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psychotic banana
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You've got to see 130-mph serve to return it

By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY

No. 5 on USA TODAY's 10 hardest things to do in sports is returning a 130-plus-mph serve over the net. Here's why it's so hard, from a scientific perspective. Compare that with an expert athlete's perspective — and an average joe's.

During the men's final at the 2002 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Pete Sampras smacked his serves at speeds up to 132 mph.

Serving up aces

"At 130-140 miles per hour, you are pushing the limits of the human being's ability to return the ball," says Howard Brody, retired professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania and longtime tennis researcher.

In that U.S. Open final, Sampras won three of four sets against Andre Agassi — considered the best in the business at returning serves. Sampras' powerful serve was pivotal.

Brody says the radar guns used to clock serves measure the speed of the ball as it leaves the racket.

Fortunately for returners, air resistance and the friction of the bounce slow the ball.

"As a general rule of thumb, the ball, when it crosses the opposite baseline, is going at about half that (initial impact) speed," says Brody, co-author of a new book, The Physics and Technology of Tennis.

That still means the returner has only about a half second to react and hit the ball.

Good returners "have incredibly good eyesight," Brody says.

"They can pick the ball up earlier off the racket. The sooner you pick up the ball, the more time you have to do something about it."

The fuzz on the ball slows the serve down, but the same fuzz also enables the server to put topspin or side spin on the ball — the fibers mesh with the racket strings, giving the hitter more control.

With the dominance of the serve in the men's game, Brody advocates using a slightly larger (by 6%) ball, which he says would slow down the game.

"The way things are going, every year the servers get better," he says.

In his four-set victory against Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open, Pete Sampras knew his powerful serve would be critical. Here is a statistical breakdown of Sampras' serve:

Percentage of first serves put in play: 87 of 152 (57%)

Aces (no return) on first serve: 28

Percentage of second serves put in play: 52 of 65 (80%)

Aces on second serve: 5

Points won when first serve put in play: 70 of 87 (80%)

Points won on second serve: 34 of 65 (52%)

Fastest serve: 132 mph

Average speed of first serve: 115 mph

Average speed of second serve: 103 mph

Source: U.S. Open

Fastest men's serves at 2002 U.S. Open (all matches)

1. Andy Roddick, USA , 138 mph

2. Greg Rusedski, Great Britain, 137 mph

3. Pete Sampras, USA 135 mph

Source: U.S. Open (IBM timing)

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Why do they use the most inappropriate example for their points? Agassi-Sampras is not the right one. Agassi's return is maybe one of the best, but it's not the best in terms of returning Sampras serve.. He could not return it in 2002.. he could not return it in 2001. Could he ever return it? No, his type of return is not designed for Sampras's type of serve.. Why don't they speculate basing it on how Sampras's serve is returned by, say, Hewitt.. Is Sampras serving to Hewitt at different speed than to Agassi?
 

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On the subject of fast serves, it will be interesting to see the top speeds at Indian Wells - Rusedski should be back for that tournament.

Will anyone beat Rusedski's 149mph record in what is known to be the home of fast serves?
 

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Gugaholic
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Choosing Sampras for the study is not the best choice because it’s so difficult to guess Sampras serve. His serve is fast but there are more players can serve faster than he do. For other big servers, their opponent can guess what kind of serve or placing before the racket hit the ball but not from Sampras. You can’t tell from Sampras body movement on what kind of serve it will be.
 

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1jackson2001 said:
Good returners "have incredibly good eyesight," Brody says.
Oh that's why I have difficulty returning a ball ;)

Anyway, I agree they should do something to slow down the serves in the mens' game. It's too boring otherwise.
 

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I don't think there's a problem with powerful, fast serves. Good old fashioned evolution and racquet technology will balance it out and anyway the powerful serve doesn't mean a player will automatically dominate the tour. look at Philipoussis, Rusedski, Goran (poor thing struggled for yrs before he bagged Wimby) Wayne Arthurs, Roddick.
 
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