So I'm watching this tennis tournament...

A couple days ago my wife left the television on when she left, and I’m sitting here on the computer. I caught a few glimpses of this tennis tournament that’s currently going on, and was struck by how incredibly badly some of these people were playing.

I don’t remember their names, but one guy hit the net something like 6 out of 8 serves. They mentioned that he had never won on a clay court before, while his opponent apparently was a master of the clay court, racking up an impressive number of clay victories. The court couldn’t have been that much of a factor, as he couldn’t even make the serve and get the ball to his opponent to hit.

Fast forward a bit, and I look over and two women are playing. Same thing, whiffing on serves and just generally (to my untrained eyes) poor play. Not quite as bad as the guy before her, but not what I’d expect to see in a professional championship game.

This is supposed to be some sort of world championship? I’m picturing pitchers in MLB not getting the ball over the plate 6 out of 8 tries, or quarterbacks in the NFL bobbling the snap 6 out of 8 plays. I understand nerves are a factor and all, but seriously? Is it that common for the best players in tennis to routinely whiff on serves like that?

Maybe I was looking at the first round, and someone squeaked into the tournament and couldn’t play with the big boys? I got caught up in Terraria and didn’t really watch more of it.

The average first serve percentage on the ATP tour hovers slightly above 60%. It’s a bit higher for women on the WTA tour. So what you saw was an outlier. The level of play in first round matches would not be noticeably worse to an untrained eye than in the tournament as a whole. There are a few “wild card” players who aren’t strictly qualified for each tournament, but are invited because they are local favorites or the sponsors want them. Even they are still tour professionals who would crush any amateur without breaking sweat.

Your QB bobble comparison doesn’t work. Serving is hard. Just getting the ball over the net is not sufficient; a slow, careful serve is going to set up an easy return. You have to hit it pretty hard and place it pretty well. The pitching comparison works, because pitchers routinely fail to throw strikes on 6 of 8 pitches. Maybe you meant getting the ball to the plate, which is less apt. The QB comparison would be a QB failing to complete six of eight passes, which is hardly unheard of.

Serving on clay courts is even harder than serving on other surfaces, because clay is slow and generates high bounces. That means serve-dependent players (the ones who usually win on hard courts and grass) are at a disadvantage because they won’t win as many points with mediocre serves.

Anyone can get the ball over the net. Try doing it at over 120 mph.

You’re probably talking about the first round where 9 time French Open winner Rafael Nadal played American Robby Ginepri. Ginepri retired from professional tennis a few years ago after a lackluster pro career, but qualified for the French Open by virtue of being appointed by the USTA. So it was going to be a very lopsided match no matter what, especially since he was never a serious contender when he was playing the circuit full-time.

However, these first round matches especially accentuate the disparity between the elite 4 of men’s tennis (Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and Federer) vs the rest of the field. These 4 men have dominated tennis in the last decade, winning every elite tennis tournament (ATP 1000 or major tournament), with just a few rare exceptions (e.g 2014 Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka).

Here is a list of the 4 major tournaments that make up the Grand Slam (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open) and the winners:

2004 Federer, Gaudio, Federer, Federer
2005 Safin, Nadal, Federer, Federer
2006 Federer, Nadal, Federer, Federer
2007 Federer, Nadal, Federer, Federer
2008 Djokovic, Nadal, Nadal, Federer
2009 Nadal, Federer, Federer, del Potro
2010 Federer, Nadal, Nadal, Nadal
2011 Djokovic, Nadal, Djokovic, Djokovic
2012 Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Murray
2013 Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, Nadal
2014 Wawrinka, Nadal

Yeah, it’s not a good time to be an up and coming player. Getting past one of these guys is hard enough. But to get past two of them, which is required if you’re going to win a tournament, is nearly impossible. These guys can make guys ranked in the teens look like amateurs.

That being said, there’s little excuse for double faulting again and again.

Ginepri earned a wild card spot by winning the most ranking points in the three clay court Challenger events designated as qualifiers for the wild card.

“lackluster” is a little harsh - he reached 15 in the world rankings.

To expand a bit on why serving on a clay court is harder - as has been mentioned, because the ball bounces higher and slower off clay than other surfaces, the serving player has to either put more power into the serve or aim it closer to the net/lines to achieve an effective serve. As such, they are more likely to net/miss the serve. Whereas on, say, grass, where the bounce is lower and faster, they can get away with more mediocre serves.

Do you understand the whole “first serve, second serve” strategy thing? Because I’m guessing not.

Also according tothis article & wikipedia Ginepri didn’t retire - just had a lot of time out with injuries.

That’s true. Winning the most points in the Challenger events is how the USTA has chosen to appoint their French Open wildcard entrants in the last couple of years. (It hasn’t always been that way, and it’s theirs to do with as they please, which is why I used the word “appoint.”) But my main point is that Ginepri was shooed in the back door courtesy of the USTA vs. entering through the front door. (He wasn’t even close to doing that.)

Of course, the way these tournaments are formatted, with the highest ranking players taking on the lowest ranking players in the first rounds, it was going to a blowout no matter who was standing on the other side of the net from Rafael Nadal. The fact that it happened to be an older American player (Americans are notoriously weak on clay), who got in via a wild card, explains why the OPer was underwhelmed by the match.

BTW, I stand by my “lackluster” comment. I mean, come on. Ginepri has a losing record, and has only won three ATP 250 tournaments in his entire career. He’s only gotten past the 4th round of any 1000 or major tournament a handful of times in over a decade. Yes, he cracked the top 20 for about a year back in '05-06. But the fact that he reached #15 without having ever won a major tournament only highlights the gap between the Elite 4 and players ranked in the teens or lower.

There wasn’t an Elite 4 in 2005/6. Andy Murray didn’t crack the top 10 until 2008. Djokovic didn’t make it to the top 10 until 2007.

To expand on this, the first serve is usually a power serve where they whack the hell out of the ball, and the second serve is more conservative (often with not only a bit of power taken off, but extra spin added) to get the point going and put the ball in play. As mentioned above, the first serve quite often hits the net, because players generally are trying to whack the hell out of the ball or otherwise get a quick point from an unreturnable serve.

Take away those strategic points and, yeah, all the ATP guys can serve at a 100% rate (let’s say near-100% rate just to cover the occasional fluke.) And probably still at a pace that will end up in a very boring ace-after-ace game if playing with us mere mortals.

There was a really interesting book written a decade or two ago–dammit, I can’t remember the title, maybe someone can help me here–about a sportswriter who was a college-level player (I think) who hooked up with the ATP tour. One of the interesting things he explained is how even though the ATP represents elite-level tournament players, there is a gulf of talent between the top five to ten players and the rest of the pack. Like there really is a small handful of “cream of the crop” players, and then everyone else.

That’s not really true, though. In the 1990s and the 2000s there was just one dominant player (Sampras and Federer, respectively.) Everyone else was fighting for scraps. In the 70s and 80s the claim would have been closer to the mark; for all his success, Borg was really first among equals (even if you only look at Grand Slam results.) And obviously today we’ve got four guys who win grand slam titles and “everyone else.”

True. For awhile it was just King Federer. Andy Roddick knows all about him. :slight_smile:

Break Point?

That doesn’t sound like it. It’s a little too recent, as well. The book I’m thinking of would have been written and published before 2003. I think I read it around 2001.

Well, the point was (and I’m being generous when I’m saying 5-10 people) is that even within the top fifty there are huge tiers in difference in talent. The difference between #1 and #10 is vastly more than #10 and #20. The top five or so can usually mix it up reasonably well, which is why you don’t have someone like Sampras (in the 90s) or Federer or Nadal winning every single Grand Slam event. They’re better than their competition overall, but it’s still regularly competitive. Although Federer and Nadal in the last decade did take it to a new level of dominance.

No. I don’t really know too much about tennis.

Maybe I should have asked this in the op: Do the players get penalized for not making a serve, or can they just try until they get a good one?

They get two attempts. If the first serve hits the net or lands out of the service area they try again. If that one doesn’t make it the opponent wins the point. So they hit the first one really hard, then hit the second one a little more gently to make sure it stays in bounds. They switch service areas each point (but not each serve); the server serves right to left, left to right, right to left and so on.

Also, if the serve touches the net, but falls into the legal serving area (the cross-court service box), it’s basically chalked up as a “do-over”. The term for this is a “let.” There is no limit to how many lets you can have, but, in practice, you rarely see more than two in a row, and even that is somewhat unusual.