Speed kings smash subtlety out of tennis

Mark Rowe on the victory of power over finesse
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The Independent Online
Wimbledon fortnight starts tomorrow. But cast your mind forward to the year 2037: it is the Men's Final, with the number one seed, Robocop, pitted against the second seed, The Terminator. After a fifth set that is still unfinished after 95 minutes, it is decided that the match should be won by whoever serves faster.

A little far-fetched, perhaps, but with every summer at Wimbledon, the age of the automaton tennis player who thrives on high-speed serves and eschews rallies comes a little nearer.

Tennis's problem is not only that serves are getting faster, but that improved racket technology and a greater emphasis on nutrition and maximising fitness mean that more players are serving at high speed, more consistently.

"It all comes down to the rackets," said the BBC commentator and former player John Barrett. "The game has lost a lot of its subtlety."

In the 1970s and early 1980s the occasional player served at high speed without modern racket technology. In 1979 Roscoe Tanner was electronically clocked at 141mph using a metal racket and was once unofficially recorded at 153mph.

Today's hi-tech graphite rackets have tags such as XL and FX, making them the XR2s and GTis of the tennis world. These large-headed rackets offer up to 30 per cent more speed than the old wooden rackets.

"Players are getting taller and many more are able to serve at 120mph," said the International Tennis Federation's technical director, Andrew Coe.

IBM began monitoring service speeds in 1992. The fastest officially recorded serve is 142.3mph by the Australian Mark Philippoussis. At that speed the returner has one-third of a second to react. In a trial last week, Philippoussis produced similar speeds with graphite and wooden rackets.

Fred Perry, three-times winner of Wimbledon in the 1930s, and Rod Laver, the grand slam winner in 1969, clearly served at significantly slower speeds, though precise figures are not available. Today's women's record is held by Brenda Schultz- McCarthy with 121.8mph.

However, a big serve is still not enough on its own, said Alastair McIver, editor of Tennis World magazine. "You still need an all-round game to win Wimbledon. Ivanisevic has as big a serve as anyone and he has got to two Wimbledon finals but not quite had the game to go all the way."

But the new technology has improved the women's game, according to Mr McIver: "For many years we only had two women players who could win a tournament - Evert and Navratilova or Navratilova and Graf. The graphite rackets have given a competitive edge to the women's game, improved their all-court play, and their top ten is now very tight."

Nutrition has raised fitness to levels where standards can be maintained for longer. Players now regularly eat bananas between games to provide stamina, and pasta, salads, fresh fruit and fruit juices feature strongly in their daily diet.

But will we see the Lomu-isation of tennis - giant, super-fit players in the mould of All Black rugby star Jonah Lomu? Not according to researchers at the British Olympic Medical Centre in London. "I can't actually see the day when we have robo-players smashing down aces," said Polly McCarthy, senior physiologist. "Players are too individual. Not every player wants to serve hard; there will always be the touch players like McEnroe."

In research carried out at Loughborough University, Dr McCarthy established that nutrition had no influence on serving speed. "There is a long chain of factors involved in serving fast," she said. "Damp weather can slow the balls down; the player's muscles and his psychological state all affect the speed of the serve.

"But if you combine technology with improved fitness and nutrition the player will have better endurance and be able to maintain his technique for much longer, stay alert and be less prone to injury."

Suggestions aimed at countering the big servers in the male game include: lengthening the court; moving the serving line a foot behind the baseline; abolishing the second serve; making serves above a certain speed a let; introducing a spongy layer of turf to absorb the speed of the ball.

But the age of the power serve has not affected ticket sales for Wimbledon: 400,000 tickets were sold and more than one million people applied this year. Mr McIver said: "Tennis has been diminished as a spectacle. If the public stops going then something will be done about big serves - but if they continue to go in huge numbers the authorities will say 'Why bother?' "

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