Written by: Michael Emmett
***Michael Emmett is the Director of Tennis Operations at all Mayfair clubs. He is a certified Tennis Canada Coach 3 with a Journalism degree from the University of Texas. Michael spent several years working in sports television at TSN and Sportsnet. Michael is a former National champion who finished his last year of junior tennis ranked #1 in Canada. Michael has coached several National champions when he worked for the All-Canadian Academy at the National Tennis Centre at York University in the early 90s. Michael spent 2 years traveling the world playing the ATP tour satellite circuit as a member of the Molson National Team in 1985 and ’86.***
So much of today’s game is about the serve. With 3 of the 4 major championships being played on a slick surface, it is very difficult to win a grand slam in this era without a dominant serve. As a Canadian, it is an exciting time to be a tennis fan. Milos Raonic, as we all know, has a gigantic serve that is definitely one of the best of all time. I always hear the debate – “where do you think Milos fits in with some of the best servers in the history of the game?” Recently, the gang covering the US Open for ESPN had a heated discussion on this topic. Not surprisingly, Pete Sampras was the overwhelming favorite amongst the commentators in New York. In the list below, I let you know where the top servers of all time rank in my opinion. Let the debate begin!
#30 Thomas Johannson – Thomas Johansson, the big serving Swede, only 5’11”, used his massive serve to dominate the Australian Open in 2002, defeating Marat Safin in the final in a major upset that nobody saw coming. Thomas had a classic motion that will always be remembered for perfection. Unfortunately, his career was cut short by injuries.
#29 Juan Martin Del Potro – The highlight of his career to date was his stunning win over 17-time grand slam champion Roger Federer at the 2009 US Open final. Del Po was serving bullets to an over-matched Federer, especially in the memorable 5th set. It was his deadly serve that set up the rest of his brilliant play that day and enabled him to win a classic over the greatest player ever.
#28 Marc Rosset – 1992 was the pinnacle of Rosset’s career and his massive serve. Representing Switzerland at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, he defeated several big-name players en route to qualifying for the men’s singles final, including Jim Courier, Goran Ivanisevic, Wayne Ferreira, and Emilio Sanchez. In the final, he faced Spain’s Jordi Arrese and won an exciting five-set match, 7–6, 6–4, 3–6, 4–6, 8–6, to claim the Gold Medal.
#27 Patrick Rafter – He certainly did not have one of the fastest serves of his time, but he did have one of the ‘heaviest’ serves that gave his opponents fits. This crafty serve backed up by some of the best volleys of all-time made him a true, legitimate serve and volley player who was almost unbreakable in his prime. Rafter proved the theory you could have a dominant serve without overpowering speed.
#26 Steve Denton – In 1984 Denton broke the world record by firing a serve at 138 mph – a record he held for 13 years before Mark Philippousis broke it in 1997 serving at 142 mph. Denton had an unusual service motion. He would take two steps forward before serving a bullet at his opponents. This unique motion was later banned – ATP rules now state that no player shall have a moving start, walking or running, into the service motion.
#25 Tomas Berdych – Nobody beats Roger Federer on grass at Wimbledon or on the slick hard courts at the US Open without a monster serve. And that is precisely what allowed the Czech missile to make tennis history with two legendary wins over the Swiss superstar. Berdych’s most recent 4-set win over Mr. Federer was a classic example of power tennis – especially on the serve. It was amazing to see how valuable a weapon like this really is.
#24 John Newcombe – An Aussie with the heart of lion. Newcombe was best known for his dominating second serve. Back in the day this guy had it all and his serve was a cannon ball that was debilitating for his opponents.
#23 Lew Hoad – I’m not sure the tennis world has ever seen a better motion than that of Mr. Hoad. He had a slick, poetry like motion that produced enormous power. Hoad was a fierce competitor who was as dominant on the serve as some of the game’s greatest players.
#22 Colin Dibley – One of many tennis phenoms born in Australia, Colin Dibley had the best serve of his generation. His delivery was smooth and flowing and he made a living uncorking blistering serves that frustrated his opponents at a time when the equipment made it difficult to generate power.
#21 Ivan Ljubicic – In 2010 the Croat used his superlative serving abilities to win his first Masters Series event at Indian Wells, by defeating Rafael Nadal , Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick in the final. Ljubicic, at times in his career, has been so dominant with his fireball serve that it was virtually unreturnable.
#20 Kevin Curren – After seeing his serve first hand on the fast courts at the University of Texas in Austin, I would say it was the best serve I’ve ever played against. His motion was deliberate and efficient. At times, in the mid 80s, Curren’s serve was discussed as the best all–around serve of his generation. In retrospect, Curren’s second serve was as good as anybody on this list. Curren made it to the 1985 Wimbledon finals, defeating John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in succession before facing and losing to Boris Becker in the final.
#19 Slobodan Zivojinovic – Bobo, as he was affectionately known, built his game on his imposing serve, which was enhanced greatly by his height and his massive thighs. A flick of the wrist at the top of the delivery was all that was needed after all the effort prior to contact. The Serbian missile will always be remembered for his titanic serve and his 5-set victory over John McEnroe at the Australian Open.
#18 Ellsworth Vines – A phenomenal athlete who became a professional golfer after his tennis career, Vines played a relentlessly aggressive game. He mastered a flat cannonball serve that was almost unreturnable when he was on. His serving influenced and inspired Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez.
#17 Richard Krajicek – The Dutchman won Wimbledon in 1996, defeating MaliVai Washington in the finals 6–3, 6–4, 6–3. This incredible feat included Krajicek beating Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals during a time when Sampras never lost at Wimbledon. At the time it was one of the greatest upsets in Wimbledon history. Serving ace after ace, tennis pundits figured this would be the first of many championships on the lawns of Wimbledon. Unfortunately, the Dutchman’s career was cut short by injuries.
#16 Michael Stich – Stich won Wimbledon in 1991 thanks to his walloping serve. He defeated the defending champion and World No. 1 Stefan Edberg in the semifinals, 4–6, 7–6, 7–6, 7–6, without breaking his service once. Then in the final, he beat his compatriot and three–time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker in straight sets. When you talk about the serve combined with the volley – I’m not sure anybody did it better?
#15 Ivo Karlovic – Ivo Karlovic has the most incredible first serve in tennis history. A similar serve to Milos Raonic. The difference is in the second serve, Milos has the awesome kicker that he can move around the court. Karlovic is 6’10” and at times his first serve left his opponents scared for their well–being. Karlovic had a serve and forehand, but his movement was suspect and for that reason he never really challenged the top players.
#14 Greg Rusedski – Greg Rusedski can lay claim to having one of the biggest serves in tennis history. The former Canadian who moved the England to play Davis Cup was a lefty with unmatched power, and was described as an ‘acing’ machine. It’s unfortunate the other parts to his game were mediocre. Currently, he has the ninth fastest serve in tennis history at 149 mph.
#13 Stefan Edberg – Nobody in the game had a more frustrating serve that Stefan Edberg. The speed of serve was mediocre at best. The kick was over the top. It allowed Mr. Edberg to sneak to the net and capitalize on easy volleys, and the world’s best were often handcuffed with balls jumping every which way. It was truly a remarkable serve to witness first-hand.
#12 Mark Philippousis – So much unfulfilled potential. Mark Philippoussis had one of the most dangerous serves in the history of the game. This serve was technically perfect. It was gargantuan raw power. But sadly, it was not enough to win tennis matches and he would never crack the world’s top 5 on the ATP ranking list.
#11 Andy Roddick – With his career coming to an end at the hands of Juan Martin Del Potro in the 4th round at the US Open, it is a good time to reflect on what might have been. A beautiful service motion with a lag that generated tremendous power – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen somebody employ such leg action prior to thrusting upward before uncorking a gigantic serve. Roddick had a humongous serve, but the rest of his game was lacking, and in the end he came away with only 1 grand slam title (2003 US Open). For American tennis fans this was a major letdown.
#10 John Isner – Being 6’9” is a massive advantage when you are delivering a ball 50 or so feet away over a net that is only 3 feet high at the center – and Isner uses his extreme height to his benefit. Isner’s only downfall is he tends to get tired in five setters and his serve usually suffers as a result. Like many on this list, Isner can be unbeatable when his lanky frame is towering over the net and sending missiles that his opponents can only whiff at. Once considered a top-5 serve of all time, I believe he must add some diversity to his cannon if he wants to get back with the elite.
#9 Pancho Gonzalez – The 6-foot-3 Gonzalez dominated opponents with big serving that combined superb placement with blinding speed. His smooth, rhythmic delivery looked effortless and allowed Gonzalez to serve bullets well into his 40s.
#8 Roscoe Tanner – If ever there was a player who was totally dependent on his serve, it was most definitely Roscoe Tanner. The stocky south paw was electric when his serve was working. He had so much firepower and precision that if you wanted to get a racquet on the ball you had to guess where it was going. It was in total contrast to the next guy on the list (John McEnroe), who used finesse and angles to maximize his lack of power.
#7 John McEnroe – McEnroe, in his day, had a reputation for being like a surgeon with his unorthodox delivery and pin-point accuracy. Nobody in the history of the game could move the ball around the box like Mr. McEnroe. But with his lack of power and topspin, I believe his serve doesn’t receive enough credit out there with the tennis historians for overall effectiveness. McEnroe’s serve was lethal and machine-like in the early 80s when he was blitzing through every draw. It was a thing of beauty, especially on the lawns of Wimbledon, and it enabled Johnny Mac to win 7 Grand Slam titles.
#6 Boris Becker – Boris Becker was so advanced at such a young age. His serve was “boom boom”. His court awareness coupled with his young legs and vibrant youth allowed him to win three Wimbledon titles by the age of 21. Becker was as automatic as anybody on this list when it came to the ‘big’ points. It’s a stat that is not kept; however, my recollection was he battled back from more 0–40 situations than any player in recent memory. His mental skills were unmatched – he used visualization better than anybody, and this was a major reason his serve was so good under pressure.
#5 Goran Ivanisevic – Given a wild card into the main draw of Wimbledon in 2001, the tall, left-handed Croatian served bombs en route to winning the title in a stunning display of serving prowess. The Ivanisevic serve was hit with a slightly open stance and was difficult for opponents to read. Not surprisingly, 3 of my top 8 are lefties and Goran is the top south paw on my list. And one could argue that Ivanisevic should be even higher.
#4 Bill Tilden – It appeared that Tilden hit the serve on the rise but actually he timed his serve so perfectly that he hit it exactly when the ball hit the apex – just at that moment that the ball is stationary. This is seldom seen – even with the superstars on this list. Tilden had excellent hand-eye coordination and pinpoint timing. His serve was not known as much for power as for its variety, movement and accuracy. Rumor has it that Tilden once clocked a serve at 163 mph but there is no concrete proof of this fact.
#3 Milos Raonic – After watching Milos’ serve up close and personal at the most recent US Open, on the Grand Stand court against James Blake, (I was in the 2nd row behind the baseline directly in front of several bombs coming right at me) I can tell you this is the best serve I’ve ever seen live. Raonic has it all – speed, spin, precision, variety and confidence. And this serve will only get better. His kick serve (topspin) to the add court is almost unfair. With a little more strength, soon he’ll kick it right over his opponents’ head. The slice serve out wide in the deuce court is equally impressive. And then there is the 145 mph rocket that one day will injure a fan, linesman or player. This serve when it goes in – is simply awesome.
#2 Roger Federer – Federer’s sublime shotmaking and sustained excellence draw attention away from his serve. With a simple, smooth delivery, he has been tennis’s dominant player for most of the last decade. The 2009 Wimbledon final, in which Federer held off Andy Roddick with 50 aces, a record for a Grand Slam final, was a performance for the ages. Federer’s 7 Wimbledon titles speak volumes about his world class serve. Never has anybody (except possibly Mr. Becker) been more clutch on break points down than the Swiss superstar.
#1 Pete Sampras – On the subject of 7 Wimbledon championships (Federer recently equaled Pete’s all time record), you can’t win Wimbledon that many times without an all-world serve. In my opinion, Pistol Pete had the best server of all time, Sampras hit with power, placement and disguise on both his first and second serves. His calm, relaxed demeanor as he prepared to serve conveyed an aura of unshakable confidence. Obviously, Sampras had it all. We always say in the tennis business – YOU ARE ONLY as GOOD AS YOUR SECOND SERVE. And there can be no debate – Sampras had the best second serve of all time – and for me it’s not even close.