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The underappreciated aspect of clutch serving

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

I alluded to this point in the new Tennis With An Accent Podcast, but I am going to unpack it here: The 2019 U.S. Open women’s tournament and its champion, Bianca Andreescu, underscored the importance of a clutch serve.

This doesn’t make the 2019 U.S. Open a remarkably profound or unique tournament. It merely reinforces a specific element of clutch serving which is easy to underappreciate.

When someone such as John Isner serves huge on a big point, the way people react is different from when someone such as Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams does the same. The word “servebot” — which I am on record as hating with the passion of 1,000 burning suns — enters many tennis discussions at this point.

To be sure, it is a skill and an impressive display of execution in the moment when Isner or Milos Raonic erases a break point or handles 0-30 or 15-30 with an ace. However, tennis observers (reasonably and rightly) applaud Djokovic, Serena, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, or Roger Federer throw down aces on huge points.

The surface answer is not that hard to grasp: Whereas Isner or Raonic (or others like them) need the serve as their Plan A — which is connected to the pejorative “servebot” label — the elite champions can win in many different ways but are able to bring their serving prowess to the forefront of the battle when they need to.

They are calling upon one of their many ways to win in a moment of truth, a demonstration of remarkable diversity and resourcefulness. It is more impressive than the serve-centric player doing what he has to do to survive. I get it.

Raonic and Isner and others like them — when they serve huge on key points — are merely staying afloat. Their other limitations create and reinforce the reality that they have to serve well to win. For many, those other limitations make them appreciate clutch serving LESS, not more.

With the elites, it is different, and Bianca Andreescu entered this realm with her clutch serving on 15-30 points, break points, and other tight scoreboard situations at this U.S. Open — against Serena in the final, but also in the semis against Belinda Bencic and at other stages of this tournament.

The serving performance in the final against Serena was instructive, partly because of what Andreescu did in big moments, but also because of what Serena did not do.

Andreescu’s big serves on important points — with the boisterous crowd pulling hard for Serena — represented an acute ability to tune out the surrounding noise and execute tennis’s fundamental shot with great precision under pressure. She did not allow Serena to rip a large number of second-serve returns on high-leverage points.

Isn’t this a significant core part of the foundation Serena Williams established over the past two decades in huge matches?

The clutch serve — at a high level under great pressure — doesn’t merely represent flawless execution in a way which takes the racquet out of the opponent’s hands and, in some cases, stifles a crowd hoping for the opponent to win (or make the match close).

The clutch serve isn’t merely one of many ways in which an elite player finds a path to victory against formidable opposition, though that is also a notable and laudable component (and product) of big-point serving.

The aspect of clutch serving which is easy to underappreciate — and in many ways this is what Serena has lacked in her last four major final losses — is that when an opponent is in form and not giving away anything, the serve is the necessary foundation for one elite player against another.

See how layered this is?

Milos Raonic and John Isner need the huge serve on big points because of their limitations. Serena Williams is not a limited player — anything but — and yet against Bianca Andreescu’s in-form game (or Simona Halep’s brilliance at Wimbledon, or Naomi Osaka’s quality at the 2018 U.S. Open, or Angelique Kerber’s court coverage at 2018 Wimbledon), Serena was brought to the realization that in a backcourt rally, she was not likely to prevail.

Kerber would run her around the court at a time when she wasn’t fast enough to retrieve every ball with sufficient depth, power and consistency.

Osaka’s court coverage enabled her to win a battle of sharply angled and/or redirected shots, leaving Serena out of position.

Halep’s precision and rhythm left Serena with few options.

Andreescu’s weight of shot from the backcourt, plus a measure of extra consistency relative to previous matches, put Serena on the back foot this past Saturday.

Serena — though anything but a limited player — was turned into a player who needed the serve as her gateway resource, the route to safety in the face of Andreescu’s assault.

Put it this way: Great players — players who have proved they can win in many ways with many different shots — get into matches where not all of their weapons are firing properly, or in which opponents take away certain options. This doesn’t make the great player the same as Raonic or Isner, but it can create that same effect in a specific context.

The clutch serve takes away other scenarios or possibilities in which a player is likely to fail on a given day. The serve isn’t the Plan A entering the match; it becomes the mid-course adjustment and a response to what an opponent is doing.

I’m not sure how many people in the tennis industry have considered a serve in this fuller context. What Andreescu did at the U.S. Open — and what Serena didn’t do — magnified the importance of the clutch serve in professional tennis.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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