Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Nalbandian met in the Masters Series final in Paris. The winner would go to the year end championships in Shanghai. The loser would go home.People looked at Pete Sampras as a brilliant shotmaker and supreme big match player but a somewhat boring personality. I always thought shotmakers were emotional players, players who fed off the moment and only fully blossomed when the stakes were high. And they were, in my mind, the opposite of players such as, say, Sampras’ opponent Ivan Lendl who prepared for the moment as much as he fed off it. Lendl popped off to cardio conditioning classes when year round conditioning was a new idea for professional athletes and changed his home court surface to match the US open surface precisely. Roger Federer threw me off too because he’s another brilliant shotmaker yet you hardly heard a peep out of him during a match, and while people called his domination boring more than they called his personality boring – he’s always been very good about doing media interviews and photo shoots, they did ask for more expressiveness on court. Now that Marcos Baghdatis is on the shelf until he can figure out that being a professional athlete means putting in some time at the gym and doing a few forward bends now and then to avoid injury, we have the best candidate in some time that combines raw, in the moment shotmaking, with an electrical personality: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And this week at the Masters Series event in Paris, he’s come through in spades. I’m not wild about Jo-Willie’s thumbs pointing at shoulders celebration that says “look at me, look at what I did” in a way that out-egos even the biggest prima donna in US football or world soccer, but I’m an old fuddy duddy about that. Younger fans seem to like such things. But Jo-Willie has it all: big serve, athleticism, speed, and big shots on big points, and this week he put it all together. He started the week ranked number 13 and made his way to the Paris final despite never having reached a quarterfinal at a Masters Series event, and if he could beat his opponent in the final, David Nalbandian, he’d be in the year end championships, something few people expected. If Nalbandian won the match, he’d be the one flying off to Shanghai for the championships and not many people expected that a few weeks ago either. Nalbandian was the guy who looked nervous at the beginning of the match. He hit a double fault to lose his first service game. Jo-Willie was a bit shaky but, unlike his earlier matches this week, he came out and blanketed the net early and held on to the break of serve to win the first set 6-3. Jo-Willie blanketed the net behind seven aces in that first set and that was huge for him because he struggled this week when his first serve hasn’t been there. It’s not a Sampras-like serve but he won’t be able to beat an un-fatigued Novak Djkovic or a never-fatigued Rafael Nadal without it, he’s just not steady enough from the baseline. Lucky for him the year end championships are indoors on a very slick surface and Nadal and Federer are ailing and Djkovic isn’t playing well. He might do very well at the year end championships but that would be misleading because he skipped the slower courts this year – both clay and hard court, so we don’t know how he’ll do through an entire season. Serving at 3-4 in the second set, Jo-Willie hit and error and followed that up with a double fault and found himself down three break points. He hit four aces to pull himself through the game and that’s the marquee of top players like Sampras and Federer: their serve gets them out of trouble. But both of those players had power and consistency and Jo-Willie has only one of those skills at the moment, and it’s not consistency. Which cost Jo-Willie the second set. He went down three set points while serving at 4-5 to stay in the second set after hitting a few balls out of the court. He hit another ball into the net to give Nalbandian the set, 6-4. Jo-Willie is inconsistent because he insists on pounding every ball as hard as he can and when it works it’s beautiful. Nalbandian couldn’t get his first serve in and Jo-Willie pounded away successfully enough to break Nalbandian early in the third set and go up 2-1. If Jo-Willie could hang on to that break just long enough, he’d have an all expenses paid trip to Shanghai. And he did hang on, literally. Serving for the match, he hit a popup volley then served a double fault and found himself down three break points yet again. Nalbandian gave up the first break point when he couldn’t return a second serve, Jo-Willie then got away with another popup volley and followed that up with tremendous second serve to get back to deuce. Another ace and one more punishing forehand and he’d done it, he’d won his first Masters Series shield. There was no “look at me” celebration, though, just tears and a hug for every member of his family. He’d have hugged every spectator if he could have, and I’d have given him a hug because I’ve been waiting, like all of us, for another shotmaking machine who can rise to the occasion. First, though, Jo-Willie will need a broader ground game and that’ll not only get him through the slower court seasons, but a few finesse shots might also take some pressure off his body and let him actually get through an entire season.
It hardly seems fair: the men are nearly knocking the fuzz off the ball with their serves while the women can barely get the ball over the net. Can anything be done about this? Or to paraphrase Professor Higgins, can a woman be more like a Rottweiler?
It’s the off season in tennis, the slow-mo portion of the year, when we can turn to our little pet peeves and wonder “why?” Lately I’ve been obsessing about why the women on the WTA Tour can’t serve well. For the most part, that is. This has been a frequent rant in these environs, and lately it’s driven me positively Freudian. So I have come up with my own private theory I’d like to share with you.
The women can’t serve because they don’t let themselves really develop the level of aggression that goes into the making of a good serve. They just can’t handle that. It’s not ladylike.
What? After years of the feminist revolution you mean to say the girls can’t get their act together on this point? Yeah, that’s what I mean. We still need those assertiveness training classes.
But what about all those big baseline games we’re getting from most of the women on tour? Why can they whack superwomen forehands all day long but still not serve as if they meant it? Why the one and not the other? That makes no sense, does it? A strange dichotomy is going on here. Somehow it’s ok to wail on your forehands and backhands with all the power you could want.
But ground strokes are different than the serve, I would maintain. Off the ground it’s about you and your pace, and your opponent and her pace. The serve is all about you, and only you. There’s no one to play off of. You are totally responsible for your serve. It’s the one shot in the game of tennis that puts your ability – or inability – squarely in your hands.
Kinda brings a lump to a girl‘s throat, huh? That’s the problem. Too many lumps, too too many throats. There is definitely a fear factor entering in here. Most women players are probably just hoping they can get into a rally. Once in a rally they are ok, the nerves may subside a bit.
When you step up to the line to unload a first serve, your train of thought should be: kill that so and so on the other side of the net, blow it right by her, smile knowingly when she nearly falls out of her socks trying to return your serve. Pump your fist aggressively when you land an ace or a service winner, let your opponent know she’s in for a long afternoon of being your personal mopping device out on the court. Rub it in. Then rub it in again. Enjoy being Ivan Lendl, if only for a few hours(!)
Tennis doesn’t have the same degree of warfare as pro football but it approaches a war when the player is serving. At least it should. You want that first strike capability, and you want to be ready to crush your opponent.
Are there any Amazons out there who can haul off and whack the serve on a steady basis, or are the women pretty much pat ball dummies? When we do have good serving, it’s really really good. Right now I would put three women in the mix: two of them are sisters we know well, the other is a Serbian newcomer who takes the serve seriously, and it’s already starting to show in her game.
The two best serves on the women’s side belong to Venus and Serena Williams. You sense that these two are using their serve not just to kick off the rally but to win the point outright. The difference is that the Williams sisters view the serve as it should be viewed: it’s a weapon. You have to lift the intensity level and feel your oats. Peter O’Toole once said about acting that if you weren’t prepared to go out on stage and be King or Queen of the world, then you shouldn’t be on stage. A bamboo tree would serve you better. Serving is the same thing.
Why are the Williams sisters the lucky ones in the serving game? I would argue that the sisters had so much to contend with as black outsiders in the whitest of all sports, save possibly swimming, that it made them and their games stronger and tougher. They got used to competing and clawing their way into tennis acceptance, and they grew up having no problem taking things out on a poor little ball. They brought power to the women’s game like it had never seen before, and that included big serving. Forehands and backhands may break down but the Williams sisters always seem to have a serve or two left over to punish an opponent with.
Ana Ivanovic is the third member of the Serving Female Assassins. She’s got a sweet nature, too sweet some might say, and her disposition kind of works against my theory, because her serving game is all muscle and pace and power. And placement too. I especially like to watch her serve out wide in the ad court. She can use variety with this shot, hitting a kicker wide as well as a flat ball. She is just as comfortable going up the T as well.
How did a babe like Ana slip through the cracks and become a big mad bomber? Before we chalk this up to something in the Serbian water back home, we can’t say the same of her countrywoman, Jelena Jankovic. Her serve is rather lackluster by comparison. Jelena just puts the ball in play. But Ivanovic treats it like a weapon, like the Williams sisters, and as time goes on it’s going to be a big factor in her winning ways. It also helps that Ivanovic is a strong six footer. It is easier to serve well when you know you’re that big. You should be pouring in one first serve after another.
Can a nice girl like Ana keep coming up with a big dominating serving game? So far she’s been able to. I like her positive actions out on court. She pumps her fist when she scores a good serve so you know she is honed into this most important aspect of the game. Now, whether she has the stuffing to lift her ranking into the top three in the world remains to be seen. So far, though, so good. Too bad there aren’t many women who want to keep her company.