Daria Kasatkina expands a sense of what is possible on a tennis court. The way she sees the game, the variety of shots she incorporates into match play, and the abundance of touch and feel she displays in an all-court point increase a tennis observer’s appreciation for geometry and artistry. Kasatkina is anything but monochromatic, anything but the cookie-cutter baseliner in a modern age of power-based attritional tennis. She is a breath of fresh air in her playing style and thought process.
Kasatkina, to put it another way, is the antithesis of the kind of player so many tennis fans either dislike (a more severe reaction) or ignore (the milder, more restrained response): the servebot.
That term — ”servebot” — would be part of a 2019 tennis dictionary if Merriam-Webster published one. New words are constantly entering the English language, migrating from the informality of slang to the status of officially recognized terms. Servebot would have already made the cut.
Kasatkina — as a player — speaks to an expansion of possibilities, so it is only natural that the 21-year-old Russian, who is trying to make greater sense of the big, sprawling world of professional tennis, should offer reason to insert another term into the tennis lexicon: servenot.
Yes, this is the antonym of servebot — yet it also rhymes. The English language and the English dictionary are strange enough as they are, so why not become even stranger? Such is the inconvenient reality of Kasatkina’s game. It might not have ALL the non-serve pieces in place, but it has most of them. “If only she had a serve” might not be the only lamentation Kasatkina fans or admirers express when watching her play, but it certainly is one of a few central deficits in her game. If a servebot — like the act of servebotting (the verb and gerund derived from the noun) — requires leaning on the serve when other strokes aren’t there, a servenot — like the act of servenotting — requires an inability to find a serve when most of the other components of an elite skill level are in place.
We saw at Wimbledon that Angelique Kerber — though not an imposing server — was able to get plenty of cheap points with her first serve when needed. If a player with a strong all-around game can get at least one free point and another high-leverage point (meaning that the serve doesn’t win the point directly but creates leverage on the third and maybe fifth shots in a rally) in a service game of considerable importance, she or he is not a servenot.
Kasatkina served twice for the second set in Thursday’s second round against Aliaksandra Sasnovich. Kasatkina started poorly, but as the match went on, Sasnovich — with taping near each of her knees — began to wear down to a degree, making it imperative for her to close down the match in straights. If Kasatkina had been able to extend the match to a third set, her odds of winning would have been very high.
“If only she had a serve.” Kasatkina wasn’t able to pry open this door of opportunity, limited in her ability to knock Sasnovich back on her heels with the first shot of a point. The two failures to serve out the set were followed by a tiebreaker in which she won only one point on her serve. It is true that her forehand let her down in that breaker as well, but a shutdown serve — or even a moderately good serve — takes so much tension away from the groundstrokes and puts a lot more margin into them, since the player doesn’t have to do as much work from the back of the court.
It is maddening for tennis connoisseurs who love the well-rounded game and don’t like to see Johnny One Note players rewarded for doing one, and only one, thing well. I understand and respect that view. Yet, the serve is hugely important in tennis, and it has to be cultivated to a certain degree. All body sizes involve limitations. The big guys who can crush serves are limited in their ability to cover the court or bend low to hit or retrieve slice backhands and short balls in the middle of the court. The smaller athlete will have problems with the serve. It is up to every person — with his or her body type — to minimize the weaknesses and limitations that are part of one’s game.
Daria Kasatkina — like Hyeon Chung and Kei Nishikori on the ATP Tour — is a servenot. She needs to minimize the importance of that term in the tennis dictionary.