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ATP Tennis 360


October 7, 2009 11:48 AM

In modern tennis serve doesn't almost count - Part 3: game strategies

Recap of previous parts: in modern tennis the impact of serve is increasing, but has not yet become dominant in determining of results, as data for Grand Slam tournaments from 1980 to 2008 testified. Tennis is not a technology-driven sport, as swimming or Formula 1. Racquet evolution, in fact, has made easier hitting flat balls with great speed and power. But has at the same time changed the game strategies, as this third part demonstrates.

An extreme swing became possible thanks to new racquets producing rallies characterized by more-than-150kph groundstrokes. Inevitably, this development stressed stringings and strings, now realized in nylon or polyester synthetic for its superior durability and consistency compared to natural gut. The design of the new longer models, besides, has requested some adjustments in the biomechanical execution of serve and strokes. Hitting the ball nearer to the neck than in the face barycentre let the player develop greater power. This phenomenon is explained because with a fixed handle, the rim can bow on itself and the energy introduced through the rim deformation isn’t given to the ball. Hitting near the neck, the more it is the effective rigidness and the less the energy lost in the racquet deformation. Consequently, longer and oversize racquet has made available an unprecedented power surplus modifying, and consequently conforming, game strategies.

Foster Wallace again underlines that “composites’ lighter, wider heads and more generous centers let players swing faster and put way more topspin on the ball...and, in turn, the more topspin you put on the ball, the harder you can hit it, because there’s more margin for error. Topspin causes the ball to pass high over the net, describe a sharp arc, and come down fast into the opponent’s court (instead of maybe soaring out)”.

In modern tennis lifted strokes are almost disappeared or used as a desperate and extreme resources in defensive situations while backsping attacking approaches are considered as counter-productive. More elastic composites let the ball remain more time on the face letting the player experiment a greater control in the direction of the subsequent passing shot.

Besides, the improved physical preparation has favoured a standardized “Nick Bollettieri’s style” tennis, dominated by the serve-and-forehand scheme. The enlarged muscular mass allows superior arm rotations, until the extreme 6m rpm topsins by Rafa Nadal. Passing is becoming easier, because a player could hit with great advance, when the ball is yet raising after the rebound. More, the global diffusion of two handed backhands let players find acute angles unreacheable with a traditional backhand.

Theese opposite influences could explain why the opening game stroke isn’t rised to principal pointer in a tennis match. Because, on one side, muscular mass combined with the innovations in the racquet projects produced a widespread ease in displaying 200 (or more) kmh first serves. But, on the other hand, the same innovations increased the facility in returning to this bombing serves and turn the return from a defensive situation into an attacking opportunity.

A last annotation is referred to surfaces. The lawn is the most favourable to “bombers” for the low rebound angle, in spite of the constant slackening in its intrinsic speed, as the 2002 Wimbledon final brightly testifies: then Lleyton Hewitt defeated David Nalbandian and there wasn’t any serve-and-volley in the entire match. On the lawn, at Wimbledon, percentages of serve impact are in the last lustre slighty higher than the taxes registered at the Championships in the Borg and McEnroe era.

Red clay stubbornly remains the less preferred surface for big hitters because there the serve pays less than everywhere else. The rebound angle, in fact, is more similar to an equilateral triangle, so the ball follows a direction with a 60 degrees inclination as to the clay, as Karlovic knows at his best, having lost twice matches in few months establishing new record aces: 55 against Lleyton Hewitt at the Roland Garros first round, the astonishing amount of 78 against Radek Stepanek in the first rubber of the Davis Cup semifinal. But in 12 occasions out of the last 13, when a player has equalled or increased the ace record, he has lost the match.

So, the form is evolving, but the substance of the “Game of the Kings” is always the same.

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