Sabine Lisicki's Record Serve Highlights Tennis's Technology Boom


One hundred and thirty-one miles per hour!

Sabine Lisicki’s new service speed record, set this week at the WTA tournament in Stanford, is proof of what a power game today’s females are playing.

It may be 32mph shy of the male record (Samuel Groth’s 163mph at the 2012 Busan Open Challenger) but it’s a veritable rocket all the same. And it begs the question: Are modern players far stronger than their predecessors from decades past?

Examine old video footage – there’s plenty of it on Youtube – and you’d certainly think so. The likes of Fred Perry, Suzanne Lenglen, Don Budge, Margaret Court, Rod Laver and Billie Jean King look like they’re brushing away flies compared to today’s big guns.

Even when you watch champions from just a few decades ago such as Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova, the action looks slightly slow-motion.

Yet, it’s not as if human beings have evolved into some sort of super-human species in the space of a generation. Rafa Nadal and Serena Williams may be packing more muscle than Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, but all four are still homo sapiens.

Sports writer David Epstein has done some intriguing research in this field. Author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, he suggests the reason modern athletes (in all sports) regularly break sporting records is thanks mainly to improved technology, more intelligent training, and “specialised bodies that fit into certain athletic niches”.

Epstein uses examples from athletics, cycling, swimming, basketball and gymnastics. But he could just as well highlight tennis.

Addressing improved technology, he proves how, in the 1930s, Jesse Owens would have been just milliseconds behind Usain Bolt had he not been hampered by an energy-sapping cinder track and a lack of starting blocks.

He explains that the 1904 Olympic marathon champion was so ignorant of nutrition that he used to drink rat poison and brandy while competing. (Today you’ll be hard pushed to find energy drinks in those flavours!)

Epstein also shows how modern swimmers have stolen a march on their predecessors thanks to tumble turns, turbulence-reducing gutters on the side of the pool, and full-body swimsuits.

When it comes to specialised physiology, Epstein demonstrates how modern coaches practise “a form of artificial selection”, picking out players purely on their body types.

It’s thanks to this, he explains, that one in six of all American men between the ages of 20 and 40 compete in the NBA. And why so many elite distance runners hail from Kenya’s Kalenjin tribe.

Look at modern-day tennis and it’s easy to see how Epstein’s theories apply here, too.

Players are serving with longer, larger, lighter and stronger carbon fibre rackets, strung with powerful fluoropolymer strings.

Serena Williams spends more time in the gym over the course of a single week than Suzanne Lenglen did in her entire lifetime. And Lenglen competed in a full-length skirt.

Nowadays players are picked out at a young age according to their height, limb length and shoulder width. Which is why, physiologically, so many look exactly the same in silhouette.

So while Lisicki’s new service speed record should be admired, it also needs to be placed firmly in perspective.

 

For the upcoming US Open, Unibet have the German player as 20th favourite to win, at 141.0. The leading contender is Serena Williams at 3.25, followed by Maria Sharapova at 6.50 and Petra Kvitova and Eugenie Bouchard both at 7.50.

In the men’s event, Novak Djokovic is favourite at 2.20, followed by Rafa Nadal at 5.00 and Roger Federer and Andy Murray both at 6.00.