Outstanding service

NEW YORK – Before I make the case that Roger Federer has the greatest serve in tennis history, let’s go back to the beginning. The sport we know as tennis generally goes back to the first Wimbledon in 1877. Well, lawn tennis actually goes back a few years before that, and what is often called real tennis (an indoor racket game) goes back many centuries. But let’s start at Wimbledon in the time of Queen Victoria.

At the first Championships at the All England Club – won by a cricketer named Spencer Gore – the net was roughly four feet high, which made overhead serving problematic. In fact, most thought it was impossible – everyone served underhand at the first Wimbledon. Funny thing: At the same baseball pitchers were not even allowed to throw overhand.* Baseball pitchers and tennis servers, as you will see, evolved together.

*This is why they were called “pitchers” – they had to pitch the ball like pennies or horseshoes.

Slowly, the tennis net came down – it wasn’t too long before it was at today’s height, three and a half feet at the posts and three feet in the center – and as it lowered, tennis players started to see the serve as a weapon. The early great servers were all Americans. A historian of the serve, John Faribault, told the New York Times that this was because Americans — unlike players from other countries — grew up throwing baseballs, which is a similar motion to the tennis serve.

“The British players in the early years were hampered by a lack of throwing balls as they grew up,” he said. “Americans became the dominant servers almost immediately, mainly because of baseball.

Maurice McLoughlin was probably the first great American server; his explosive serve earned him the nickname, “The California Comet.” Bill Tilden was the first great American star, and his serve was a wonder. He would sometimes go down 0-40 on purpose. He would then pick up four tennis balls, hold them in one hand and, in quick succession, fire off four aces.

Ellsworth Vines had such a ferocious first serve that, as Bud Collins wrote, it “made him unbeatable when he was on.” Jack Kramer invented what would be called “The Big Game” — a powerful serve and volley game – and Don Budge mixed a huge serve with a great backhand to win the Grand Slam in 1938. Pancho Gonzales’ enormous serve is perhaps the most mythical in the sport’s history. For decades after, people would tell stories of Pancho’s serve.

In time, the Australians – led by the great Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall – became dominant serve-and-volley players. But then in 1961 the whole serving business changed.

See, before 1961 servers had to keep one foot on the ground while serving. It really was just like a pitching motion. But that year the rule was changed; servers were freed up to have both feet off the ground. For a few years after the rule change, nothing happened.

Then players of the 1970s and 1980s realized that a jump serve offered countless new possibilities. John McEnroe, for instance, taught himself to do something like a half-twist jump into his serve, launching himself to the net and giving him the greatest serve-and-volley game in the world. As it turned out, McEnroe’s serving style – like the rest of McEnroe’s feathery game – was difficult to imitate. So few chose to play like McEnroe.

But lots of people wanted to be like Roscoe Tanner. He was a 6-foot Tennesean whose overwhelming jump serve generated previously unimaginable power. He leaped ferociously into his serve; a television experiment once showed that the 170-pound Tanner was putting 349 pounds of force into the ground at impact. Tanner and his huge serve won the Australian Open and, more significantly, reached the Wimbledon final in 1979 (where he lost to Bjorn Borg in five sets). He started a revolution. Tanner was soon followed by serving bombers like Kevin Curren and Slobodan Zivojinovic and, most memorably, Boris Becker. The game became more and more about the server.

The rackets started to get lighter and stronger, and we entered the golden age of the tennis serve with Goran Ivanisevic and Greg Rusedski and Mark Phillipousis and others leading to Andy Rodick and John Isner and Milos Raonic and Ivo Karlovic.

Most of all, there was Pete Sampras. The “best serve” argument usually begins and ends with Pistol Pete. Precision was the key. There were a handful of others (not many, but a handful) who hit their serves harder, but none of them could hit the spot the way Sampras could, especially under pressure.

After a while, Sampras’ serve began to take on a mystical quality – when he desperately needed an ace, he got an ace. Opponents with rare break points found themselves, time and again, digging in, the sound of the crowd ringing in their ears, and then helplessly watching the ball go by, and walking dejectedly to the other side of the court.* Sampras won seven Wimbledons and five U.S. Opens – on the fastest courts, his serve was just about unbreakable.

*This is in the numbers, by the way: Sampras saved 68 percent of the break points against him, one of the highest percentages since the ATP has been keeping the stats.

So now the argument: As great as Sampras’ serve was, I propose that Roger Federer’s is even better.

Of course, it all depends on what we’re talking about when measuring serves. Federer does not hit his first serve nearly as hard as Sampras or today’s biggest bombers. He doesn’t rank in the Top 25 fastest serves in ATP Tour history. He does not get nearly as many aces as others either. Federer in his career has averaged 7.6 aces per match, less than Sampras (9.2) and nowhere near the most overpowering servers since 1991:

Most aces per match since 1991 (min. 5,000 matches):

  1. Ivo Karlovic, 19.0
  2. John Isner, 16.5
  3. Mark Phillippoussis, 13.6
  4. Richard Krajicek, 12.5
  5. Sam Querrey, 11.9

But I think the serve is about more than speed. The serve is about more than aces. Heck, the serve is more than just the FIRST serve. Federer’s serve is not as flashy as others. And, because he is so brilliant in so many ways – his forehand might be the best ever, his movement is balletic and so on – his serve gets overlooked.

But nobody breaks it. Roger Federer is 34 years old now, and still nobody breaks his serve. From the Wimbledon final until Friday’s semifinal against his countryman Stan Wawrinka, Federer’s serve had been broken exactly twice, both in the same match against Phillipp Kohlschreiber (Federer still won in straight sets). He often goes through matches without facing a single break point; that’s what happened in the U.S. Open quarterfinal against Richard Gasquet.

Federer serves the way Greg Maddux used to pitch, mixing speeds and spins, bouncing one high, skidding one low, never hinting at what is coming next. No one has ever coaxed an opponent to lean the wrong way more often than Federer. I actually have a theory about this; I think there is something magical about Federer’s toss. He leans forward, bounces the ball two or three times, looks up and tosses the ball. And – maybe this is just my imagination – the ball seems to hang in the air for an instant longer than anyone else’s toss. His toss defies gravity. It just seems to dangle there, as if waiting for the returner to make the first move. Then, and only then, Federer unleashes.

But maybe you would prefer hard numbers: Federer has won 57 percent of his SECOND serves in his career, the highest percentage of anyone in the last quarter century. His second serve is as much of a wonder as his first; he makes it dance.

And, as mentioned, Federer only seems to be getting better. This year his record in his service games is 588-44 – he’s won an astonishing 93 percent of the time, the highest percentage of his career and the highest in the world.

This, to me, is the thing that puts him just a tick ahead of Sampras – his serve continues to dominate the world. By this age, Sampras was two-years retired.

Of course, with Federer (and Sampras) the great serve goes hand-in-hand with complete games. Federer’s first serve sets up winning volleys and overpowering forehands and so on. Others – like Karlovic and Isner and Roddick – have relied on their serves much more because the serve was far and away their greatest weapon. Straight up, first serve against first serve, best against the best, Federer cannot match up with them.

But that’s not what tennis is about. Federer’s serve has stood up over 17 glorious years. It has devastated opponents at Wimbledon (seven championship) and New York (five U.S. Opens) and Melbourne (four Australian Opens). But that serve (unlike Sampras’) also penetrated the clay of Paris – he won a French Open and was a finalist four other times. His serve travels through the seasons. His serve pierces through the wind. His serve never ages.

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