Although Andy Roddick will probably be the first to admit he played too passively through most of his shocking five set loss to unheralded Yen-Hsun Lu in the Round of 16 of Wimbledon, more than anything it was Roddick’s inability to make inroads into Lu’s service games at key moments that will haunt the American for some time. Sure Roddick hit a backhand pass winner to break Lu in the first set, but why couldn’t Roddick string together a few more points like that especially when Lu seemed vulnerable in the final games of the fifth set when Lu kept missing first serves? Roddick’s tactics will be debated for some time but this loss, along with the epic win by John Isner last week, proves once again the return of serve is the Achilles heel of U.S. men’s tennis.
Isner, though becoming something of a hero in the United States for finally winning the longest tennis match in history, could have saved himself, and his feet which apparently looked like “deli meat” according to Roddick, a lot of agony by figuring out a way to break Nicolas Mahut’s serve at some point in that almost never-ending final set which Isner won 70-68. After the match, when asked why the fifth set took so long, Isner said that Mahut quote “was serving great and hopping around, you know, eight hours into the match, which was remarkable.” And while it was true that the Frenchmen did serve at an almost machine-like level, the feeling among many watching that match linger on into the English sunset for three straight days was that if, say Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal were out there, the match would have been over in time for afternoon tea. And it’s not like Nadal, Murray, or even Roger Federer are slouches when it comes to the serving department either, so why it is that top American men are always praised for having the biggest serves in the game, but yet seem to always have to rely on getting into tiebreaks to close out tight sets?
Did this current generation of American players not learn anything from watching Andre Agassi who was the best returner of his era? Agassi’s quick step return was his best weapon on court and one would think with most American men using two-handed backhands like Agassi, they would have picked up something from the eight-time Grand Slam champion. Instead each of the top three U.S. men (Roddick, Isner and Sam Querrey) have almost carbon copy playing styles – big serves, pokey two-handed backhands and decent if not always reliable forehands. It’s a style that’s gotten all of them into the top 20 and for Roddick has won him many tournaments and one U.S. Open, but boy don’t you think he would have like to have channeled Agassi’s return for a few games during his epic five set Wimbledon final against Federer last year? It might have been the difference then and even during his match vs. Lu on Monday.
But this lack of return prowess doesn’t stop with the top U.S. men. Go out and look at any of our top junior players and you’ll see most of them employ the exact same style being used today by Roddick, et al. I’m not saying they don’t have the time or chance to develop a great return game, but maybe it’s the past glory of another top American, Pete Sampras, that’s become more engrained in the minds of rising U.S. stars that’s preventing them from adding this much needed dimension to their games. Sure Sampras used his serve to great effect in winning 14 Grand Slam titles, but the game has changed since his time and trying to blow people off the court with a huge serve is not the one and only answer to winning a match anymore.
Perhaps Isner’s win and Roddick’s unfortunate loss will motivate U.S. players to work on improving their return of serve in time for the U.S. Open. And maybe we’ll see in the next few months or year an American use his returning skills to enter the elite tier of the game. But we’ll have to wait on that progress as once again the booming serves of our top Americans have gone silent on the burned out grass courts of England.