Serena Williams Will Need To Serve Better To Tie Margaret Court

With one more win at Wimbledon, Serena Williams would tie Margaret Court, the only player in history with 24 Grand Slam singles titles. In Saturday’s final, the 37-year-old Williams will battle Simona Halep, who won the French Open last year but has never won a Wimbledon title. Williams appears to have shaken off the rust of earlier this season and seems, at last, to have returned to her perch as the most dominant player in the history of tennis.

There’s just one problem: Williams’s incredible serve is still a little shaky.

“I don’t know if I’ve had my best serves this tournament,” Williams said. “I’m just now starting to use my legs again.”

On Thursday, Williams beat Barbora Strycova, a 33-year-old who had never reached a Grand Slam singles semifinal. Strycova, who has a fine track record at doubles, reaching the semifinals in each major event, couldn’t control Williams, who won 6-1, 6-2.

But Williams hasn’t played anyone like the 27-year-old Halep. She’s great at receiving serves and, at times, pouncing on them, too. Halep has won 53 percent of return points — and that includes first and second serves. Williams, known as an all-time returner, has won 43 percent.

Halep also sounds eager and hungry. “I feel stronger mentally facing her,” she said. “We will see what is going to happen.”

Williams has yet to play against a top 15 player in this tournament. According to the WTA, Williams’s opponents so far had an average rank of 75.2, and only two of them were seeded (No. 30 Carla Suarez Navarro in the fourth round and No. 18 Julia Goerges in the third). A similar scenario unfolded a year ago, when Williams coasted to the finals with her average opponent ranked even lower at 80, until she faced Angelique Kerber in the final. Kerber, who has an attacking style similar to Halep’s, beat Williams 6-3, 6-3.

Williams needs to serve as well as possible to tie Court’s record, and so far, her serve has seemed vulnerable. Throughout the event, Williams has won 54.2 percent of second-serve points, which is solid and in line with her career numbers at Wimbledon. But the first serve counts the most, and Williams has not nearly been her best. She has won 74 percent of her first serves in her six matches. That’s lower than for all of her Wimbledon wins; her previous low at a Wimbledon in which she won was 75.8 percent in 2003. Her share of first serves won was much higher for her most recent match, at 89 percent, so perhaps she has started to find her footing.

At her best, Williams’s serves have been efficient and brutal. In 2010, she won 87.5 percent of the points for which she landed her first serve, the highest at Wimbledon in her career. (That year, Williams hit 23.5 percent of her total points served as aces.) Williams didn’t lose a set that year (she also lost no sets in 2002). In 2012, Williams had stats nearly as impressive, hitting 20.9 percent of her total points served as aces. That’s the only time Williams hit more than 100 serves as aces (102 in all) at Wimbledon.

Williams has played Halep 11 times, including three at a Slam. Halep has won just once, in 2014. But she played Williams close at the Australian Open this year and won a set from her in the 2011 Wimbledon, back in their first matchup. Williams knows this will be her biggest test, and she knows that Halep is ready.

“The biggest key with our matches is the loss that I had. I never forgot it. She played unbelievable,” Williams said. “That makes me know that level she played at, she can get there again. So I have to be better than that.”

Women’s Tennis Is Finally Getting Young Again

In the French Open final, 19-year-old Markéta Vondroušová, who dazzles with drop shots, will face off with Ashleigh Barty, 23, who is crafty and quick with a ton of energy. Amanda Anisimova, 17, reached the semis by hitting smooth strokes and bullets all day long. And world No. 1 Naomi Osaka lost early in Paris but claimed two Grand Slam titles by the age of 21.

Women’s tennis is, at long last, getting young.

The average age of players who have won at least one WTA title this year is 23.6 years old. That’s the lowest age since 2008 — and it will drop even further after Saturday. At the French Open this year, the final eight women in the event were no older than 28.

This represents a sharp downturn from most of the previous decade. The average age of WTA winners floated between 25.8 and 26.1 between 2013 and 2016. But it also serves as a return to normalcy for women’s tennis, which had long been dominated by youth: The average age of WTA tour players in 1990 was 20.9, as 21-year-old Steffi Graf and 17-year-old Monica Seles finished the season ranked first and second. That average age would not rise above 23.5 for nearly two decades.

The amount of young talent is enormous again. And impatient. Since Serena Williams won her last major at the Australian Open in 2017, only one other Slam winner has been at least 30 years old: Angelique Kerber, who won Wimbledon at age 30 last year. The winners of the other seven majors: Osaka, who won the 2018 U.S. Open at age 20 and the 2019 Australian at 21; Jelena Ostapenko, who won the 2017 French at 20; Garbiñe Muguruza, age 23 when she won the 2017 Wimbledon;5 Sloane Stephens, who won the U.S. Open at 24; Simona Halep, who won the French Open last year at age 26; and Caroline Wozniacki, the 2018 Australia Open winner at age 27.

Part of this may be cyclical. As clusters of young, talented players emerge, a generation of older players who exceeded the normal life expectancy of a tennis career is nearing its end — and we aren’t just talking about the Williams sisters, who are now 37 and 38 years old. Francesca Schiavone, 38, won the French Open in 2010 but retired last September. Roberta Vinci, 36, shocked the world at the 2015 U.S. Open when she beat Serena Williams, who was two wins away from a golden Slam, but Vinci retired in May 2018. Agnieszka Radwanska, 30, who lost the Wimbledon final in 2012, called it quits in November.

Other players might not last that long, either. Samantha Stosur, 35, is in great shape and is an expert in doubles, but she struggles in singles. After next year’s Olympics, 30-year-old Dominika Cibulkova could decide to leave the game, too. Maria Sharapova, 32, has missed most of this season with injury. Victoria Azarenka, 29, is back after struggling since she had a child, but she might never be as powerful as she was in 2013.

After she lost a doubles match this year in Paris, Lucie Safarova announced she had retired from tennis. Now age 32, Safarova had played in Slams since 2005. She never won a major singles title, but she came close at the 2015 French Open, when she lost to Serena Williams in three entertaining sets. Safarova also won five doubles majors with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, including two in Roland-Garros.

“I think that it’s great that the competition is so strong,” Safarova said. “And we have, I think, at least 100 players now are amazing competitors. And you just have to be strong and play your 100 percent to be able to be here.”

On Saturday, Barty and Vondroušová will likely be nervous, as is usually the case for players in a Grand Slam final. But their youth — and their passion — is what this age of tennis is all about.

Rafael Nadal Is Playing Mind Games With You

When you think of Rafael Nadal, you might think of a player who hits balls with hellacious topspin and grinds out points on clay. His RPMs and his sweat grab the glory. But the 11-time French Open champion uses a few insidious tricks that go beyond the obvious strokes and traditional tactics.

All of Rafa’s ways and means traveled to Roland Garros in 2019 — the energy, the rituals, the patterns of play — it’s all been put to use in another run to the semifinals, this time at age 33. He’ll need every tactic at his disposal, the conspicuous and the cunning, as he takes on Roger Federer and potentially Novak Djokovic after that.

Here are three examples of the subtle mental maneuvers that Nadal makes against his opponents.

He makes them wait

Strictly from a length-of-match standpoint, Nadal is one of the slowest tennis players of this era. And there are a host of things Nadal does to extend matches — and possibly distract and annoy his opponents in the process.

The ultimate creature of habit, Nadal starts managing time with his first step on court. When the chair umpire prepares to toss the coin and the presence of both players is required in the middle of the court before the start of the match, Nadal is typically the second to arrive — after a delay of several seconds while he goes through his routines with water bottles.

Once the match is underway, Nadal’s pre-point rituals have been fodder for everything from complaints to comedy routines. Even the typically chilled-out Roger Federer has been critical of the time that Nadal takes between points. By rule, players are limited to 25 seconds between points. Beginning this year at most events, the sport put in formal, visible shot clocks in an attempt to keep servers from abusing the rule.

According to an analysis by Melbourne, Australia-based Data Driven Sports Analytics of more than 140 matches each for Nadal, Federer and Djokovic from 2008 through this year, Rafa averaged 26.1 seconds between points when serving — the longest of the so-called “Big 3.”3 Nadal’s average time between points is over the limit — and that’s just an average, which means that he regularly serves beyond the 25-second rule. Chair umpires can use their discretion in starting the clock, so, clearly, Nadal is getting some wiggle room.

Nadal finds a way to play on Rafa time when he’s returning as well, going through a catalog of rituals and often turning his back on the server or lifting his racquet until he’s ready to receive.

The overall effect is that Nadal asserts his own pace of play, which can be legitimately discomfiting for opponents.

He conditions them like Pavlov

One of the hardest things to do in professional tennis is return serves. Speeds regularly top 125 mph, and then there’s the spin. Professional tennis players also excel at “spot serving” — landing serves in precise locations. They most often hit close to the lines of the service box, placing the serve at angles to inflict the most damage. Those most-visited, go-to spots are either up the T, which is the middle of the court, or out wide, which is on the outer edge of the service box. Servers work hard to place their serves effectively on both the deuce side (serving from the right side to the servers’ left and returners’ right), when the game score is usually tied, and on the ad side, when one player is always ahead.

Nadal has a curious modus operandi when serving on the deuce side. The effect is Pavlovian: It conditions his opponents for one thing and then kills them with another.

Because Nadal is a left-handed server, the natural play for him in this situation is to serve up the T. The ATP Tour has collected serve placement data from 2011 to 2019 for Masters 1000 events, which are just beneath Grand Slams and the Tour Finals in terms of stature, ranking points and prize money. According to that data set, on clay, Nadal’s first serve has been up the T 56.4 percent of the time on the deuce side. His success rate for this location — meaning how often he wins the point — is a healthy 68.5 percent. Much less often — 27 percent of the time — Nadal takes his first serve out wide from the deuce court on clay. And in that spot, his success rate is eye-popping, 74.8 percent. In 2019 alone, it’s up to 79.2 percent.

Why would Nadal use a serve that is statistically so successful for him so infrequently? It’s possible that the tactic is about mentally conditioning the returner, greasing the tracks as it were, and then flipping his pattern when he really needs it.

Indeed, data from that same set of ATP Masters tournaments reveals this morsel about Nadal on clay: He habitually hits his first serve from the deuce court up the T on nearly all scores. The most notable exception: when he’s down 15-40. When Nadal faces two break points against him, his primary service pattern switches to his secondary, “money” spot — the out wide. At 15-40, he goes T only 39.7 percent of the time, and his primary pattern becomes out-wide, at 44.9 percent.

How does the King of Clay perform with that deuce court, out-wide serve down two break points? Put simply, he crushes: 82.9 percent of the time he wins the point.

It’s a smart and subtle way to serve in the situation, and his success rate suggests that his opponent, potentially predisposed to Nadal’s T serve, does not see it coming.

Granted, it’s also a bit of a “tell” for anyone lucky enough to find himself with a pair of break points against Nadal — those guys should look for the out wide serve. But more than that, it reveals a mental game-within-the-game orchestrated by Nadal.

He turns balls hit to his backhand side into forehand winners

Nadal’s forehand is his biggest weapon. Opponents try to dodge it at all costs, which means avoiding hitting the ball to the ad court as much as possible against the southpaw. A good way to understand the baseline is to divide it into four vertical zones — two in the deuce court and two in the ad court. In tennis, these zones are sometimes labeled A, B, C and D, with A being the out wide in the deuce court, all the way to the D zone, which is the out wide in the ad court.

If you’re Nadal’s opponent and you’re trying to avoid his forehand, you would hit to zones A and B (the ad court). And that’s where he gets you.

The King of Clay is also the King of Running Around His Backhand to Hit Forehand. He’s an expert at it. Indeed, he loves to run around his backhand to hit forehand so much that in some matches, he has hit about the same number of winners from what would be his natural backhand side of the court — zones A and B — than from his normal, left-handed forehand side of the court — zones C and D. Through five rounds at this year’s French Open, 54 percent of Nadal’s forehand winners (46/85) have been hit as run-around forehands from zones A and B, according to officially recorded statistics from Roland Garros.

By comparison, consider the right-handed Djokovic, the number one player in the world. Through the first four rounds at Roland Garros this year, 42 percent of Djokovic’s forehand winners have been run-around forehands (14/33).

Nadal is like a spider looking to snare a rally ball, and players would be ill-advised to hit toward Nadal’s backhand unless they can be sure he’ll only be able to use his backhand. At the same time, better not hit too far out wide or the errors will flow.

Just when you think you know Nadal, think again. He will bend your mind more than he bends the ball.