Is Your Game Too Fast?

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Roger Federer aced Andy Roddick 50 times in the finals of Wimbledon last week, and Roddick returned the favor 27 times at speeds up to 140 miles an hour.

There are good college tennis players and teaching pros in Memphis who can consistently hit a 120-mile-an-hour serve. Or hit a racquetball 150 miles an hour. Or put so much slice on a serve in ping pong that points are over in a few seconds.

This is what happens when players who are already bigger, stronger, and more skilled get the benefits of better equipment too.

Racquetball and ping pong have spawned retro versions that slow the game down and make it easier for older players especially to have longer rallies. Randy Stafford and David Fleetwood, former racquetball pros in the sport's early days 30 years ago, are now playing doubles with wooden paddles with holes in them and a slower ball with a pin hole in it. Some ping pong tournaments are being played with paddles with old-fashioned dimpled rubber instead of foam pads. The game is slower, the points longer, and sound is distinctively more familiar than the spin-heavy professional games.

Beautifully varnished and logoed laminated wooden racquets were standard equipment in squash and tennis 30 or 40 years ago but are now as obsolete as white flannel pants. Even Federer wouldn't stand a chance playing with a Wilson Jack Kramer racquet, the bestseller of the Fifties and Sixties.

As he says in his biography "The Game," Kramer was possibly the second best server in his era, behind only Pancho Gonzales. The late Derrick Barton, former tennis coach at Rhodes College and head pro at the Memphis University Club, played Gonzales at Wimbledon. Derrick loved to tell the story of how he was doing pretty well until Gonzales cranked up his game and hit a serve that knocked the racquet out of his hand.

The interesting thing is that big servers with average all-around games can't win as many tournaments by serving and volleying as they did in the 1980s and early 1990s. Even on grass, the points are lasting longer. The Federer-Roddick final lasted more than four hours.

Racquetball adjusted to bigger and more powerful racquets by giving pros one serve instead of two. With two serves, Memphian Andy Roberts, the former world number-one player and one of the hardest hitters in the game, might have hung on another year or two before retiring.

The serve isn't much of a factor in squash, where players get one serve. The object is to put the ball in play, and aces are rare at every level. A good club ping pong player, however, can put so much spin on a serve that it's impossible for a rec-room player to get it back.

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