Tennis’ Free Throw: Is an Ace Really an Easy, Cheap or Free Point?
Inevitably, during a tournament you will hear the most cliché and overused narratives. This is not exclusive to tennis. We hear them in all sports. It is the shorthand for which we all have the crib sheet. In tennis these clichés are trite tales of longevity, persistence, heart and athleticism; they fill the air and page, often in lieu of analysis and insightful commentary. How many times have you heard, “s/he could really use some free points now?” It is unclear where this oft used line originated. Any sport fan can draw flawed if not illogical similarities between the service and free throw lines. But when no other than the brilliantly complex David Foster Wallace, the sport’s de facto poet laureate, delves into the correlation, a cliché or trope is stamped, verified and approved, even if it is a simplified view of his writing.
“What combination of blankness and concentration is required to sink a putt or a free throw for thousands of dollars in front of millions of unblinking eyes? …The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, maybe as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.” ― David Foster Wallace 1994 “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”
The free point is a misnomer even in basketball; it is an uncontested opportunity as a result of a foul or a wrong. In tennis then, wouldn’t a let be the closest equivalent? The complexity and beauty of a serve is like a dunk. It is flight in motion. Serves are neither easy, cheap nor free. This is the second most infuriating and annoying commentator foul in tennis.
An ace is quicker than any rally and requires far less energy than running to and fro on the court. It requires stillness, complete focus and fearlessness amidst the learing eyes of a stadium of fans and haters, and a court full of judges and ball kids. Staring at the opponent, the server has to push aside all of this, including what is at stake to rely on muscle memory, thousands if not millions of practice serves and strengthening exercises, to find a high contact point and deliver time and again. This is arguably the most difficult, costly and important shot of a player’s game.
Like a great soup, a great serve is an amalgamation of many things. When all the ingredients meld, the thick, hot, favorable dish is irresistible, especially doused with hot pepper sauce, Sriracha or scotch bonnet. Any chef or discriminate eater with an international palate will bee-line for a soup, especially from an elder, over any fast food meal.
My favorite pho restaurant is a small Mom and Pop shop. The pho has the clearest and richest broth accompanied by freshly cut meat, vegetables and herbs. What’s pho without basil and mint? The owners once told me softly, as if revealing family or trade secrets, that they prepare the broth for at least twelve hours blanching, roasting and simmering, never a super hard boil, using chicken bones, including the feet and neck with aromatics. Pho is not a quickly made soup like the omnipresent Campbell’s mom delivering chicken noodle or tomato soup to perfectly seated and still children in commercials, who offer appreciation with the product’s tagline, “Mm! Mm! Good!” Leaving the restaurant my adultness and tipping etiquette pushes me to offer gratitude for my Pho with folded dollars and silent Mms.
Many years ago my mother’s friend became the butt of many jokes as she shopped for hours spending enough for a five-star meal, to purchase ground food (root vegetables) and meats for her split pea soup. As any West Indian or West Indian adjacent knows, soup was, it is no longer, the inexpensive and labor free meal reserved for Saturdays. Aside from a piece of smoked or cured pigtail, my mother used leftovers and staples from the fridge and pantry. This comforting and nutritious meal had no definitive recipe; my mother and her mother, and most likely her mother, my great-grandmother, learned it in the kitchen and with memory muscles and kinesthetic abilities perfected their own versions over time. A pinch of this, a handful of that, a drop of that… Served with a side of white rice, this soup is customarily thicker than sancocho and as hearty as a stew. Every family’s soup is distinctive but none would be refused.
Ironically, in my childhood home, wonton soup was most revered. My asthmatic brother would only drink this Americanized broth when his lungs rebelled against the whether, dust or stress. No other soup, homemade, canned or restaurant procured loosened the mucus from his airways like this elixir. So in a traditional West Indian home this eastern soup saved a finicky ill boy and an immigrant family from a very western disease.
Players’ serves like soups, are distinctive though there are only four types: flat, slice, kick or even the comical and rarely used underhand serve. From Andy Roddick‘s violent volcanic eruption to the treeline bombs delivered by John Isner, serves are clone-resistant. They require coordination, core strength, training and discernment. The best servers are instinctual, natural, with fluid swings. No hitches: embellishments or extraneous movement.
Watching Serena, Federer and Kyrgios hit all the spots on the court or deliver a game of four consecutive aces is magnifique. This homerun is Serena’s trademark, weapon. Her awe-inspiring record for most aces in a tournament was 102 en route to winning the 2012 Wimbledon title.
Uniquely different like a fingerprint or brushstroke, a player’s serve retains bits and pieces from coaches, injuries, rituals, intention and opponents’ games. This stroke is a player’s most vulnerable shot. If it is a weapon, it must be treasured and nurtured; if it is a weakness, it must be improved!
The greatest servers have perfect placement, pace, variety and they deliver in the most clutch circumstances: Sampras, Roddick, Kyrgios, Osaka, Pliskova, Stosur, Keys and of course Serena Williams. Arguably, this one shot is at the core of many players games on both tours. However, it alone will not guarantee the win, trophy, slam or the hall of fame. Serves on both tours continue to improve, but most would be not be classified gourmet; they are more of the canned variety or even army rations, eatable but condemned by most for poor taste, appearance and health risks.
From the perfectly slotted toss, to the deep knee bend, shoulder turn and pronation, a good repeatable serve is the most difficult shot in the game. Walk onto any community court and you will find decent to good forehands, backhands and volleys; this is not the case with serves. I make a decent split pea soup, my gumbo is praised and my yellow pepper soup is smooth and sweet. But I could not put them on a menu at a Michelin starred restaurant.
So as you enjoy the second week of Wimbledon and you undoubtedly hear, “s/he could really use some free points now?” recall this rant and maybe, just maybe you will chuckle and shake your head exclaiming, “there are no free points in tennis!” Tennis is a lot like life with its lessons crammed onto a 78×27 rectangle. To win, you have to use your innate skills, training and hard work. Let that simmer and serve for the victory.
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