Tennis is one of the most difficult sports because you are completely alone on the court — kind of like being a writer.
Unlike team sports, there is no coaching, no substitutions, and no time outs.
You are completely on your own, battling your own personal demons more than the other player across the net.
Just watch some of the greatest chokes in tennis history, and you will see players who are wrecked psychologically for years.
But the one moment above all, where the battle against your nerves is at its peak is the serve.
This is the one moment in the game where you have time to prepare, no worries about chasing down an opponent’s shot, AND an expected advantage.
The expectation of winning can completely destroy the delicate balance of focus, relaxation and explosive athletic movement necessary to play at a world-class level.
I wrote about applying peak performance training techniques to writing.
My ranking of the top 10 serves of the Open Era is based on five different measures.
Here’s a quick summary of my methodology and some tennis history.
#1: I only considered and analyzed players that tennis fans have either seen or read about.
There are some players who hardly ever win a match at the ATP level, but have huge serves, are unbreakable at the Challenger level, and never even reach the top 20.
One player, Joachim Johansson, reached the semis of the 2004 US Open, but was plagued by shoulder injuries so he was only in the top 20 for a year.
Props to him that he held the record for most aces served in one match (51), a four set loss to Agassi. (That record went on to be broken by both Karlovic and Isner.)
#2: We don’t have complete stats for all the players of the Open Era, so I will deal with them at the end of this post.
For the players from 1900–1968, Pancho Gonzalez was probably the greatest server of that era, and should be included in any discussion of all-time great servers.
A testament to the greatness of the Pancho Gonzalez serve was that the pro tennis tour of his time changed the rules of the game to make the matches more competitive.
That’s akin to the NCAA banning the dunk because of Kareem Abdul Jabbar when he was at UCLA.
They tried to make it illegal to serve and volley, forcing a player to wait for the ball to bounce three times (basically, the fifth ball of a rally).
They tried systems where players did not have a second serve.
They even tried to use a secondary service line one yard behind the baseline,so that the server was further away from the net when he served.
None of those rules changes mattered — Pancho still dominated.
The next time you think the system is rigged against you, just remember Pancho Gonzalez.
#3: Modern analytics provide incredible insights on the players.
We are fortunate to now have some wonderful stats on serving by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), from 1991-present: Leaderboard | ATP World Tour | Tennis
You can filter the standings by surface, level of competition, for a specific year, or over an entire career.
Some of the stats need to be understood in context.
For example, Rafael Nadal is the #5 rated server during this period on clay, and in the top 20 on grass and hard courts because of his incredible fighting spirit, and immense tennis skills, but only #425 in aces per match.
Measure #1: Aces vs Double Faults
As a true measure of just the serve, I would look at the ratio of aces to double faults, as this is a measure of how many cheap points a player wins, and also the reliability of their second serve.
Naturally, there are other factors involved, such as mental toughness, the ability to raise ones game under pressure and how much game a player has to back up their serve.
The ability to perform under pressure is the one thing that separates the all-time greats from their peers. As a writer, you can develop the same mental skills: work at your craft every day, and never let short term disappointments affect your energy and committments.
For example, a player with relatively weak ground strokes will probably feel more pressure to take chances on their second serve in order to get into a winning situation.
Here are the best ace-to-double fault ratios:
Note: people remember that Sampras was close to unbreakable during his years at the #1 player, but the serve was only a part of his brilliance.
Along with McEnroe, Edberg and Becker, Sampras was one of the greatest net players of all time.
I’m not talking about his volley, here, I’m referring to his ability to cover the angles of the court and make it almost impossible for an opponent to pass him.
In addition, Sampras was the first player I ever saw who could lunge for a low forehand volley and snap his wrist to drive the ball for surprise winners.
Finally, Sampras had perhaps the greatest forehand half volley of all time when opponents hit a good return at his feet as he came in to the net.
Where most net rushers would get down an try to block the ball deep on half volleys, Sampras attacked the ball as if he was hitting a normal forehand.
(BTW, Federer has the greatest half volleys from the back court I’ve ever seen, as he’s able to redirect deep returns to the other side of the court for winners with an ease and consistency that no one realizes how insane these shots are.)
Measure #2: The dominance of a player compared to his contemporaries
Improvements in rackets and strings, as well as the heights of the players makes it difficult to compare even Sampras’ generation to Isner and Karlovic.
With that in mind, I looked at Sampras’ career by year. By serve rating, Sampras was the best in the world in 1991, 1993–1996, and 2000. He was #2 from 1997–1999, #3 in 1992, #4 in 2001, and #6 in 2002.
Of the modern players, Roddick had a good run as the best server of his time (2003–2005, 2010), but Karlovic (2006–2009, 2014–2015 and Isner (2011–2013, 2016–2017) basically dominate tennis for 10 of the last 11 years.
Measure #3: The efficiency of the service motion
When we think about great servers, a big part of their success is based on a player’s height and the angles they are able to create.
If you look at the ace/double fault ratio rankings above, only four players are under 6′4″: Federer, Sampras, Roddick and Tsonga.
That these players are among the best of their era is a testament to their technique and athletic abilities.
Also, you can add John McEnroe, Roscoe Tanner and Serena Williams to this list. (Even though her serve wouldn’t dominate in men’s tennis, the fact that Serena can hit every type of serve, including flat serves wide of the backhand in the ad court at only 5′9″ is the reason she has the greatest serve in the history of women’s tennis.)
Efficiency is one of the least considered measures of greatness. With athletes, we want to seem them appear to fight to their dying breath. But the secret is in all the preparation that’s done before the match is played. Writers need the same attention to preparation: finding a time and place to write without interruption, and then making it such a routine that it becomes an automatic physical response.
In addition, we have to take into account the huge differences in equipment, and court and ball speeds.
The top servers from the 1990s are at the bottom of the overall list. My guess is that these players were serving and volleying, and forced to take more chances with their second serves, because they didn’t have a good enough back court game to feel comfortable staying back on fast surfaces.
Going back even further, Tanner was hitting 140 mph with this relic from the stone ages.
Imagine what Tanner might have done playing with a modern racket.
Measure #4: Who has the most variety (speed, spin and placement) in their serve
Here’s where I can include the great players I’ve watched during the Open Era:
- John Isner: not only does he hit huge serves to any spot on the court, he can slow down his kick serve so it bounces over the heads of guys like Del Potro (6′6″).
- Pete Sampras: at his peak, he was devastating on both the first and second serves.
- John McEnroe: was so dominant with his left-handed slice serves, players had to cheat over to protect their backhands, which allowed him to kill them out wide of the forehand.
- Boris Becker: with his toss, it looked like every serve was going to be a kick serve, but he could crush the ball and hit a great slice serve.
- Roger Federer: one of the greatest slice serves ever going wide of the deuce court. But he didn’t need to do as much with his second serve because of his baseline game and incredible movement.
Variety creates a huge advantage for servers because their opponents don’t know what to expect. For writers, look at this skills as the ability to go outside of your comfort zone. Writing fiction, poetry, humor, or about non-fiction subjects all require us to use different parts of our minds. In this case variety can be an important method to master your craft.
Measure #5: The most difficult serve to read
This is a measure of the quickness and/or disguise in the motion, and the unpredictability of the player.
This is a little more subjective, so the order could change depending on which match you might watch, the vagaries of memory, and recency bias.
Get ready for a surprise.
- Kyrgios: the erratic Australian has a rocking motion that delivers the ball as quickly as any player besides Rosco Tanner who was one of the few players to hit the serve while it was still on the rise. But I give Nick the edge over the rest of the players on this list because of his service philosophy and unpredictability. He doesn’t believe in second serves, unless he wants to change the pace or conserve energy. He has stated that he never misses the same serve twice in a row, so it’s common for him to hit 130 mph “second” serves that are actually a second first serve to the same spot. (Peter Fleming was the first to do this, back in my playing days, but he didn’t have as much variety.) At the first round of this year’s US Open he hit three second serves over 130 mph in the first game. He’s got the #5 serve rating on the ATP database. If he could become more solid physically and mentally, he would have the potential to be one of the greatest servers of all time.
- McEnroe: Mac’s bizarre motion was the equivalent of a Hall of Fame Major League Baseball pitcher. His back was to his opponents during the windup, so they had no idea where his body was going to go and what kind of serve he would hit.
- Tanner: while he didn’t have as much variety in his serve as the top guys I listed, he was one of the few players to ever hit his serve on the rise. His motion was so quick, and so different from any player serving during his generation, it was almost impossible to break him, even though the rest of his game wasn’t outstanding.
- Isner: besides his height, quick service motion, disguise and the ungodly angles he can create, Isner often looks like he’s going to collapse at the end of a long match. He might barely run for balls in rallies sometimes, but he never lets down on his serve. In addition, he keeps something in reserve even when he’s running on fumes. In this year’s US Open, during the horribly hot and humid conditions that caused a number of players to retire during matches and the suspension of play for the juniors during the heat of the day, Isner had a titanic quarterfinal match against del Potro. The commentators were talking about him being so tired that he started serving more from a 3/4 side arm motion. The speed on his first serve had dropped from a high of 140 mph down to 111 on a couple of serves. But on big points on his second serve, he still could hit 125 mph into a corner, as well as using a 95–98 mph kick serve ace that bounced as high as del Potro’s head.
- Karlovic: Dr. Ivo has one of the most effortless service motions of any player in the game. While players like Roddick look like they’re doing contortions as they prepare to unleash a big serve, the big Croatian looks like he’s just warming up as he hits almost 20 aces per match, the highest number of any modern player. He was still in the top 20 at age 38 in 2017 because his serve and overall game are so relaxed and efficient.
- Sampras: besides tremendous variety, and a well disguised toss, Sampras has a bigger shoulder turn than most of the top servers. His back is facing the serve almost as much as McEnroe, masking his intentions. He was also willing to take more chances, going for a big second serve, so opponents could never feel like they could relax if he missed his first serve.
- Ivanisevic: the combination of being tall, left handed, and hitting the serve at the highest point of the toss made the big Croatian extremely tough to read.
Okay, this is the one area where I can’t make a clichéd attempt to show the connection to writing. Nobody wants to master the art of being difficult to read! On the other hand, your ability to surprise your readers with fresh perspectives will earn you loyal fans.
There are two schools of technique in serving.
Serving isn’t simply about pure power.
Roddick’s serve was huge but his lack of variety and disguise on the serve and his inability to master the serve and volley made it easy for opponents to stand way back and float balls deep.
If you watch each player’s motion, it seems like the rocking action and the back foot stepping up behind the front foot creates a quicker motion that’s harder for opponents to read.
Of the seven most difficult serves to read, only Sampras and McEnroe kept their back foot back throughout the service motion, although Sampras rocked back and lifted up the ball of his front foot to start his motion.
Of the 14 best servers by ace to double fault ratio, only Raonic, Federer and Sampras keep their back leg stationary throughout the motion.
My final rankings of top 10 servers is based on who would be the most difficult to break.
I went with the three most dominant servers of their generation to start the list, penalizing Roddick for his lack of variety.
Then I threw in three of the greatest servers of the era before the ATP stats based on watching them play and knowing that their serves were unreturnable.
Nick Kyrgios has the talent to be around #5, but his lack of training and proper coaching makes him less consistent.
- Isner. It’s interesting that he has a higher ace to double fault ratio on clay (8.3) than he does on hard courts. This speaks to the incredible variety and angles he can create. (His grass court ratio was even more insane at 9.95)
Technical note for interested players.
For players who are not professionals, the rocking style makes it much harder to consistently control the toss and the timing, so it’s not the best way to serve for everyone.
The rocking step-through action also requires stronger and more flexible legs, and is a little harder on the back and abdominals, as players throw their hips forward creating the shape of a reverse “C” with their bodies.
As the motion goes forward, the player has to snap back up and forwards in order to hit the ball in the proper location.
Recreational players will find that as they get tired, their serve will drop off much more when they use this more physically demanding style.
Most people should use Federer’s simple, classic motion as a model. In the same way, most writers are better off finding simple, classic writers to learn about writing. Modern readers are not that interested in the Herman Melvilles of the world, and books as big as whales.
(Please don’t punish me for having such a terrible ending. This was a tennis article, but most of you wouldn’t read it unless it was somehow connected to writing.)
When all else fails, I will quote my friend Gutbloom, and shift the attention to him:
Usually it doesn’t work out and I end up with five to six minutes of pointless dreck.