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TennisOne Lessons

Serving Woes and Big Groundies Spell Victory for Sharapova

Jim McLennan

Maria Sharapova edged Carla Suarez-Navarro 7-5, 6-3, in a competitive and interesting second round match at the BNP Paribas Open.

Click photo: Jim McLennan

We know Sharapova’s story. Heavy ground strokes, punishing backhands, and relentless attacking tennis regardless of the situation or score. In fact, some years ago her childhood coach Robert Lansdorp dismissed “tactics” as irrelevant when a player (read Maria) is punishing the ball and running her opponent from corner to corner. Maria still has issues with her serve, certainly less than before, but double faults still creep in. In yesterdays match she served 5 of them.

Carla Suarez-Navarro is a stylish Spanish player with an Almagro like one-handed topspin backhand. Semi-western forehand, excellent power off the ground, and appears to have quite a bit of upside to her game. There are concerns about the speed and placement of her second serve, having thrown one in at 64mph, but I like the look of her delivery and it can and will be improved.

Click photo: Maria's forehand and there is a lot to like here. Note the immediate shoulder turn, and how she times the "racquet back" to the bounce of the ball. As she turns into the hit note the "up and away" aspect of contact. The flat hit from shoulder height is the hallmark of the big game.

The first set started closely, an early break of Sharapova, quickly leveled, and for the remainder of the first set the players competed evenly. And this in spite of a difference in titles 27 to 0, and prize money $23 million to $1.8. In this match up it was certainly a good win for Sharapova; though truly I do not believe she ever feels the opposite known as a “bad loss.” In fact, Sharapova once dismissed a 2005 semifinal 0-6, 0-6 drubbing by Lindsay Davenport at this very tournament with little more than a shrug of her shoulders, only to make the finals a week later in Miami.

Match Statistics

The stats on the return of serve tell the tale of this match, as well as her problems when playing Serena. In the women’s game (and I see this in the junior game as well), ground strokes generally trump weak service deliveries. Said another way, it is easier to break than to hold serve and this match was no different. Navarro faced 10 break points and saved 6, Sharapova faced 4 break points and saved 3.

In somewhat of an anomaly Sharapova won 77% of her points on her big serve but only 35% of the points on her occasionally suspect second delivery.

To my eye, the big hitters have a clear advantage when returning serve, and more than anything else, this appears to be Serena’s ace in the hold. She is not in the draw this week, but that deadly serve lurks the following week in Miami.

A few thoughts on Maria. She got her start at the age of 6, at a tennis clinic in Moscow with Martina Navratilova. Martina recommended training in Florida at the Bollitieri Tennis Academy, and the rest (as they say) is history. She groomed what has now really become known as the “big game.” Playing with little variety, rarely venturing to the net, serve somehow neglected in those years while forehands and backhands grew bigger and bigger — Maria plays now as she played then. Positioned very close to the baseline, movement pretty good, but rarely a trace of defense.

That said, Maria has indeed captured a career grand slam — Wimbledon in 2004 with a surprisingly easy 6-1, 6-4 win over Serena Williams. In 2006 Maria won the US Open, again in straight sets, this time 6-4, 6-4 over Justine Henin. In 2008 Maria took the Australian Open with a win over Ivan Ivanovic 7-5, 6-3. And finally, to cap things off she won the French Open title in 2012 yet again in straight sets, beating Sara Erani 6-3, 6-2.

For a career that began in 2001, Sharapova is a remarkably durable athlete. Following shoulder surgery in October of 2008 to repair a torn rotator cuff, it took her a while to regain her form and confidence, falling below the top 100 in 2009.

But her comeback speaks to her grit, her determination and more. Shoulder injuries are endemic on the women’s tour, and there is not general agreement on the cause.

More on the Serve

Consider the elements of the serve. And in each case Maria can “check these boxes.”

  • Deep and balanced knee bend – check
  • Tossing arm well extended as the toss peaks – check
  • Hips torso and shoulder unwind up and into the hit – check
  • Eyes up at contact – check
  • Jumping up and well into the court – check
  • Balanced quickly at the finish with significant back leg kick – check

But there is another way to look at these elements, and that pertains to how they are sequenced, how each is emphasized (sometimes over other times under emphasized) and how they work together to produce racquet head speed. And certainly Maria has racquet speed to burn. But to this observer, and you may see the same as well, the serve appears muscular, over effortful, and when the double faults ensue the overly high toss creates problems. The best servers deliver the ball with a motion that is balanced, rhythmic, and with effortless action. Maria is excellent on the elements but not quite as good when they come together.

Click photo:

Click photo:

In the side by side footage above we can see two interpretations of the serve. Interestingly, Maria's serve is the more common model both on the WTA tour and within the junior ranks. She uses a very deep knee bend, she throws herself up and into the hit, but the massive back leg kick belies the over effort.

Unfortunately some within the teaching community advocate such a back leg kick, I believe it is simply a way to regain balance when the body is moving both forward and down. My coach, Don Kerr would describe that as "serving forward." Serena, on the other hand, uses less of her legs, serves with a lower toss, and her body appears to go up and into the hit. The key here is how less Serena requires the back leg kick. She is much more balanced, and between the two, Serena will split earlier in readying for the reply. Referring Don Kerr again, "Serena serves UP."

If you will permit this author a hunch, I suspect this has to do with under developed overhand throwing motions at a young age. In many, if not most instances, we can see at age 10 or 11 the players who have real professional potential. And in each case that potential shows in their movement, their intensity, and their ground strokes. But if the overhand throw is under developed at that age, the serve rarely becomes something that looks fluid or natural. Many years ago I watched Navratilova practice with two All Americans from Stanford. After the practice Martina and Craig Kardon started throwing a football around on court, and the two young women from Stanford passed the ball awkwardly.

In spite of the “modern game” tennis is still all about the serve — just ask Pete, Serena or Roger. If you have a youngster at home working on his/her game, work work and work on a fluid overhand throwing motion and the serve will follow suit.

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