Boris Becker: 'Boom boom' serves up his Wimbledon thoughts
Boris Becker tells Paul Newman that most of today's players undervalue a key shot
Monday 27 June 2011
The racket technology has improved and so have the strings, but the vast majority of today's players still struggle to match the serving speeds that Boris Becker generated in his pomp. Andy Roddick hit one 143mph serve at Feliciano Lopez in their third-round match on Friday, but in the first week at Wimbledon nobody else could beat the 141mph bullets that "Boom Boom" Boris used to fire.
The best that 43-year-old Becker could manage last week when he had a go at the Ralph Lauren Wimbledon 125th Anniversary Serving Challenge, in which members of the public were invited to test their serve on a virtual Centre Court, was 96mph. "I haven't practised," Becker said by way of explanation. "My top speed in my day was 141mph. We're talking 20 years ago, so I think that's partly the reason why I'm a bit slower."
If Becker's serve is not what it was, the former Wimbledon champion also believes that some of the current leading men are not fully exploiting what could be one of the most devastating weapons in their armoury, even though the slower courts at Wimbledon give less of an advantage these days to the big servers.
"I think the serve on any surface is still a very important part of the game," Becker said. "I think in general it's a bit underestimated. I don't think enough players work on it as much as they work on their physique or their forehands and backhands. Especially on grass, with the low bounce and the quick bounce, it's important.
"Look at Roger Federer. He's serving better than ever. Novak Djokovic has picked up his serve, Rafael Nadal is serving well and Andy Murray has improved his serve too. That has made them better tennis players."
Becker points to the improvements in Nadal's serve as one of the major factors behind his successes at Wimbledon and the US Open, where victory last year completed the Spaniard's collection of Grand Slam titles. "Before Nadal started winning here at Wimbledon he was always very good from the baseline but he had an average serve," Becker said. "Improving his serve made him another player. That's a big reason why he won Wimbledon and why he's the No 1 player in the world."
One of the reasons Becker believes players should spend more time on their serves is the unique nature of the shot. "The serve is the only stroke in tennis that's not influenced by your opponent," he said. "You're the one who decides whether you slice it, spin it, hit it hard, hit it soft. I think that's something that again is under-estimated by a lot of coaches. I had good coaches and fortunately they saw that it was my strength."
Amid the welter of serving statistics that many players and coaches pore over there are ultimately only three that matter. Forget the fastest serves and the highest number of aces and look instead at the percentage of points won on first serve and second serve and the percentage of service games won.
Roddick, John Isner and Ivan Ljubicic hit the fastest serves in the first three rounds last week, but Becker believes that nobody has served better than Federer. The statistics prove his point: only Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Lopez won a higher percentage of points on first serve, nobody could better Federer's second serve figure and none of the 16 players left in the tournament bettered his percentage of service games won. In his 42 service games in the first three rounds Federer was broken just once.
"Federer can serve it in all four corners with speed and slice and power and twist," Becker said. "I think that's where he has an edge over all the other players."
What was the most important factor in Becker's own serve during his heyday? "In a good serve on any given day I was able to hit the lines. That's an advantage, more than power. I think power doesn't hurt you, but the right positioning of the serve is always the key for a good serve."
Nevertheless, power was a major factor in Pete Sampras' serve, which Becker rates the best he ever faced. "Sampras would go for weeks without losing his serve – I'm not meaning matches, I'm meaning weeks. That made him difficult to play. That was his strength. It's like Rory McIlroy hitting three-woods 300 yards. When you do that you're only going to have a 120-yard shot to the green and that will be easier. Then you look at poor YE Yang hitting a driver 270 yards. It's a sign of the times. You can't complain about it."
He added: "My game was pretty much built around my serve. If I had a good serving day it was very difficult to beat me. That doesn't mean that if I had a bad serving day I would lose immediately, but my game was much easier if I had that many free service winners because I would have pretty much an easy service game every time. That puts a lot of pressure on your opponent to hold serve because he knows if he's losing his serve the chances are that he will lose the set."
While he believes the serve remains crucial in the modern game, Becker agrees that racket technology in particular has changed the nature of grass-court tennis. "Players on all surfaces don't have to come to the net as much," he said. "They have enough power through their rackets to hit winners from three or four feet behind the baseline. Therefore on any surface they don't have to come to the net. They don't have to play much slice and they don't have to serve and volley. It means they can't all of a sudden pretend to be serve-and-volleyers. That's the big change."
Brad Gilbert, Murray's former coach, said recently that "grass-court tennis 20 years ago was boring – it was, like, three shots and fans were on their feet." Not surprisingly Becker, three times a Wimbledon champion in the 1980s, disagrees.
"You're talking about a player who's never really done well at Wimbledon," Becker said in reference to Gilbert. "Maybe his frustrations came out in that interview. Maybe he's forgotten the days when Borg was playing from the baseline, the days of Connors when he was winning from the baseline. I think if you get a Sampras-Ivanisevic final then it's kind of tough, because you're talking about two of the best players on the serve. But if you get two baseliners in the final that's also boring. Ideally you get a Federer-Nadal final and you see the best match."
While Becker acknowledges that most players now feel at their most comfortable when playing from the back of the court, he thinks there are times when they should use different strategies. "If you play against Nadal from the baseline you're going to lose, so why do that? I don't understand. You have to mix it up and come to the net. The way Isner played when he took Nadal to five sets in the French Open tells me: 'Wake up! That's how you play Nadal on clay.' How many coaches would see that and how many would teach that? I don't think enough."
And the man who won six Grand Slam titles added: "Because it's easier to stay on the baseline, everyone does it. But does it make you a Grand Slam winner?"
Boris Becker: life and times
* July 1985 At 17 years and 227 days, Becker became the youngest ever male Grand Slam champion and first German to win the Wimbledon singles, beating Kevin Curren
* July 1986 Successfully defended his Wimbledon title, beating the then world No 1 Ivan Lendl in straight sets
* July 1989 Beat defending champion Stefan Edberg, of Sweden, to win Wimbledon for third time
* September Won his only US Open title, overcoming Lendl in four sets
* January 1991 Beating Lendl again, he took Australian Open final in four sets
* July 1992 Won men's doubles gold medal alongside Michael Stich at the Olympic Games in Barcelona
* January 1996 Beat American Michael Chang to claim second Australian Open
* July 1999 Retired following Wimbledon tournament
* 22 November 1967 Born in Leimen, West Germany
* December 1996 Tax evasion problems surfaced after police raided his Munich villa, carrying away boxes of evidence
* October 2002 Prosecutors alleged that Becker evaded more than €1.5m (£950,000) in taxes between 1991 and 1993, when he claimed to reside in Monte Carlo but actually stayed at his sister's loft in Munich. Becker was sentenced to two years' probation
* November 2003 Admitted for first time that he had fathered a child with the Russian model Angela Ermakowa in 1999, which had culminated in the break-up of his marriage to Barbara Feltus, a German designer and actress
* June 2011 His 75-acre Mallorcan villa was reportedly impounded by Spanish authorities after he allegedly failed to pay his gardener's €250,000 fees
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