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Anatomy of a Servebot: Maligned Menace or Misunderstood?

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It all starts with the serve.

Careers, seasons, tournaments, matches, sets, and points – the serve is where pen meets paper, where the narrative between tennis and player begins. It comes as no surprise, then, that this shot faces the most scrutiny of any in the sport.

In the women’s game, pundits and devoted fans criticize the general ineffectiveness of delivery – particularly contrasted against those on the men’s side. Great servers are the exception to the rule; frequent breaks of serve are common.

On the other end of the spectrum stands men’s professional tennis, where the serve often receives criticism for its hypereffectiveness. Service holds are much more frequent and are, in general, expected; just one break of serve can typically decide a match between many evenly matched players. Yet there is this underlying notion that one can be too good at serving, whereby their starting shot – their narrative exclamation  – is, in fact, a story not worth reading for many fans.

Yes, I’m talking about “servebots.”

If one Googles the term in search of a definition like “one of the most difficult opponents in the game,” prepare to be disappointed: almost all of the search results direct you to info on tiny, cute robots from the Megaman Legends video game series.

Servebots of the tennis variety couldn’t be farther from tiny and cute. These are the guys no one wants to see in their section of the draw. The players that may fall under the servebot category are tall – generally over 6’5” in height – with long gangly limbs that make up the mechanical foundation of their serving prowess.

But while their height may be their greatest asset, so too is it their greatest weakness.

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Servebots have the advantage on the first shot of a rally, but tend to succumb to typically poorer groundstrokes, especially off the backhand wing. Backhands, particularly those with topspin, require the extra footwork and speed that the hulking frame of a John Isner or Ivo Karlovic struggle to produce. Likewise, their size also diminishes their effectiveness on return – lunging and flinging around 215lbs of bone and muscle isn’t something that comes easily to a player of such stature.

The general distaste for serve-oriented players stems from the fact that there just isn’t much else to their games. But do we blame these players for the way they play?

Tennis, in all of its glorious complexity, facilitates stylistic variety. If a player can win points with one shot, why shouldn’t they do that? As professionals who live day-to-day off the paychecks they earn from winning matches (which are won by winning points), the easier they can make their job, the better.

For example, recent Brisbane finalist Milos Raonic’s 2014 campaign featured 1107 aces. Given his servebot status, one could argue that each of those aces were the primary contribution to his success and, therefore, the prize money he earned that year. Given that caveat, the Canadian earned about $3,211 per ace, which isn’t a bad way to earn a living.

So no, we can’t criticize the game’s top servers from a practical – or even economic – standpoint.

But we can’t criticize fans for disliking the servebot style either. The modernization of tennis has conditioned the contemporary fan to appreciate long and vigorous rallies, replete with brilliant defense and picturesque shot-making. When points are ending before they’ve begun, it’s difficult to get involved in a match; there’s less tennis to actually watch.

Other players are in the same boat as most ardent fans as well. In 2011, Fernando Verdasco lost back-to-back matches against Raonic within the span of three days, at two separate tournaments. Annoyed with the circumstances – and the losses – the Spaniard dismissed his conqueror’s style of play:

“For me that’s not a real match in tennis. I hope to play soon against him in clay court to show him what it is to play tennis, and play rallies, and run, and not [just] serve.”

It’s difficult to condemn Verdasco’s reaction outright, as players like Raonic are indeed few and far between on the ATP Tour. Yet somehow, they make it up the ranks to match up with top players, who have earned their own rankings on the back of a stylistically dissimilar brand of tennis.

The game can be frustrating when a single point can be the difference between a win and a loss.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, arguably among the game’s best returners and defenders, can also attest to this. Last week, the Serb lost in the quarterfinals of Doha to Karlovic, the world’s tallest tennis player and owner of a lightning bolt of a serve. “Honestly, I’m still to meet the player that enjoys playing him. I don’t think that anybody really enjoys it,” said Djokovic before the match. Speaking towards the advantages of having such a lethal serve, he further noted:

“If you serve two, three aces average per game, then you put a lot of pressure on your opponent’s serve. Opponent makes one double fault here and there, makes one mistake and the match is gone. That’s why it’s very important for me to stay mentally strong and just wait for the opportunities, wait for some second serves so sometimes if I read his serve and hope that he can miss some volleys.”

No one – not even the best players in the game – want to play a big server; having these players floating around large draws can change the landscape of an entire tournament.

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Yet while a servebot can beat just about anybody on a day when their serve is firing, so too are they capable of losing to anybody when it isn’t. Tennis is a game of serves and returns, and while the Raonics and Karlovics of the game excel in the former, they proportionately lack in the latter. When sets and matches come down to single points in seemingly inevitable tiebreaks, the opponent across the net doesn’t matter. One high-risk, blistering return could mean victory and one double fault could mean defeat.

The match ultimately becomes much more of an overwhelming monologue than a compelling dialogue.

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Changes in racquet technology over the past decade and a half may have facilitated the rise of the huge server. Players are breaking speed records frequently and are hitting harder than ever, changing the game from one best played at the net into one better won at the baseline.

It begs an interesting question: is the servebot exclusive to contemporary men’s tennis? Were there servebots of 20 years ago?

“Servebot,” as fans have come to know the term, is technically derogatory – it represents a style of tennis both unappealing and monotonous. Yet, hypothetically speaking, Pete Sampras may well have fallen into such a category if it existed in his time – although his legacy affords him a better title. The game was played differently back then, and serve-and-volley styled tennis lent itself to and was complimented by exceptional serving. In the modern game characterized by baseline rallies and endurance, exceptional serving serves as more of a foil than it does a compliment.

Ultimately, modern tennis includes a vast compendium of styles that is constantly being rewritten. “Servebots” author the game as much as the counterpunchers and aggressive baseliners do, and they contribute to their own share of narratives all across the game.

How they’ll affect to 2015 remains to be seen.

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About Jeff Donaldson (35 Articles)
Queen's University '15. Canada, eh. @jddtennis/@donaldsonjd

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