They are giant, and cut the legs of their opponents by stabbing them in the service box. They shorten the game and bully it. They unbalance a symmetrical sport. The big servers, from the top of their 6 feet something, don't play the same game than others. But yet, are they that bad?
He’s often presented as the King of shots. While a good forehand can be worked around, the service is essential and periodic. In each game, at the beginning of each point, he exercises his royal influence, decisive and inevitable. Powerful, the service governs the game while being out of the game. An break in the game, fast, punctual. Moreover, when two innocent geniuses invented the rules of tennis, the service was probably just an opening for the game. Today, it has become a potential speedy ending. The ball is thrown into the air and hit on the ground. And the show ends. The great server, the one who wins all his face-offs without having to play any rallies, participates to kill the movement, brutalize the curves and stifle all kind of variation. The service no longer governs like a king, it dictates as a dictator.
After all, tennis has always been able to feed on the variety of playing styles. But what if the phenomenon of giant servers really accelerated? In the past, the importance of height was counterbalanced by the difficulties of giants to go and get the balls near the ground. But the standardization of playing surfaces and their rebounds gradually cancelled these effects. When all players have to fight with an infinite number of elements, from their forehand to their shots selection, the big servers fight with their service. Are they average tennis players who took a shortcut? Do they really distort the game? Do they kill the show? The shortcut here is to see in the figure of a big server a villain that transforms tennis into a repetition of soporific sets agonizing in the tiebreak.
Height and challenge
In basketball, being tall is an advantage. When he played his first NBA Finals, Shaquille O'Neal and his 7 ft. 1 had to face the 7 ft. of Hakeem Olajuwon. In rugby, the athletics of some meets the power of others. In football, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi are both under 6 ft., while Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 6 ft. 5. In tennis, obviously, all the giants are not great servers. But the correlation is easily proven. Of the fifteen best servers of the tour, according to the percentage of service games won, only one is under 6 ft. (Nishikori, 5 ft. 11, 9th) and only three others are just above the 6 ft. bar: Federer (6 ft. 1, 4th) Wawrinka (6 ft., 10) and Gasquet (6 ft. 1, 13th). Ivo Karlovic and John Isner thus won between 92% and 93% of their services. In 2014, Doctor Ivo was winning 24 aces per game, so six complete sets. A few years ago, the Sampras-Agassi rivalry was drawn on an unbalanced plan because of Pistol Pete's service quality. In a more contemporary setting, the 6 ft. 8 of Kevin Anderson and the 6 ft. 6 of Marin Cilic did great damage at the US Open. And in a more modern setting, finally, Milos Raonic and Nick Kyrgios are already bombing the circuit. "I don’t remember feeling so powerless on the return, even on second balls," said Djokovic after eliminating Raonic narrowly in Rome. A feeling shown by the images below. Do not blink, the ball will not go through the screen. Promised.
Sniper and vulnerability
On the other end, one might think that the best returners are short. But Djokovic (1st), Murray (3rd), Paire, Garcia Lopez or even Monaco are amongst the ten players who break their opponent's service the more often (between 28% and 36%). In fact, the efficiency of big servers doesn't know any force able to compensate for their own, and that is precisely what makes them great: the big servers lead a permanent struggle, psychologically and physically, against the master of their own strength. If he had to be a soldier, the server would be a sniper. It would be the sniper who is positioned hundreds of feet away from the battlefield. The one who sees without being seen. Whoever shoots without being heard. He who kills without feeling death. But the image doesn’t stop there: the big server, just like a sniper, is plagued by his own vulnerability.
Away from the battlefield, the sniper is left to his own devices, to the reliability of his position and accuracy. The server, on his part, depends on the reliability of his arm. A big tired server loses his tennis as Tsonga proved it against Cilic and as the Croat showed it in turn against Djokovic. After two sets, the statistics on points won on second serve is speaking volumes about the two men's game : 86% for the Serb, 11% for the Croat. Karlovic and Isner won less than 10% of their opponents' service. Finally, this vulnerability is physical. Joachim "Pim Pim" Johansson learned it at the expense of his shoulder, that pushed him to retirement at 26 years old. In the last 16 of the 2005 Australian Open, he won 51 aces against Andre Agassi (world record at the time). Vulnerable in the rest of his game, he lost in four sets.
Ivanisevic and the three Goran
But vulnerability is a friend of greatness, like Goran Ivanisevic knows very well, the man with 10,000 aces and as many broken racquets. A character who was holding his racquet like a knife thrower. The best expression of this tension was typically the last game of the 2001 Wimbledon final. Triple finalist in 1992, 1994 and 1996, the Croat was then 125th player in the world on the verge of retiring. A sniper preparing his last shot: a wildcard. But for two weeks, Goran controlled the game. His second round, third round, fourth round and quarterfinal all started the same way: a tie-break and a first set in the pocket of the Croat. Jonsson, Moya, Roddick, Rusedski, Safin and Henman all died under the bombs: Ivanisevic succeeded 213 aces in a single tournament, more than Nadal on all of last season (181). At two sets all and 8-7 in the fifth set of his final against a Pat Rafter with short hair, Ivanisevic served for the match, the tournament, the end of his career. In short, the Croat served for posterity. And the game was inevitably cinematic.
Missed volley. 0-15. Winning service. 15A. Double fault. 15-30. Ace on second ball. 30A. Ace on first ball. 40-30 and match point. Double fault. 40A. Winning service, new match point. And new double fault! After eight points including two match points saved, Rafter still had nothing to do. Between these few shots, we saw a beautiful Goran agonizing on a stifling scene. At that time, Ivanisevic no longer had a physical opponent; he was playing against himself, his superego and mind, which can only hardly control a weapon as powerful than the service. "At every game, there are three players in me that can show up at any time: the good Goran, the bad Goran and the crazy Goran. And they all know how to hit aces." That day, all three Goran delivered a theatrical monologue as frightening than fascinating, mixing religion and superstition. Finally, in seven minutes, both players offered a single spectacular rally, punctuated by a lob inspired by Rafter. What happened next was made of tears, the fabulous moustache of an upset father and finally two consecutive aces. Was this Ivanisevic-Rafter a huge tennis moment without tennis? Greatness doesn't have a playing style. If big servers unbalance the battle between them and their opponents, this imbalance is always offset by this internal struggle, more subtle and less spectacular but equally fascinating for the sport. Because big servers also go to heaven, but only it is played on a tie-break...