There’s been a great deal of discussion at this year's US Open about the problems that top WTA players have had serving. Almost as curious is the paucity of good analysis as to the source of their problems. If all of a sudden women on tour are having problems properly serving, and all at once, it makes sense to compare the serves of women say, 20 years ago, to modern players and analyze the difference.
I am a firm believer in the philosophy that all problems in tennis are essentially technical – even the ones that appear to be mental, and nothing has made that more apparent to me than the serving issue. In the past, wielding unforgiving 85 square inch 15 ounce wood racquets, a player couldn't get away with bad technique on the serve - today they have over sized composites to help them hide the fact that their technique is sorely lacking.
I had a soccer coach years ago who used to hammer us on technique – the way he did this was to get our fitness training in first. Running hills, sprints, push-ups, sit-ups, etc.; he really ran us through the wringer before we ever touched a ball. By the time we got around to ball work, our legs were like jelly and our lungs were on fire. The result: when you’re that tired, and wondering just what on your body is about to fail next, the only thing you have rely on, the only thing you have left, is your technique - it's the only thing that makes you kick straight.
I think it’s exactly the same with tennis.
Tennis is a game that demands constant adjustment to many factors to perform at a high level. There are a lot of factors that can affect your ability to hit the ball properly: your opponent's play, your level of fatigue, your movement – these are all physical factors. Ironically, of all the factors that can affect your play, pressure, whilst existing only in the mind of the player that allows it to, is the only one that is completely intangible. That doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t have a physical impact. In fact the variation created by all the physical factors are mimicked by pressure. You hesitate slightly and the ball isn’t where you’re accustomed to hitting it. You’re tentative and you don’t move into the position you should. You try to just keep the ball in bounds, and you lose racquet head speed, even though that’s the fastest way to lose control of your strokes.
So while pressure is an intangible factor, it has a physical consequence, and as such, the only thing that will allow a player to manage pressure, and all its consequences, is the same thing that will allow a player to manage all the other actual physical variables that affect her ability to hit a proper stroke: that thing is technique.
The best serves in the history of tennis have one and only one characteristic in common: the point of contact is at the optimal point of racquet head velocity. That’s it. Everything else is imagined and totally overrated. In short, if you can hit the ball when your racquet head is moving the fastest, the speed, accuracy and consistency of your serve will improve. If you can improve racquet head acceleration it will improve your power and accuracy, but at the end of the day everyone has their limit and generally the limit of women is lower than the limit of men. The key is to hit your optimal point of contact every time, so the question is how to do this and the answer is as simple as it is obvious.
Take a look at the worst serves on the women’s tour and they all have one common characteristic – the toss is awful - it's all over the place - and as such, it’s anyone’s guess how often (if ever) they’re going to reach their optimal point of contact. If the toss isn’t out in front, you don’t transfer your weight forward, and you lose racquet head acceleration and speed. The ball on the toss travels slowest just before and after the apex, so if the apex of the toss is beyond the point of contact, when it finally returns to the point of contact, it travels through it too quickly to consistently make the optimal point of contact. If the sun is in your eyes, the point of contact on a high toss is obscured even more, and if it’s windy out?
So without naming any names, you’ll note that the most inconsistent and/or least powerful serves in the game (men’s or women’s) are always the ones with the highest ball toss. It sounds simple, and in truth it is, but the problem is that once a player gets into a comfort zone with all the mechanics of their serve, it is very difficult to tinker with the toss with immediate success – if the movement of the feet and the shoulder rotation all depend on the timing of a toss that soars 3-4 feet above the point of contact, you basically have to re-engineer the entire serve in order to accommodate the new toss – the very toss that’s causing all of their problems in the first place.
That’s a daunting task for a player who will undoubtedly watch their ranking plummet in the process, and because so much money is riding on the ranking, it’s almost impossible for a coach who is largely judged by a player’s ranking to be willing to say something like:
“We need to re-engineer your serve – you’re going to lose a lot of matches while we go through this process, and your ranking will fall. But a year from now you’ll have a better serve and all the points you’ve lost you’ll gain back and then some.” In fact, how do you tell that to someone who’s already in the top 10?
So who is to blame for all of this? Typically in tennis the prominence of one player who appears and dominates the game causes millions of players to try to emulate their game in the hopes of re-creating their success. In the case of women and their serves, that player is one Stefanie Marie Graf.
For all her qualities as a tennis player, there’s probably never been a player with more aberrations from sound fundamental technique, that’s had more success in the game. Although this article concerns the serve, as an appetizer I give the Graf forehand – powerful and dominant as it was, it was singularly the most consistent cause for the few losses she incurred. Rarely did Graf lose a match because her backhand went off the boil, and in the worst case scenario her slice and movement would win her 8 out of 10 matches and the forehand was the difference in the ninth and/or tenth.
Because the point of contact on Graf’s forehand was at a point of contact with the racquet head parallel to the baseline – in other words it was very late. It was so late, that the only way for her to keep the ball in the court was to have massive racquet head acceleration and it was precisely that massive racquet head acceleration that gave her all that power. But if the timing on that stroke was slightly off, Graf suddenly became human - rarely, the timing was off because she wasn't feeling at her best, and certain players like Seles or Sabatini would find ways to disrupt that timing, hence their success against her. But generally speaking, if she got the timing right, the racquet head speed she had to generate on her forehand made it the most powerful stroke in women's tennis.
That condition was exactly the same for her serve.
Graf’s serve toss was, at the time, one of the highest in the game – with the apex of the toss consistently reaching 3-4 feet above the optimal point of contact. When the ball descended through her point of contact, she needed tremendous racquet head acceleration to meet the ball in the optimal point of contact range, and it was this racquet head speed that gave her all her power and direction on the serve.
Fast forward to 2009 – every idiot and her sister on the WTA mimics the toss on Graf’s serve, but none of the racquet head acceleration and speed, and as a result their point of contact is rarely in the optimal range and the result is the comedic tragedy of faults, double faults and just flat out terrible serves you see on the women’s tour.
So what was the difference with Graf? Why was she able to be so technically aberrant, but successful?
Well, let me tell you a couple things about Steffi Graf – if she hadn’t been a tennis player she could have been an Olympic decathalete, or volleyball player, or a champion in just about any other damn sport she wanted. Once clocked at a 23 second 200m dash, Graf was easily one of the most gifted natural athletes in the world, not just tennis, but she complemented her gifts with a tremendous focus and work ethic that allowed her to maximize her special abilities into her own brand of tennis technique. Her technique is so unique that some players may be able to emulate one or two things about it, but nobody can put together the whole package like she did.
Does anyone think Ana Ivanovic could run 200 meters in total, let alone 200 meters in 23 seconds? Not likely – and the paucity of physical gifts as compared to her idol doesn’t stop there – she also has terrible timing on the serve. But rather than recognizing and accepting this limitation and adjusting her ball toss on the serve, she, and oh-so-many other tennis players on the WTA have inherited much of Graf’s technique and unfortunately almost none of her physical gifts, and not surprisingly, almost none of her success.
Even Venus Williams, who once was caught grinning at her own meaningless 130mph serve, has one of the worst 2nd serve’s in women’s tennis, and her toss is just as inconsistent as the serve itself. When she has a serve in reserve (i.e. she's hitting a first serve), she has the freedom to go after that ridiculous toss and every once in a while serves huge. But put the pressure of a second serve on her mind, and suddenly the racquet travels just that little bit slower and the bad technique on her toss is revealed when the physical effects of pressure put stress on her very poor technique.
For all the time, money, and commitment that women on the WTA show their coaches, they have been shamelessly rooked in quality of coaching – in my opinion it’s nothing short of highway robbery. When they’re juniors and nobody can serve anyway, a stupid toss on the serve doesn’t reveal itself as a weakness until the bright lights come on and someone stands on the other side of the net that will have a Thanksgiving feast on the results of bad technique.
Well, in the big leagues, there’s nowhere to hide. So maybe, instead of showing-off during changeovers or grimmacing on camera every chance they get, these coaches should earn their money and teach their pupils how to properly toss the ball on the serve, and by doing so, end their woes.