Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Blame It On Steffi

by MMT

There’s been a great deal of discussion at this year's US Open about the problems that top WTA players have serving today. Almost as curious is the paucity of good analysis as to 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, weilding unforgiving 85 square inch 15 ounce wood racquets, a player couldn't get away with bad technique on the serve - today they have oversized composites to help them hide the fact that their technique is sorely lacking.



b said...

this is a very interesting article

I think more important for people to critically evaluate players, despite results and to develop individual games

Michael said...

This is a great article. Similarly, lots of folks are modeling their serve on Roddick's, but without his double-jointed giftedness.

So if it's the classic serve to try, and the toss is key, which I agree - where do we want the toss in the horizontal dimensions, MMT? I hear you about vertically it needs to be about at the apex of the toss. Horizonally, I see most pros tossing the ball from outside to inside of their body and into the court, at a diagonal. Do you think that pattern matters?

MMT said...

I think the pattern matters less than specifically the point of contact, which optimally needs to be up and out: up to bring the players legs into the stroke, and out to bring them into the court, that way they're transferring their weight forward into the court.

Safina and Venus have a tendency to toss too far to the left, bring their head down and to the left, particularly on the second serve, which causes them to double fault into the net

Ivanovic and Dementieva (less so now than in the past) tend to toss it too far to the right, making them come around the stroke (side-arm) rather than over their shoulder, again reducing poweerr.

Sharapova's shoulder problems and general weakness in that joint causes her racquet to trail the momentum of her forward movement, losing optimal power, though she still leans into the court, so her issue has less to do with her toss than in the kinetic sequence of weight transfer through the stroke.

But all of their serves are way less effective than they should be - they're all 5'11+ and all give away way too many points on the serve.

The best served in women's tennis is Serena's - good toss (up and out) good weight transfer forward, direction and spin on the second serve.

They'd all have made the 2nd week if it weren't for their serves.

Michael said...

Thanks for the follow up MMT. By "out" you mean towards the net? (I would call this in, so that's why I ask.)

I notice both Wickmayer and Bondarenko tossing extremely high tosses as well. Part of it may be that if your toss is inconsistent in location, a higher toss gives you some time to see and adjust, whereas a low toss doesn't. So instead of working on a consistent good toss, some players may think they are better with a higher toss, albeit inconsistent in location.

Craig Hickman said...

Love this essay and discussion. I'm learning a lot.

Karen said...

I play tennis and one of the problems that I have is my ball toss. That and the fact that I have zero racquet head speed (which my coach tells me I need) in order to have pace on the serve. I have a relatively low ball toss (arthritis) but each time that I see people like Venus step up to the line to serve, I always cringe because her whole service motion is so jerky. Her head is all over the place, her ball toss is to the left, right, behind her, in front of her etc. Serena on the other hand rarely catches a ball toss. She just steps up to the line, tosses the ball, it is right where she wants it, and bam, ace out wide. One of the things that commentators mention is that it would seem as if Serena as a child threw a lot of balls. They also state that she is the only player who they see who consistently work on her serve during practice. Methinks the rest of the ladies could perhaps do the same. I think one of the other issues is that none of these players who are having problems with their serve have a serving coach. Are those still around?

MMT said...

Michael: yes, when I say out I mean into the court. And I agree that probably some of these ladies feel they need the time to get the heavier racquet head up and over so they toss it higher. When they finally make solid contact, they are deluded into thinking their serve has improved, when in fact, it's probably just less consistent.

Karen: there is a documentary covering Richard Williams coaching of Serena and goes through one of their sessions at their home in Florida. One thing he spent a lot of time with her on is throwing.

In one clip he has her throwing old tennis racquets up and out onto a pile on their yard about 20 feet away. About 50 racquets in the clip I saw.

I should also point out that both Venus and Serena did 100 pushups and 200 situps a day religiously for 10 years before they turned professional - it's documented in a 60 minutes piece from the 80's.

That motion is important, but I imagine he's done the same with Venus - my guess is Venus' toss is the problem, as you've noted.

One last thing: for your serve, you may want to consider a lighter racquet - you will lose something on your most powerful stroke, but your serve and weaker stroke will improve.

I would move in 1 ounce increments until you get something that's so light the racquet moves in your hand and move back up until your power improves on the serve, but the racquet remains stable. You may also want to consider a smaller grip size.

Best of luck with your serve.

Michael said...

MMT, thanks for the insightful comments. I look forward to overhauling my serve (yet some more) with many of your comments in mind.