Indian Wells tennis has seen its share of ATP top seeds burst into flames. The desert's hard-court surface can be as fickle as the blustery winds, playing slow and unpredictable. Or conditions may be calm in the thin air, perfect for playing low slice. But none of these nuances have hardly mattered in 2014 as the quarterfinals have been set.
Regardless of playing style or seed, the serve is the biggest indicator of winning the match. Big servers are gaining more than just an edge on the baseliners. If you want to find the winner, go look at the aces column in the post-match statistics. It has overwhelming identified the victor.
Tennis organizers are looking to speed up tennis surfaces, but will the results truly provide more balance to tennis? While many tennis fans would like to see an ideal balance of all-courts champions and contrasting styles, the effect of faster surfaces might become a launching pad for the big, powerful player who relies heavily on his serve.
Will Indian Wells foreshadow a trend of more success and championships for power servers, or is this an aberration?
Big Bullets are Winning
There were 24 matches that determined the round of 16 and quarterfinals at Indian Wells, and 20 of the 24 matches were won by the player who had more aces.
There were several significant examples that indicate that the serve has been more relevant than usual:
- No. 1 seed and baseliner Rafael Nadal was severely out-aced by Alexandr Dolgopolov 11-2 in the third round. While the match was not decided by serving, it clearly had an impact. Nadal defenders would likely agree that had their man served a few more aces and forced tougher service returns, the balanced could have been tipped.
- Ernests Gulbis and Grigor Dimitrov are both fine servers, but Gulbis' 10-5 ace count proved significant in the third set of his fourth-round win. He out-aced Dimitrov 5-1 in that set. (Contrast this with the 3-2 ace edge that Dimitrov had in his first-set win.)
- Milos Raonic blasted Andy Murray, in large part due to a 15-4 ace thrashing. Murray, one of the great service returners in tennis history, cited his difficulty in cracking Raonic's serve, per ATP World Tour: "... then with the amount of free points he gets on his serve, that's going to add up to a negative result."
- Kevin Anderson dropped No. 3-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka behind a 12-5 ace count, but the advantage was far more than the aces. Wawrinka said later, also in ATP World Tour, that "He's a tough player to play on fast condition. He's serving big and always put a lot of pressure."
- American John Isner has bombed his way to the quarterfinals with a huge 38-7 advantage in the ace game. In between aces, there is a lot of walking and standing around as his victims grit their teeth and try to overcome the frustration of just getting the point started.
- In a fairly surprising quarterfinal, Dolgopolov defeated Raonic by out-acing the big Canadian 6-4. How many people saw that coming? The win, yes, but more aces? Raonic who must live by the ace, died by the ace.
- Federer broke out of a tight first set with Anderson and then cruised to a 7-5, 6-1 win with the ace count at 3-3. Were conditions slower on Thursday? At any rate, Anderson had to dominate this category, because the rest of his game pales in comparison to Federer's.
Big servers have always been around to claim their share of dominance. Tennis legend Pancho Gonzalez dominated the 1950s to such an extent that even 40 years later rival Tony Trabert bitterly complained that Gonzalez's serve was too much of an advantage, according to interviewer Joe McCauley in "The History of Professional Tennis:"
Gonzales's serve was the telling factor on their tour — it was so good that it earned him many cheap points. Trabert felt that, while he had the better groundstrokes, he could not match Pancho's big, fluent service.
There are numerous examples of power servers and the ages-old argument on whether they have too much influence on tennis.
If the ideal tennis champion has several great tennis skills including groundstrokes, footwork and shot variety and a great serve, then the serve is a supplemental weapon and not the only weapon in being a great player.
The problem for tennis is when conditions allow a one-dimensional player to dominate with weak groundstrokes, slow footwork and no shot variety, but succeed because his big serve trumps all of the other skills of his (perhaps) superior opponent.
This would be like replacing humans with cyborgs in some future apocalyptic Earth. He would be a mostly mechanical being with some semblance of humanity, rather than a human who has aid of machinery and technology.
In tennis terms, the player that is primarily a serving machine, but with very little other tennis skill could be dubbed a "serveborg." This kind of player serves huge, but breaks up the rhythm and flow of tennis. More time is spent walking to the other side of the court to toss up another serve. Do fans want to watch a serving exhibition that may largely hinge on tiebreakers or one break of serve?
Serveborgs have always been around. There was Roscoe Tanner in the 1970s, Kevin Curren in the 1980s, Greg Rusedski in the 1990s and Ivo Karlovic in the 2000s. Typically, they were contenders because of their serve and height, but many would question if their tennis skills matched up with the average ATP Top 100 professional who did not rely on the serve as the exclusive means for his bread and butter.
If conditions are too fast, the champions who shine with more all-court skills are not always thrilled about the intimidating prospects of facing a serveborg. And a baseliner has to feel as if he is playing duck and cover with his pistol against an opponent who holds a missile launcher.
Balancing Act of Entertainment
Many of the debates about court surfaces is how organizers can feature an ideal balance of contrasting tennis styles and players for entertaining matches. The New York Times wrote that "The primary reason tournament directors slowed down courts in the 1990s was their concern that too many big servers and too much staccato tennis were killing the spectacle."
On the other hand, some tennis fans did not care for the nearly-six-hour marathon final at the 2012 Australian Open between Novak Djokovic and Nadal. The lengthy time was one factor, but many tennis fans have opined that too many baseline rallies is also monotonous.
Let's take the emotion out of this and say this does not concern the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and the top players (even though the arguments will swirl most around them).
Is tennis better off having soft but skilled baseline players succeed, like David Goffin and Gilles Simon? Or is it better for the sport that serveborgs like Anderson and John Isner have a superior impact?
Both types can succeed in moderation, but right now the former seems to be suddenly losing ground to the latter.
Former player, coach and current tennis broadcaster Brad Gilbert opined that tennis should not look at the past for its future balance of entertaining tennis. He said, also in The New York Times, "I’m not living in the stone age, wanting to see guys go back to serve-and-volley and play one-shot tennis. Boring!” (Note: Gilbert was far from a great server as a player. He was a scrappy survivor who wrote a book entitled "Winning Ugly." This is not exactly the only source to consider for those who thought Gilbert's tennis was less than entertaining.)
Meanwhile, Indian Wells cruises into its final weekend with plenty of entertaining tennis and good upset stories, but perhaps with subtle clues that the winds are blowing behind the backs of the serveborgs.