Monday, January 29, 2007

Another Installment in the Never-Ending Series on Trying to Find Ways to Beat Roger...It's All About the Serve

With Roger Federer basking in the warmth of his 10th Grand Slam tournament title, he is now officially more than 70% done with the historic task of besting Pete Sampras' record of 14 Slams. It will be interesting to watch and see if Federer continues his multi-Slams per year pace - 3 and counting- or if it winnows down to domination in one Slam, like Sampras did with Wimbledon. After Sampras 4th and final multi-Slam year in 1997, he won Wimbledon three times and his only other Slam was of course his career-ending triumph over long time rival Andre Agassi in the 2002 US Open. (Which is still, by far, the greatest exit from a sport of all time. Think about it - what else could measure up? Michael Jordan with the 1998 Bulls? Not really, as what made Sampras' victory especially sweet is that he had been amazingly neglected in the press and considered over the hill and done, something the over-hyped and over-worshipped Jordan never endured with the Bulls.)

So with Sampras the only obstacle to uncontested tennis immortality for Federer, it is only appropriate that this entry will focus on the classic Californian's defining asset, the serve. With his fluid, easy motion - that made it seem like anyone could learn how to serve effectively- and mix of consistency, pace, spin, placement, power and above all the ability to follow the serve with an effective volley or ground stroke, Sampras possessed the greatest serve of the Open era. It's nearly impossible to compare across a century of talent but in my small knowledge of tennis history Sampras may well have had the finest serve in the history of the sport (other names frequently brought up during such discussions are Pancho Gonzalez and Bill Tilden, to name two).

It will take someone who has a consistently pressuring serve to be able to challenge Federer on non-clay surfaces and instill the slightest bit of concern in the Swiss master. Anyone who plays tennis, be it recreationally or competitively, is all too aware of the psychological import that a first point in a game has. And never is this more apparent or of greater concern than when facing a great server. The ability to impart duress in the mind and body of a the returner on a consistent basis is the ultimate weapon in tennis. And since Federer never seems to be on the defensive, except perhaps against Nadal on clay, it will take a server of near-Sampras caliber to force Roger to feel the heat.

This is not to say there aren't effective and powerful servers out there today. Andy Roddick obviously is in ownership of a thunderous first serve from his rubber arm, often reaching 140 mph. But his problem is one of consistency and predictability. Federer seems to have figured out a way to read that powerful first serve and Roddick's second serve has never had the bite that is needed to deflate any hope in the returner that the second delivery from the server will be any easier. Sampras never let his opponent of the hook with his second serve. Also, Stefan Edberg in his prime had one of the great twisting, kicking second serves that many current players would be wise to emulate.

Marat Safin, when his game is "on" also has a fantastic first serve but there again the problem is one of consistency, like the rest of the mercurial Russian's game. Fernando Gonzalez, the Australian Open finalist has developed a good first serve too but again, not enough to strike fear in the Swiss' heart.

Recently retired Andre Agassi did not have ace-filled service games or necessarily scare his opponents with his serves but he developed an effective service game. And because his return game was so intimidating, he put the onus of service responsibility on his opponent. Current and up-and-coming players would be well advised to look to his example of taking full use of one's abilities to make their serve reliable.

Two players who have beaten Federer in the past, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are the two players who would benefit most from improving their serves - for different reasons. In Nadal's case he has an effective serve but not powerful or deceptive one. Holding an immediate advantage as a left-hander, Nadal must take full use of that and develop a more extreme slice serve out wide, especially in the ad court. Many have implored the Mallorcan to work on that slice serve but he has yet to fully utilize it. Obtaining a Sampras serve is near impossible but in order to beat Federer, a player needs to have at least one weapon in their serving arsenal to make the returner think and guess as opposed to react and anticipate. And for Nadal it would seem obvious that the slice serve would yield the most dividends for any investment he puts into his service game. (it would also shorten points for Rafa, something he desperately needs if he is to avoid over-working and becoming increasingly injury prone).

With Andy Murray, it's not so much about developing or changing his serving style, it is more to do with improving on what he already has. Murray has deception with his motion and that is something hard to learn or be taught - it is usually just part of one's motion. Adding just a touch more power and increasing consistency should put Murray's serve among the top three or four in men's tennis soon enough.

I often think of how players from the recent past would have fared well against Federer and the two names I come back to are Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker, with the serves being the key factor in each case.

When Lendl first arrived on the scene in 1980, he ushered in a sea change in the sport by developing an offensive baseline game, with his inside out forehand, a shot previously not used to such effectiveness, the cornerstone of his power. Yet he didn't win his first Grand Slam title until age 24 at the 1984 French Open, and this initial triumph was aided greatly by his developing a powerful first serve. Ask any player from his era and they will all have anecdotes about Lendl serving out of trouble by delivering an ace at 30-40. And since Lendl had so much power on his ground strokes, he would have caused Federer fits on the hard courts.

Boris Becker's strength was always his serve. John McEnroe often speaks of how he felt behind the times and antiquated after being defeated by Becker's power game for the first time. Like Lendl, Becker also would serve out of trouble on innumerable occasions. Opponents knew that Becker was capable of serving three and four ace games at any time. No player in today's game instills that kind of trepidation today.

So here's to hoping that some of the afore-mentioned players in today's Top Ten develop that intimidating presence at the service line and cause at least the slightest doubt in the seemingly impenetrable psyche of the Roger.