Serves narrow the U.S generation gap

Sloane Stephens is among the group of American players who are using their serves as weapons. AP Photo/Rob Griffith

American women delivered big at the Australian Open.

No, that's not a description of their results, though it must be said those weren't bad either. Serena Williams was stopped in her tracks by injury, but the performances of Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Jamie Hampton were yet more signs that the gap behind the Williams sisters is narrowing.

But even if none walked away with the title, American women did at least dominate the tournament by one measure -- service speeds.

Five of the top six in the tournament's official ranking of players' fastest serves had 'USA' beside their names. Not surprisingly, Serena Williams topped the list with a 207 kmph blast, leading Sloane Stephens (192 kmph), Coco Vandeweghe (192 kmph), Madison Keys (191 kmph) and Venus Williams, who managed to hit 190 kmph despite her recent back problem.

Only Sabine Lisicki, who came in at No. 2 with 194 kmph, interrupted the all-American lineup.

It was a similar story at the U.S. Open, where the Williamses and Stephens made up three of the top four, and Vandeweghe and Bethanie Mattek-Sands were tied for seven and 11, respectively.

Not all the American women are big servers -- Vavara Lepchenko, Christina McHale, Melanie Oudin and Hampton don't have huge deliveries -- but a lot of the big servers seem to be American. Interestingly, many of the other strong servers on the women's tour also hail from one other nation -- Lisicki, Julia Goerges, Mona Barthel and Tatjana Malek are all Germans.

Is there anything behind it? Beyond the obvious geographic connection, nothing jumps out. No common technique, early coaching or training methods. There's even a generation gap -- Venus and Serena, in their thirties, are over a decade older than their three compatriots also atop the service speed charts. Maybe it's something in the iced tea in Florida -- all have some current or previous links to the Sunshine state.

Apart from sheer speed, even the serves themselves aren't that much alike. Stephens' delivery is just one part of her more rounded arsenal. Keys' service is a bigger weapon that provides many more free points, and Vandeweghe can also put a lot of weight on her ball.

Even Serena and Venus, who learned the game together, have distinctive differences. Serena's serve is legendary for its accuracy and versatility as well as its power. Meanwhile, Venus can struggle to maintain consistency but also post higher numbers -- she has the fastest recorded serve in main draw competition at 129 mph. That's a figure Serena is only now starting to approach -- the younger Williams hit her fastest-ever serve of 128 mph at the Australian Open.

"I think it is the tea we have down here in our training center in Florida. I'm kidding," joked Patrick McEnroe, ESPN analyst and the USTA's head of player development, which runs the facility in Boca Raton, Fla., where Stephens and Keys currently train and Vandeweghe has in the past.

McEnroe said he couldn't identify anything specific that led the U.S. to produce so many notable servers at this time. "If I did I'd just bottle it," he said.

But there may be certain national influences that account for some of it, he added, pointing to the traditional image of the big-serving American that has built up over time on the men's side, exemplifed by the likes of Roscoe Tanner to Pete Sampras to Andy Roddick to John Isner.

First, popular sporting pastimes in the U.S. tend to involve an arm rather than a leg, and the motions and muscles used are not that different from the swing action of a serve. "We're a country that throws a lot more than certainly most European countries," said McEnroe. "We play baseball, we play football. And in European countries and in South American countries, other than tennis, they play soccer."


When it comes to tennis itself, the predominance of faster surfaces in the United States encourages and rewards power, starting with the serve.

"That's definitely part of it. That's part of our culture and it's something that we try to put in the heads of our players," said McEnroe. "If you grow up on a slow, red claycourt somewhere in Italy, that's not as big of a weapon to have, so right at the start you learn to run more, slide more.

"Certainly the weapons that particular players have can often times mirror the realities of how you grew up."

But having the right conditions doesn't matter as much as having the right players -- those who possess the required mixture of athleticism, technique and height. Keys, now 17, was already a big server at 14 years old, notes McEnroe.

"There's no way you can teach someone to serve big," he said. "Part of it's just luck, and part of it, with individual players, obviously mostly genetics. And obviously height also has something to do with it. I think training plays an important role in developing it and making it maybe more consistent and using your serve the best way you can."

That's what the Williamses, Stephens, Keys and Vandeweghe have in common with each other, and other big servers as well.

"What's important is that they're all great athletes, and with good technique. And that's critical on the serve," said Tracy Austin, two-time U.S. Open champion who is now an analyst and serves as a consultant to the USTA development program."So I think it's more just a coincidence that they're American, but that's the common denominator -- all very good athletes, with live arms."

Given Stephens' NFL and Vandeweghe's NBA family histories -- with some swimming thrown in as well -- their sporting talent is no surprise, but wherever they get it from, all five players can produce a striking amount of power both on the serve and off the ground.

The shortest is Stephens at 5-foot-7, followed by Serena at 5-foot-9, Keys at 5-foot-10 (but possibly still growing), Vandeweghe at 6-foot-1 and Venus at about 6-foot-2. Height helps, but Serena's supremacy shows it's not everything.

"All the crucial elements that you need, she puts a check in every single box," Austin said. "Her technique is flawless. And that's what makes her serve stand out. She has the best serve ever in women's tennis."

The contrast with older sister Venus shows the significance of small differences.

"She's obviously got a fantastic serve. If you were to compare the two, Serena's is more reliable because her technique is a little bit more sound," said Austin. "In the middle of the serve, they start with the right foot back and the right foot comes and touches the left.

"Venus, her right leg ... sometimes goes out too far to the right, so she's already opened her body too quickly and she has a tendency to come down with the left side. And therefore [when] she comes down, her head will come down too quickly as well. So it's very technical. Just that one flaw."

Austin has observed Stephens, Keys and Vandeweghe during the various times when they trained at the USTA center in Carson, Calif. She says that 19-year-old Stephens, in particular, is still building her serve and expects it to get even more effective.

But all three are already near the top of the service speed rankings. Moving up the WTA rankings means concentrating on what they do after the serve hits the ground.

"Understanding their game and shot selection is so critical in tennis, understanding your opponents," said Austin. "What all three girls are looking for is a serve to set up the middle of the court, so they can dictate with the forehand. That's what tennis is so much these days, is controlling the middle of the court."

It also means balancing out the traditional focus on big weapons and faster courts, and working on building all those things that come with soccer-loving, slower court locations -- movement, patience, consistency and defense.

"You need to have weapons, without doubt, being able to finish points, and you need to be able to construct points," said Austin. "You kind of need both to be a champion."