Wimbledon '99: Secrets of an express delivery

Anatomy of a Rocket Man: Greg Rusedski's world record service is primed for blast-off again; Ronald Atkin meets the original master blaster, Roscoe Tanner
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The Independent Online
WHEN ASKED to share the secret of his big serve, Richard Krajicek kept a straight face and advised: "The no-brainer is best. Throw the ball up, don't think and hit it as hard as possible. And eat spinach." More seriously, Krajicek added: "Actually, it's about rhythm and timing. Once you have that, you can worry about strength."

Strength in abundance will be on parade at Wimbledon from tomorrow as big boomers like Greg Rusedski, Goran Ivanisevic and Mark Philippoussis - Krajicek, too - try to blow the opposition away. The big serve has always been a potent weapon on grass, but one of its more effective exponents, Roscoe Tanner, has fascinating and surprising things to say about the cannon which got him to the 1979 Wimbledon final and won the Australian Open in 1977.

Tanner, now 47, was competing last week in the Mulberry Classic seniors' event at Hurlingham. Talking between his matches, he revealed himself to be a thinking man's server rather than the brute-force fellow we all took him for when he was aceing people at speeds in excess of 140 miles an hour.

"I had a fascination with the serve," he said. "Used right, it is a huge advantage. When you serve you get to step up and start the point, so you get to think about it before you hit it, rather like a golf shot, what to do to set up the rest of the point.

"Not only can you hit serves of varying speeds but you can hit the two different corners or serve right at your opponent. You don't always have to hit the big one, it can be a threat. If the other guy is burrowed in, expecting a big serve, you can hit a medium pace, or spin one in, and he misses the return. The way I look at it, them missing the return is just as good as an ace because you don't get a bonus point for making them miss it cleanly.

"I tried to move the ball around, as well as hitting it hard, but I wasn't going for aces. The way I was taught was to fool the guy, because if you fool him you win the point. It's like cricket, if the bowler gives the batsman something he isn't expecting he has a good shot at a wicket.

"The skill is for the server to think about what he is doing. If I was serving and the other guy hit a winning return I regarded it as my fault for serving where he was looking. I could serve at 150mph to Jimmy Connors and if he knew where it was going it would come back at 155."

Rusedski is the official record holder of tennis's speed serve with 149mph but Tanner says he has been timed at 153. It happened in 1976 at a tournament in Palm Springs, California. "The speed gun came in towards the end of my career and that day I was repeatedly in the 140-145 range.

"Afterwards, I was told somebody from an American tennis magazine sitting in the stands with a gun had clocked me at 153. I never worried too much about speed and that's why I didn't think any more when they told me. There was no recognition because it was not done under official measuring conditions.

"In those days a sportswear firm used to sponsor a serving competition all over the US. The entrants were not the touring pros, more the club professionals, but we had a lot of guys in the 140s. I think the old, original small-head graphite rackets were faster because there was less to move through the air."

The player who came to be known as "The Man from Lookout Mountain" learned to serve as a seven-year-old in his home state of Tennessee, where Jerry Evert, Chris's uncle, took him into the woods, positioned him under a tree and told him to knock the leaves off. "He would say `Right, now hit that leaf'. We did that for a while before I ever went to the tennis court and that's how I learned to serve. As a result, the toss became something simple.

"What I did was place the toss into the path of my swing, sort of feed it in. That way the other guy doesn't get to look at the ball very long. If you throw it up he gets a certain amount of comfort seeing the ball and picking it up before it is on the way. Also, with my method the wind doesn't become as much of a factor. It can blow the ball after you hit it, which is maddening, but it doesn't make my toss go all over the place."

Despite the criticisms of short points on grass, Tanner thinks Wimbledon should never change its surface. Instead, since the players are getting taller, he advocates raising the net a couple of inches. "A tennis court was designed when people were 5ft 10in maximum, so raising the net would force the big guys to serve with a trajectory instead of hitting it flat, as they do now."

Tanner is an admirer of the way Pete Sampras serves. "He's very smart, he doesn't hit as hard as the biggest players but he tends to pick up on places and opportunities where he needs to. On a big point the odds are Pete is getting in the first serve, and with some meaningful ideas behind it.

"When I played on the tour I never stepped up thinking `ace' because when you do that your anxiety level builds and you tend to miss. That's one mistake a lot of people make, going for the ace."

Tanner was only once talked into ace-chasing. It was in a doubles at the Albert Hall, where he partnered Arthur Ashe against Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle. At 6-5 in the second set, as Roscoe prepared to serve for the match, Ashe said to him: "I've heard a lot about your serve, show me some aces." The first three points were all aces, then on match point Rosewall just touched the serve with the frame of his racket. "I knew you couldn't do it," said Ashe.

Tanner thinks some of today's top servers do not maximise their potential because they are not fully aware of the advantages of hitting the ball hard. Asked for one piece of advice for Rusdeski, he offered this: "Sometimes he appears in too much of a hurry, he gets rolling too fast, gets ahead of himself and forgets to think. Fred Perry once told me, `Take your time before you serve. When the ball is in your hand the other guy can't do anything'."