A Tall Serve

In tennis, size definitely matters.

If you're into sports oddities, consider that the field of tennis players for the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at the Racquet Club could muster a lineup taller than the Memphis Grizzlies starting five.

At center, Ivo Karlovic, the 6' 10" Serbian. At power forward, 6' 9" American John Isner. At small forward, 6' 6" Juan Martin Del Potro from Argentina, a former U.S. Open champion. And at guards, Frenchman Gael Monfils, 6' 4" and possibly the best athlete on the ATP Tour, and 6' 7" Kevin Anderson of South Africa, a former NCAA doubles champion.

For bench strength, there's a pair of Americans, defending champion Sam Querrey, who is 6' 6", and former champion Andy Roddick, who at a mere 6' 2" is still bigger than Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley.

All seven of these guys are ranked in the Top 75 in the world. As you might expect, they all have huge serves, but they also have grace and groundstrokes. All over the world, great tennis players are getting taller, or else tall kids are forgoing other sports to become great tennis players. They may foreshadow the first tennis 7-foot pro, a child prodigy with the coordination of Monfils or Rudy Gay and the genes of, say, Marc and Pau Gasol.

The courts at the Racquet Club are fast, and linesmen and spectators must be quick and ready to duck or take cover when there's a big server like Karlovic or Isner on the other side.

For now, the "tallest" honor goes to Karlovic, the 2006 Regions Morgan Keegan doubles champion. There has never been a player like him in the history of tennis. He's the tallest pro to climb high (#37 last year) in the world rankings, and he has, arguably, the biggest serve ever.

In his opening match last year he served 32 aces. That was an ordinary day's work for him. In a Davis Cup match he once had 78 aces. That broke his previous ace records of 51 and 55. The oddity of oddities is that he lost all three of those matches.

Isner, the runner-up in last year's RMK, shattered those records when he served 113 aces in his longest-ever, 11-hour match with Nicolas Mahut last year. Isner won the last set 70-68. In a rematch in January, Isner won again, this time in straight sets with only 20 aces.

Roddick serves as hard as Karlovic and Isner but is about eight inches shorter. Roddick has won more tournaments and is consistently in the Top 10 because he has a better all-around game than almost anyone in the world except Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who are not coming to Memphis.

The courts at the Racquet Club are fast, and linesmen and spectators on the baseline must be quick and ready to duck or take cover when there's a big server like Karlovic or Isner on the other side. Aces have become like dunks, so ordinary that they can make a game boring.

In Tennis magazine, journalist Douglas Robson argued that the serve "isn't what it was once cranked up to be." Some big servers are actually taking something off their serve for the sake of spin, placement, or consistency. In his autobiography Open, former champion Andre Agassi said it's the trajectory more than the speed that makes serves from tall players so hard to return.

One Memphian who appreciates big servers is Sarkis Kish, owner of Sarkis V. Kish Oriental Rugs. For 30 years, Kish gave away a rug to the player who hit the most aces in the tournament. In the early years, 50 might be good enough, but more recently it took at least 100. Kish, who is about 5' 6", is also a fine tennis player who won the over-75 division in the Southern championships in Nashville in January.

Did he hit any aces?

"Yes, I did," he said. "They didn't give me a rug, though."  

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