It is not surprising that four of the best server returners in the history of game, as rated by tennis historian and journalist Steve Flink, happen to be featured among the four men and women in the 2012 US Open semifinals.
In his new book THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME ($28.95, New Chapter Press, available here: http://www.amazon.com/Greatest-Tennis-Matches-All-Time/dp/0942257936/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1347019733&sr=1-1&keywords=greatest+tennis+matches+of+all+time) Flink not only reviews and rates the greatest confrontations in the history of the sport, but also rates the great individual strokes of all time. In the serve return category, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova – all four represented in the US Open semifinals – rank among the best of all time. The following are his top five serve returners of all time as excerpted exclusively from Flink’s book.
1. ANDRE AGASSI With his astonishing hand-eye coordination, the man from Las Vegas took the return of serve to another level. He could read the serve with uncanny regularity and would take the initiative away from the server in an instant with his crackling returns off both sides. His two-handed backhand return was probably more dazzling than his forehand return, but he could be vulnerable to well-placed wide slice serves. His two-handed backhand return was probably better than his forehand return, but off both flanks he imposed himself spectacularly and returned with ferocity.
2. JIMMY CONNORS The left-hander’s posture on the return differed from Agassi’s. He stood farther back to give himself more time. But Connors would drive his returns so flat off both sides that he could make the biggest and best servers look very vulnerable. His booming returns would jump off his Wilson T2000 racket with astounding pace, and the serve-and-volleyers of his generation were usually at his mercy.
3. NOVAK DJOKOVIC The Serbian’s elastic reach on his two-handed backhand sets him apart from just about anyone in his field. He can be pulled wide to his backhand, yet still snap back the return with gusto. He may yet develop the finest return of all time, but already Djokovic has established himself near the top of the list with his unflinching manner, and his capacity to attack second serves and handle first serves with outstanding control and precision.
4. LLEYTON HEWITT The Australian was one of the grittiest competitors ever to set foot on a court, but he had to work inordinately hard to beat rivals with larger arsenals and considerably more power. Hewitt overcame that deficiency because his return of serve was unfailingly consistent. He could get more big serves back into play than just about anyone. He did not return with as much aggression as some of the others who shined in that department, but no one probed more convincingly.
5. ANDY MURRAY The best British player of the modern era, Murray always has a wide range of options at his disposal. He is crafty, versatile and imaginative. His game is multi-faceted. But perhaps his finest attribute is his propensity to strike his returns with conviction and unshakable authority. His feel on the forehand return is impeccable and his two-handed backhand return is brilliant because he is so flexible and accurate.
1. MONICA SELES When the left-hander was ruling the world of women’s tennis with her relentlessly piercing two-handed shots off both sides, her return of serve was one of her largest virtues. She was ceaselessly looking to back her opponents up with her uncompromising returns. Off either the forehand or the backhand, she went all out, but controlled her aggression and played the percentages on her terms.
2. STEFFI GRAF Unlike Seles, Graf did not turn the return of serve into a weapon off both sides. Her forehand return was much more damaging, and adversaries served to that side at their own peril. Her backhand return was largely a chip, but it was effective as well. And there was always the danger that Steffi would run around her backhand to blast inside-out forehand returns that featured impeccable footwork.
3. CHRIS EVERT In her time, Evert faced some first-rate servers in Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Virginia Wade, and, of course, Martina Navratilova. Her return had to be sharp and unerring. Against serve-and-volleyers, she made them volley up off her dipping returns; against baseliners, she got great depth with outstanding control. All in all, she was a terrific returner because she missed so few and set herself up to take control of points.
4. VICTORIA AZARENKA In establishing herself as the No. 1 ranked woman in the world early in 2012, Azarenka brought a bright array of strengths with her to the arena. But, above all else, her return of serve was the best feature of her big hitting game. She is ultra-aggressive without being reckless, and the pressure she applies on opponents with her returns is immense.
5. MARIA SHARAPOVA This feisty and unwavering competitor excels on the return of serve. Her returns are scorching off both sides. She drives through the ball relentlessly and has a knack for taking the initiative away from her rivals with the depth and extreme velocity of her returns. Sharapova is devastatingly potent when she is receiving and her second serve returns are of the highest caliber.
Flink’s new book THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME features profiles and rankings of the greatest matches of all time dating from the 1920s featuring Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen up through the modern era of tennis featuring contemporary stars Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Flink breaks down, analyzes and puts into historical context the sport’s most memorable matches, providing readers with a courtside seat at these most celebrated and significant duels. Other champions featured in the book include Don Budge, Maureen Connolly, Rod Laver, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf among many others. Flink’s fascinating “greatest strokes of all time” section ranks and describes the players who best executed all the important shots in the game through the years.
THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME, a hard-cover book that retails for $28.95, can be purchased via this link http://m1e.net/c?137316169-pY4wS1ySk2Uog%407802041-kVv/BOnLe29Us atwww.NewChapterMedia.com and where ever books are sold. The book is available in electronic formats, including on Amazon.com’s Kindle here: http://m1e.net/c?137316169-hh.fFBfbas96k%407802042-QV.SRGnum7zco
Flink, one of the most respected writers and observers in the game, is currently a columnist for TennisChannel.com. A resident of Katonah, N.Y., he is the former editor of World Tennis magazine and a former senior columnist at Tennis Week.