In women’s tennis, no shot faces as much scrutiny as the serve.
On one hand, Serena Williams demonstrates the peak of the WTA’s serving potential. That stroke alone played a major role in cementing her status as one of the greatest of all time. On the other hand, a player like Sara Errani is often crucified by critics for her point-starter delivery – off of which she rarely finds any cheap points.
Between those two extremes falls everyone else. Left of center is Simona Halep, whose serve fluctuates between mediocrity and excellence, making it a compelling subject for this week’s installation of #SaturdayNightShots.
At this year’s Premier Mandatory in Madrid, Halep claimed that the serve was her favorite shot. The revelation was the source of much amusement for a tennis community confused that a player with such graceful groundstrokes would favor a shot considered to be average at best. And yet she quickly backed up her talk, hitting more aces in her runner-up showing than anyone else that week.
Leave it to Serve-Master Serena to know before anyone else just how dangerous Halep’s delivery could be. “I just thought that she serves well to be her height. She has so much power on her serve. That’s actually really awesome,” she said after dropping a set to Halep at Wimbledon in 2011. The top seed at this week’s WTA Finals would likely testify to that again after suffering her worst loss in over a decade to the Romanian on Wednesday.
The most effective thing about the French Open finalist’s serve is its element of surprise. At a diminutive 5’6”, she lacks the height that most players use to enhance their serves. This very fact of nature does tend to take its toll on the Romanian’s first serve percentage. But at its technical best, Halep’s serve is anchored – as are all of her shots – by near-perfect technique.
The ball toss does not take Ivanovician strides to the right; it is a compact toss at a perfect measure of her zenith. The service motion is as technically sound as the best, though her lesser height and strength reduces the shot’s power potential. Her technical prowess does allow her to place it accurately which, coupled with occasional injections of pace, makes it difficult to deal with across the net.
This consistent balance between being predictably ordinary and startlingly potent means that, for every one or two fluffy body serves, there’s an excellent slider out wide or high-paced shot up the middle waiting to strike. The moment a player thinks they can step in on Halep’s serve, she can up the ante and hit an exceptional service winner.
As customary, the following is a list of hits and misses for Halep’s serve:
| HITS |
–Placement. The sound technique of Halep’s serve puts her exceptional control of where she puts it. She tends to hit the corners of the service box perfectly; when it’s not an ace, it elicits a weak return off of which she can dictate the proceeding point.
–Pace. She may lack the muscle of a Stosur or Serena, but make no mistake in diminishing Halep’s strength. She can inject pace – however infrequently – into the serve which, coupled with placement, can cause opponents into a guessing game on return.
–Spin. Slice, kick, and flat serves are all in Halep’s arsenal. While players don’t back up to return her serve, they can’t step in either due to its unpredictability.
| MISSES |
-When it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s average it’s, well, average. It may indeed be her favorite shot, but it’s not at the same level as her groundstrokes. When she is low on confidence, she doesn’t do much with it.
-The second serve isn’t great, and is arguably the most incomplete part of Halep’s otherwise well-rounded game. There tends to be less work on the second serve, making it more attackable – although when confident, she can still place it well.
-A low first-serve percentage, therefore, has too often proven the Romanian’s undoing. Her shorter height makes it harder to get the shot over the net, as the contact point is much lower.
Halep’s delivery serves as a microcosm for Halep herself. Unassuming, neat, and technically sound, it backs up her increasingly more explosive ground game, and it took her through two of the most emphatic wins of her season in Singapore.