Slow serves in Tennis
Slow service is nothing new in Tennis. It seems to have become part of the game a lengthy serve duration often seems endemic in the game. A chance ot catch a breath, a chance to put off your opponent or slow down their moment. When I was looking at various aspects of the game it was obvious to me that players were deliberately using this moment for something other than getting ready for the next point.
It’s not usual to see press comment on the very slow service during a Tennis tournament.
I’ve mentioned on the blog several times that elements of gamesmanship are prevalent in Tennis. They are all designed to throw the person on the other side of the net off balance and out of the zone. You see medical timeouts, comfort breaks, disputes, rain breaks when there are just a few drops. There is no better way to put your opponent off stride and regain momentum yourself.
I noticed that Maria Sharapova was an expert at this. Putting aside the extremely loud grunting when she hits a shot, which is clearly not related to masking the sound of the ball hitting the racquet of course. You can see her repeating the same pattern of behaviour on each receiving point. Watch a game with Sharapova, and when receiving, she will deliberately turn away from the server and do something to ‘compose’ herself. It seems you can retain possession of the ball even when you don’t have the ball!
Obviously a server who is in a rhytm wants to keep that up. So not being able to serve because your opponent is staring at a line judge prohibits that.
Discovery by accident
I’ve studied Tennis in infinite detail over the years and one of the things I did was to look at the time between points. I wondered if it would be a proxy for whether a player was getting tired. My results were inconclusive as it was hard to correctly identify if a player was tired from by judging the time it took to complete or start individual points. I ended up parking the research for a while, then one day I saw Rafa Nadal get a time violation during a game. If you have ever watched a game with him in it, Nadal had an unusual serve technique.
Whether it’s a Masters tournament, a grand slam final, or the first round. Nadal seems to serve in slow motion each time.
Nadal, slows serves and time violations
I immediately set about looking for examples of time violations to see if that was the reason I couldn’t spot the impact of time as a proxy of tiredness. What I discovered, led me deeper into the realms of gamesmanship in Tennis.
When you look at Nadal, he takes ages to serve. But sometimes much longer than others. The most number of violations occurred when he was 30-40 down and facing a break point. But generally at something-40 to his opponent, he took much longer than at other score lines. If this was deliberate then we should see a sliding scale on less important score lines. That is exacly what we saw.
While not the most comprehensive study I’ve done. But it does appear to show that he is injecting some doubt or frustration into his opponent using a delaying tactic. It’s not wildly different to the annoying habit Sharapova has of turning away from a server so she controls when they serve.
Since I did this study we have had the introduction of the shot clock. This is designed to stop players from abusing their advantage on serve and prevent them getting an advantage. I think the problem with having a hard boudary like an exact time, is that players overall will probably slow down.
Like a barrier placed at the edge of a cliff, people will probably walk right up to it to look over, rather than keep a safe distance. I’m not sure the shot clock is the answer. But maybe I’ll have to re-run the stats to see if anything has changed?
Anyhow, Mr Nadal, guilty as charged!