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Tennis 101: The importance of the serve and the service-break

Sumedh Natu
Top 5 / Top 10
Published 23 Jan 2013, 11:50 IST
23 Jan 2013, 11:50 IST

To a non-player or a casual observer of the game, tennis has far too many subtleties that are impossible to understand till you’ve physically lifted a racket and whacked a ball with it. What appears as a relatively boring or mediocre match for an observer, can be mental hell to the actual players engrossed in the battle.

The Championships - Wimbledon 2012: Day Four

Nadal is known to be highly self-critical.

Rafael Nadal once put up a Facebook status after demolishing a qualifier 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 in the first round of the French Open about what a dreadful match he had played. It doesn’t matter whether you win or not, if your timing is a bit off or if your footwork is sluggish, the mind has this annoying habit of telling you something is drastically wrong. How you counter that feeling is what makes or breaks your match.

Most people never get the significance of a service break. This is how it generally works:

1) As compared to the rest of your game, your service and fitness are two elements which remain in your hand. You can actually keep practicing your service and hone it to perfection. This isn’t something you can do with your ground-strokes where your actual inborn reflexes come into account. It would be impossible to teach someone to hit the ball like Federer, but possible all the same to teach anyone to hit a service good enough to take a few points off even him.

2) Four straight points make a game. In theory, four decent services are enough to win you a game with even average groundies. For any professional player within the top 500, a service game is like picking up a loaded gun. Messing it up is sacrilege.  Breaking your opponent’s serve is naturally a huge deal in a match. It means not only have you anticipated the trajectory, spin, slice, speed and direction of more than four of your opponent’s serves, in lesser than a second’s worth of reaction time, but you’ve also played out those points and taken the game. It’s like taking a wicket in a cricket match. You’ve dented your opponent. Of course, saying this or writing about it, is easier said than done.

A player like Karlovic or Raonic is guaranteed a tie break every alternate set because of the sheer velocity of their service. Once a set reaches a tie break, it’s almost like a blind-shootout. Unless you’re playing a top-10 player, it can actually go either way. The next time you watch the rare occasion when a big server is broken in a set, even the quietest of receivers will have a mini-party hosted on their side of the court. It’s an 80 percent guaranteed set win.

3) When your service is broken in a tie break, the break is called a mini break. This is less serious than an actual service break, but puts twice the amount of pressure while receiving. You know you need that one point straight back, or you’d eventually reach set point when your opponent is serving. A tie-break can be one of the scariest and most demotivating points in a set. The feeling of losing a set after grinding on for 12 straight games is devastating. It’s often worse because regrouping after a bad tie-break is even harder.

4) This is exactly why the level of intensity of your game is judged more or less with the amount of times you’ve broken, or been broken. A single break with a 7-5, 6-4 or 6-3 score is your average set. Nothing special about it. Sets typically last for around 40 minutes. A double break is a bit of an embarrassment. If your opponent has managed to find a way around your serve twice in the same set, there’s something going wrong. 6-2, 6-1 scorelines in a set mean a double break. It’s very safe to add at this point that you’re being steamrollered.

5) A triple break, or what we call a bagel, is the grand 6-0 score-line. If you haven’t been able to save your service even once in the entire set, you have issues. When a top-4 match is going on and one of the players actually gets that bagel, mind you – it’s an achievement. For someone like Nadal to earn a 6-0 set against Federer, even if it’s once in his entire career, is a huge thing.


6) A double bagel is…er…getting yourself spanked in front of a capacity crowd. It’s the worst humiliation a tennis player can have. It’s almost like a bowler getting attacked for 6 sixes in an over or a football player missing over three strikes at an open goal. You shrug it off. This is why Sharapova’s consecutive double bagels were so talked about. It spoke verses about the decline in quality of women’s tennis. If a player in the top 120 rankings in the world can get her service mauled six straight times, there’s something really wrong  out there.



7) The psychology of tennis players is entirely set based. Most players are taught to concentrate on the outcome of each set individually, rather than the match as a whole. I’ve often been asked why or how a player who’s lost the first set 1-6 or 0-6 can suddenly come back to win the next two.The answer is entirely psychological. If a player is trailing by two breaks he’d rather tank the set and force his mind to regroup for the next. It’s much easier than forcing your mind to try and re-break to keep fighting on.

The reason why players like Nadal or Djokovic are such fantastic fighters is because they, unlike most other players don’t look at the match or set as a whole, but concentrate on every single point. Djokovic in particular has this unbelievable ability to vent out all the frustration he has inside him a second before match point and win it like he was strutting in a park. The most famous of them all, the match-point he hit for a clean forehand winner in the US open semi-finals against Federer stands testimony to this.

Nadal, on the other hand, goes for an extreme spin strategy during danger times. He will top spin the ball so high that it will land in court even if he hits it a kilometre away. Federer, in the late 2000’s would attack at the slightest chance of break. Seeing Federer rush towards the net is enough for most players to wet themselves, besides the fact that his volleys are like programmed missiles. As of today, that tactic has changed just so slightly because he isn’t as consistent as he used to be.

Next time: Pre-Match Rituals.

Modified 19 Dec 2019, 20:57 IST
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