The first serve is the pivotal part of the game. The better the first stroke, the easier the point. Almost all players try to make the most of their initial ball strike.
A few players in the history of the game have taken the serve to a new level using power, racket speed and timing to make the ball nonreturnable.
Prior to the “Open Era” in tennis, however, no one kept track of individual serving statistics except perhaps during Davis Cup ties and Grand Slam tournaments.
Therefore, much of the evidence we have concerning the serving prowess of particular players has never been fully documented. In the absence of verifiable match statistics, the testimony of contemporaries and sports writers is the best evidence available.
Since 1991, the ATP has consistently tracked and reported serving statistics. Now finding raw data on the number of aces and the percentage of first serves won is much easier.
But we do not know this information about players in seasons prior to 1991. That is a considerable gap. It is too bad tennis as a sport never developed baseball's compulsion for statistics.
We know that players from the past like Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Pancho Gonzalez, Colin Digby, Neale Fraser and Geoff Brown were well-known for serving the ball with power and accuracy. But even players of a more recent vintage like Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Kevin Curren, Steven Denton and Slobodan Zivojinovic were brilliant servers.
Using the best evidence available, however, here are the most lethal servers in the game for the past 30 years.
Roscoe Tanner deserves this honorary spot in this listing.
Unfortunately, there are no serving statistics available for the big-serving Tanner. His era came just slightly before the ATP began tracking them.
But long before the evolution from wooden rackets to record-keeping began, Tanner was scorching courts with serves that left many opponents reeling, wondering how Tanner could wield such power.
Tanner stands rightfully as the forefather of the lethal serve. Adding to his prowess—he was a lefty. That gave Tanner a further advantage because the serve came from an angle his opponents were not accustomed to seeing.
Tanner’s 1978 serve of 153 mph was the fastest recorded in tennis history until Andy Roddick broke it in September of 2004 with a serve of 155 mph.
Even though there were no accurate measures in place, every player on tour recognized the sheer power of Tanner’s serve and dreaded meeting him in any round of any tournament.
Tanner used a very low toss, completed with quick wrist action. That gave him enhanced racket speed on his serves. His compact serving motion gave opponents almost no time to react because the ball was on them so quickly.
The Tanner serve was impossible to read. His feet never really left the ground, much like his predecessors when rules forced them to keep one foot on the ground during the serve.
Tanner’s serve had to be perfect and hit with consistency. With the abbreviated motion, there was no room for error.
The American's serve became legendary.
During his career, Greg Rusedski had 7,605 aces and 3,158 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 58, with 80 percent of his first-serve points won. Rusedeski also won 52 percent of his second-serve points.
A lefty, Brit Rusedski fired a big flat serve at opponents hoping to do ultimate damage. Sometimes the shot was close to 155 mph if we could use today’s radar. But during the 1990s, with less reliable technology, it was clocked at 149 mph.
Many have made the comparison of Rusedski’s serve to Andy Roddick’s. But these same pundits agree that Roddick's serve is far more consistent than Rusedski's.
In order to give his serve better control, Rusedski employed more slices to keep his serving numbers respectable. But the slice was not nearly as effective.
Rusedski had more than 30 aces in 10 matches from 1995-2003. The big Brit recorded his 149 mph serve in 1998 at Indian Wells.
While Rusedski had a big serve, he did not have a big game to back it up.
During his career, Mark Philippoussis had 6,709 aces and 2,497 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 58, with 80 percent of his first-serve points won. Philippoussis also won 50 percent of his second-serve points.
Philippoussis, the big Aussie, had a big blistering serve. In fact he managed to invest both his first and his second serves with speed, spin and bounce.
Because of his expansive reach and extensive topspin, Philippoussis was often capable of putting the ball out of the reach of his opponents.
His game, however, literally lived and died by his ability to serve well.
Making the most of his weapon, Philippoussis made the finals of the U.S. Open in 1998, losing to fellow Aussie Patrick Rafter.
Later, at Wimbledon in 2003, Philippoussis again made a major final—where he lost to Roger Federer.
Philippoussis achieved a Top-10 ranking in 1999, coming in at No. 8.
At that same 2003 Wimbledon tournament—against one of the best returners in the game, Andre Agassi—the Aussie set an Australian tennis record, serving 46 aces in a match.
Without his big serve, however, the Aussie's game was mediocre at best.
During his career, Ivan Ljubicic had 8,138 aces and 1,698 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 58, with 77 percent of his first-serve points won. Ljubicic also won 52 percent of his second- serve points.
Ljubicic, a native of Croatia, was ranked as high as No. 3 in the world in 2006.
Like Goran Ivanisevic and Roscoe Tanner, Ljubicic had a low ball toss and used his serve to set up a punishing second-strike ground stroke. Ljubicic's one-two punch started and ended at the baseline.
He was noted for his strong serve, which worked best indoors.
Throughout his career, Ljubcic impressed fans and the public with his serving prowess.
So far, Isner has 5,059 aces and 652 double faults. His first-serve percentage averages 68, with 77 percent of his first-serve points won. Isner also wins 55 percent of his second-serve points.
An American, Isner, towering at 6‘9, holds the record for most aces in a tennis match. The match, of course, is the 2010 Wimbledon first-round encounter with Nicolas Mahut. Isner served 113 aces, Mahut 103.
Isner also holds the record for aces in a set, serving 85 in the fifth set of that match, which ended in his favor, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.
Since that match, however, Isner has found his game beyond his serve and has climbed into the upper echelons of the men's game. He's now ranked at No. 10.
After having a breakout summer season, Isner was upset in the fourth round of the 2012 U.S. Open by Philipp Kohlschreiber.
Isner's serve will continue to dominate and promises to take him even higher in the rankings.
During his career, Johansson had 5,123 aces and 1,786 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 53, with 76 percent of his first-serve points won. Johansson also won 51 percent of his second- serve points.
A Swede, Johansson used his big serve to win the Australian Open in 2002. He defeated another big server, Marat Safin, in the final. It was a true upset.
Injuries, however, kept Johansson from reaching his potential and the victories that seemed destined to be his.
At 5’11”, Johansson did not fit the mold of the typical big server. What he lacked in height, he made up for with technique.
Starting with the deep knee bend, the Swede propelled himself up into his serve, driving the ball forward while keeping his feet fixed in line.
Johansson exerted considerable power on his serves. Furthermore, he could also slice the ball wide in the deuce court and up the middle in the ad court.
It was that kind of serving that earned Johansson a Grand Slam trophy.
During his career, Michael Stich had 3,546 aces and 1,721 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 57, with 78 percent of his first-serve points won. Stich also won 52 percent of his second-serve points.
A German, Stich, who stood slightly over 6'4”, was well-known for his imposing serve. According to many who watched him stand at the baseline, Stich’s service motion was picture perfect. Not everyone, however, agreed with that assessment. But most agreed his serve was effective.
A case in point: During the 1991 Wimbledon Championships, Stich served 64 service winners—including eight aces—during his semifinal contest. He defeated Stefan Edberg and marched into the finals, where he would face countryman Boris Becker.
Stich continued to dominate with his serve in the final. He defeated Becker on Centre Court in a somewhat lackluster, straight-set match, 6-4, 7-6, 6-4. Becker could find no solutions that day and Stich never let up, serving lights out until the end.
In 1993, Stich served 27 aces in the World Tour Championships, keeping Pete Sampras from another win. In the process, Stich served 12 aces in his last four service games.
During his career, Marat Safin had 5,754 aces and 1,582 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 55, with 75 percent of his first-serve points won. Safin also won 52 percent of his second-serve points.
The big Russian used a high ball toss on his serve with a slight pause at the top of the motion before he swung through the ball using his upper body rotation to add to the racket speed. Some criticized the step he took with his left foot during his toss. But the resulting flat or equally effective kick serve often did the job.
Safin’s serve was solid and imposing. Standing 6’4", the Russian could really muscle in the serves and take command of a point.
But the serve could also desert him in matches when his rhythm disappeared and his timing misfired.
Safin won the U.S. Open in 2000 over Pete Sampras and the Australian Open in 2005 over Lleyton Hewitt. He rose to the No. 1 ranking in November of 2000 after his triumph at Flushing Meadows.
The charismatic but volatile Russian’s serve ebbed and flowed like the man himself.
During his career, Richard Krajicek had 7,694 aces and 2,206 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 58, with 81 percent of his first-serve points won. Krajicek also won 51 percent of his second- serve points.
The big boy from the Netherlands used his powerful first serve to pave the way for his serve-and-volley style of play. Krajicek spent his time on court in continuous attack mode. This allowed him to win 87 percent of his service games.
Standing 6’5”, Krajicek began his tennis career standing and staying put on the baseline. But after growing 10 inches in one year, the Dutchman quickly changed his approach.
Krajicek won the Wimbledon title in 1996—defeating American MaliVai Washington in the finals, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
In order to accomplish this feat, Krajicek had to defeat Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals. Sampras, as you may recall, had never lost at Wimbledon. It was an astonishing win.
Unfortunately, Krajicek's career was cut short by injuries. But while he played, his serve blazed.
During his career to date, Ivo Karlovic has 7,141 aces and 1,137 double faults. His first-serve percentage averages 65, with 82 percent of his first-serve points won. Karlovic also wins 52 percent of his second-serve points.
The 6’ 10” Karlovic is known for his massive serve. Even today as the big man begins to slow down, his success success depends exclusively on his serve.
He holds the record for the fastest second serve in men’s tennis at 144 mph. That came against Paul Capdeville in August of 2007. His fastest first serve is 156 mph, which Karlovic achieved during a 2011 Davis Cup loss. His fastest serve remains second behind Australian Samuel Groth's 163.4.
Until 2010, Karlovic held the record for the most aces in a single match. That record, however, along with several others, was smashed by the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut first-round match at Wimbledon in 2010.
The previous record had Karlovic with 78 aces in a match against Radek Stepanek during a Davis Cup match in September in 2009. Of those, 77 were on first serves.
In 2007, the Croat became the fourth player in men’s tennis to hit more than 1,000 aces in a single season. That year Karlovic served up 1,318 aces, placing him second behind countryman Goran Ivanisevic.
His serve remains a nightmare for any player to face—no one on tour likes to look at his draw and see Karlovic in his path.
Still, the serve is really all that the big guy has. The rest of his game falls short.
Karlovic plays serve-and-volley tennis, taking advantage of weak replies to his big serve. But being 6' 10, Karlovic suffers from slow foot-speed and mediocre ground strokes.
During his career—from 1991 forward—Stefan Edberg had 1,427 aces and 1,672 double faults. His first- serve percentage averaged 61, with 73 percent of his first-serve points won. Edberg also won 52 percent of his second-serve points.
Edberg never held back, going for it all on his first and second serves. The former world No. 1 used his very effective “kick” serve to scale the heights of men’s tennis in the 1980s and 1990s.
It was exhilarating to watch Edberg serve, starting with a high ball toss followed by the deep knee bend. Edberg arched his back and exploded upward hitting the ball, which he tossed just a little behind him. He flicked his wrist coming over the ball. The ball would “kick” up just as the opponent tried to return it.
Edberg delivered his monster kick serve at a mere 115 mph using an Eastern backhand grip. It was a perfect technique for the Swede because the serve allowed Edberg the time he needed to appear, as if by magic, at the net to put away the volley.
Most agree that Edberg's seemingly liquid movements on the court exemplified “serve-and-volley” tennis more than any other player in the sport.
During his career—from 1991 forward—Boris Becker had 4,424 aces and 2,047 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 57, with 79 percent of his first-serve points won. Becker also won 50 percent of his second-serve points.
Becker's nickname when he came on tour was “Boom-Boom” because of his huge serve. He made that weapon visible to the world when at age 17, unseeded, Becker won the Wimbledon title in 1985, upsetting everyone in his path.
Becker's power while serving came from his legs and his very deep knee bend. After completing his service motion and striking the ball, he leaned into the court looking as though he might topple. But Becker maintained perfect balance in that position.
With considerable upward motion on his serve, Becker landed on his right leg, which enhanced his power. This was thought a little out of the ordinary because most right-handers land on their left foot after the serve.
Becker's serve was almost impossible to read because the German used a variation on the Eastern forehand grip while serving. Some called it an Aussie grip or a exaggerated Continental grip.
An essential part of Becker’s power came because he was a big man. He packed every ounce of his body weight into his serve. His second serve was no picnic, either. Becker used a little backspin on it to keep it low. On grass it used to skip.
From the time he burst onto the scene in 1985 until Becker stopped playing in the late 1990s, his serve remained his primary weapon. Becker was one of the best of the serve-and-volley players at the end of the 20th century.
During his career to date, Roger Federer has 7,727 aces and 2,002 double faults. His first-serve percentage averages 62, with 77 percent of his first-serve points won. Federer also wins 56 percent of his second-serve points.
As is true of most players, there is a point when aces are not the whole story when discussing the impact of the service game.
Sometimes, it becomes necessary to consider service winners rather than aces. In such cases, a serve might allow for a return, but not a good one.
Even today the Federer serve is the most underrated in tennis. While Sampras had more punch and Roddick was faster, Federer’s serve sets up the rest of his game.
His serve can best be described as "classic," employing a slightly open stance and finishing with a whip-like motion that powers him into the ball and into the court.
He uses a backhand grip known as a Continental or Eastern backhand grip. His service motion completely disguises the direction of the upcoming serve. Most importantly, Federer maintains perfect balance as he lands on his front foot ready to react quickly to his opponent’s return of serve.
Light on his feet and ready to move in either direction, Federer focuses on the return, ready to ponce the minute the service motion is complete.
Federer holds the record for the most aces served in a Grand Slam final. During his 2009 Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick, he had 50 nonreturnable serves.
For Federer, his serve remains the solid foundation of his game.
So far, Andy Roddick has 9,011 aces and 1,575 double faults. His first-serve percentage averages 65, with 79 percent of his first-serve points won. Roddick also has won 56 percent of his second-serve points.
Since he first burst onto the scene in 2000, Roddick was widely known for his powerful and fast first serve. The weapon often gave him numerous aces and many wins.
In 2003, his serve propelled him to the No. 1 ranking after winning the U.S. Open.
Roddick was the No. 1 American male for a decade before injury reduced his playing time and saw his ranking fall out of the Top 10.
Roddick once held the record for the men's fastest serve at 155 mph, which the American achieved in 2004 serving to Vladimir Voltchkov during a semifinal Davis Cup match on hard courts in Charleston, S.C. But that serve is now only the fourth fastest.
Roddick hits the ball with more raw power than Pete Sampras but often as much spin––somewhere in the 2,500-rpm range. Roddick uses both legs to simultaneously to spring into the court, pushing off the balls of both feet after a deep knee bend. He utilizes the strength of both legs to give him enormous power.
Roddick has a relatively low ball toss with a narrow stance. This allows for little body rotation into the serve. His movements are fast and often appear jerky.
As Roddick retires in 2012, his serve will go down in history as one of the best in the modern era of tennis.
During his career, Ivanisevic had 10,183 aces and 3,572 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 55, with 82 percent of his first-serve points won. Ivanisevic also won 50 percent of his second- serve points.
Ivanisevic holds the record for most aces in a season. He had 1,499 reported aces in 1996, according to the ATP. Ivanisevic also served 46 aces in a match against Magnus Norman during the second round of the 1997 Wimbledon Championships in a losing effort. The Croat holds the record for the most career aces at 10,183.
As a left-hander, Ivanisevic’s serve struck fear in the heart of his opponents, who often could not get a racket on it. What is more, his service motion gave nothing away. It happened so fast, the opponent barely knew the ball was in the air before it ricocheted past him.
It seemed a rather jerky motion with a low ball toss followed by a quick reflex action propelling the ball across the net. Ivanisevic hit the ball just before it reached its peak. With his head unmoving, the Croat leaned forward and then uncoiled giving him amazing racket speed. His first serve averaged about 133 mph consistently.
Not many players followed Ivanisevic’s lead because a low ball toss makes a player rush to hit it and doubles the chances for errors. In order to succeed with it, you must be extremely consistent. The higher toss allows for greater torque and more space going over the net.
After several tries, Ivanisevic came back unseeded, ranked outside the top 100 to win Wimbledon in 2001—primarily on the strength of his unorthodox serve. He had 213 aces during the 2001 Wimbledon tournament.
During his career, Sampras had 8,858 aces and 3,009 double faults. His first-serve percentage averaged 59, with 81 percent of his first-serve points won. Sampras also won 53 percent of his second- serve points.
Pete Sampras used his serve to construct the rest of his game. Even back in the early days of his career, Sampras never possessed the fastest serve. Rather the topspin he utilized made the Sampras serve solid and not easily broken down.
It had more spin––topspin specifically––that often rendered it nearly impossible to return with its high-speed kick. Sampras wielded tremendous spin rates on his serves.
This was long before Nadal arrived on the scene to take “spins” to a whole new level. Although his serve seldom came in faster than 115 to 130 mph, his rpm on first serves averaged 2,500 with a higher topspin component than other serves of similar velocity, especially during the 1990-2000 span.
Sampras served a career-high 1,011 aces in 1993, and in 1994 he served 994 aces to lead the tour in both those years. No player appeared to get himself out of trouble by utilizing the serve more than Sampras––first or second serve.
The Sampras serve was heavier and bounced higher and spun with more force on the rebound. This, of course, made it doubly difficult to return.
Every aspect of the Sampras serve was perfect. It was enhanced by effortless shoulder flexibility as Sampras turned into the serve and hit the ball. The spin was aided by the ball tossed further to the left.
The serve got its tremendous explosive power from the uncoiling of his legs, starting with the depth of his knee bend. As Sampras hit the ball, he carried his body forward, adding to the heaviness or weight of the Sampras serve—probably the best in the history of the game.