of champions emerge.

Until then, I'll continue to harbor delusions of being able to compete with the pros with my dinky little serve! Hey, if they can do it, so can I!

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