Rohit at Australian Open: Big men, big serves, big falls
Published on Jan 17, 2014 6:43 PM
Pete Sampras is the reason I go to watch Jerzy Janowicz on a Friday morning where a kind wind brings faint relief to another sweltering day. On YouTube, a small piece of film records Sampras' serve in super slow-motion. It is all smooth malevolence, all technical virtuosity, all lithe athleticism. Thor would see it and take his Hammer home in fear. Sampras could feel aces coming as if it was his choice whether to serve one.
The serve is a conversation opener for clay-courters, for Sampras it was like a piece of punctuation. Usually a fullstop. He wasn't the only advertisement. Boris Becker's rocking as he prepared to launch was an intimation of the carnage to come. Goran Ivanisevic, with his simple, unfolding action, once served a second serve ace at match point in Wimbledon. No one likes these guys except spectators. Especially not receivers, who feel bullied. Big servers, some days, don't let you into a game, they humiliate you, they test patience and reflex, they win games in a minute, they live on cheap points.
Janowicz is a big server and German Florian Mayer, who played him today, said later: "Normally I don't like playing guys like them, it's so tough. They have the big serve and you have to hold serve all the time." Former claycourter Carlos Costa, who is in Rafael Nadal's team, admits when cornered in a hallway by me and an Australian colleague: "To have a big serve is a weapon, 100 percent -- you don't have to run every point if you have a big serve. Ask Rafa -- he would love to have a big serve."
Janowicz is 23 in a male circuit which is searching for young challengers to the Fab Four but has found none. The Pole, who at 2.03m resembles a lamppost with sunglasses, reaches up for the ball while serving like a man stretching lazily in the morning, and then lets go. He's so tall that he tells Mats Wilander in an interview, "It's not easy for me to hide (in Poland)". But this morning he looks lost.
He starts with a double fault, a drop shot that doesn't work, a 209km/h service winner, stares down a call and then holds serve. In his next game he goes 220km/h, 204km/h, 212km/h, then a double fault. Then slowly he begins to fall to pieces. Mayer dissects him, but already there is a part of Janowicz that is broken. He had a fractured foot and now says: "Before I was leaving Poland it was still a little bit broken; was not 100 per cent healthy. There was still quite a bit inflammation."
His serve will not be enough today. But then it often isn't on tour. As a single weapon it is insufficient, especially in an all-round game and in a slower game. As Costa explains: "When the courts were fast it was easier to be on the top. Now the courts are more slow, all the courts are more similar. When I play, Rome was faster than Monte Carlo, now all the clay is similar conditions, balls, racquets. It's more equal... Before it was easier to be a top player with a big serve than now."
Height, of course, is a tennis necessity and grand slams are rarely won by men under six feet. The last was Gaston Gaudio, 1.75m (five foot, nine inches) who won the French Open in 2004. Height gives the serve heft, it offers reach but beyond a point it is not merely advantage but also impediment.
Both Costa and Mayer will echo each other and say: If you are too tall it affects your movement. For this is now a highly mobile game, built on footwork and short bursts of speed and endless swivels. Tall men can appear to lumber, as if their joints are complaining while stretching and bending, and if Juan Martin Del Potro appears an exception, it is because, says Costa, he was brought up on Argentine clay.
For a while, a few years ago, height was all tennis could talk about. After all, Kevin Anderson is 2.03m, John Isner 2.08m, Sam Querrey 1.98m. But none threaten at slams. Neither do the pure big servers. Of the six fastest servers so far this event, five -- Samuel Groth (234km/h), Ryan Harrison (226km/h), Janowizc (226km/h), Ernests Gulbis (223km/h) and Fernando Verdasco (221km/h) -- have gone home already. In the list of the Top 25 fastest servers so far this Open you will not find Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer.
The Swiss has, or had, the most most beautiful serve among the foursome, fluent and accurate, more sniper than muscular bully. It is his weapon, as it is Murray's, but they are all much more than their serves. They are just tall enough, too -- Nadal (1.85m), Djokovic (1.88m), Murray (1.9m), Federer (1.85m) -- and majestically mobile. It is like they have been constructed perfectly for greatness.
Janowicz may not be. Either way, this wasn't his day. Mayer outplayed him, took pace of his shots, stayed patient and, ironically, also out-served him. The Pole had three aces, the shorter German had 17. The Pole's average first serve speed was 186km/h; the German's was 165km/h. Sometimes it's not how hard you hit it, but where you put it. Sampras was awesome because he did both.