The Tall Three. Should Servebots Stand Wider?
Karlovic. Isner. Opelka. The Tall Three induce shivers for all involved; opponents hate playing them, fans (probably) hate watching them. All three are over 6 feet 9 inches, and all three—as you would expect—spank aces left and right with ease. It's interesting to me that in all their years on tour (Opelka is only young) none of them have managed to make a slam final and only Isner has managed to win a Masters 1000 (Miami 2018).
The serve for these players is incredible for a number of reasons; the speed they can generate with longer levers is often in the 140s; the angles they can find are more extreme; the height/bounce they can achieve puts it outside the comfort zone for a lot of players.
A lot of players a few inches shorter serve great, but also have groundstrokes to back up their game. Zverev, Kyrgios, Raonic, Anderson, Querrey, and Cilic are all excellent servers, but they aren't like the Tall Three. These players have consistent groundstrokes that keep them in points and help them pressure opponents' serves. They do a good job playing a serve-y version of modern tennis, where they sort of mimic baseliners with their awkward limbs, but excel on serve enough to be top 10/20/30 players. I do think Isner's groundstrokes superseded Karlovic's basic game, and Opelka looks to be developing at a rate that will surpass John, but ultimately, this style seems to fall just short of greatness as the next crop of players in that 6'1'' to 6'4'' sweet spot dominate.
The Tall Three are the only active players on tour who hold more than 90% of service games. As it stands, Isner leads the trio for 1st serve percentage, second serve points won, aces per match, and the lowest double faults per match. John and Milos hold over 93% of the time, and Reilly over 91%. All these stats are impressive, but at the end of the day, these guys aren't winning titles. They lose to the best consistently. Isner is a combined 3 - 17 against Nadal and Djokovic.
If I can put my coaching hat on for a minute, there are some changes that I think could really shake up the way these guys could compete and maybe add another element to their games to make playing them even more uncomfortable, and at least a little interesting for spectators.
1) Go for broke on return. Nothing makes a player more nervous knowing the guy down the other end is embodying the 'grip it and rip it' mentality. Maxime Cressy did a phenomenal job committing to this strategy in his second-round match against Tsitsipas at the open last week. He lost in straight sets, but he had a set-point on return in the first, and a break point in the third. This is a guy who's groundstrokes make your local weekend warrior look smooth by the way, but he committed to attacking every ball, getting to the net, and giving Tsitsipas no rhythm, and frankly played the match on his terms, rather than timidly losing by making inferior shots. If you're holding over 90% of service games (possibly more if they follow point 2) you should be attacking guys WAY more. Break their rhythm, take destiny into your own hands.
2) Stand Wider. Maybe they've tried it before and it hasn't worked, maybe they've never thought of it because they're good enough to be top pros, but a part of me thinks that if I wanted to make a Servebot's serve that much more uncomfortable, I would adapt a wide position closer to the sideline. This does a couple of things. First, it opens up some insane angles to pull their opponents off the court—with their shitty groundstrokes, the Tall Three could start points with players off the freaking court entirely. Further, playing on smaller outside courts, a tall guy could possibly bring the side of the court into play, as in, the returner would run out of court. Secondly, it forces opponents to take a high risk shot if they want to get the ball away from the server—down the line is over the high part of the net and they have less court length to work with. Thirdly, I would wager going for sliders on the deuce, and kickers on the ad side would yield a higher percentage of first serves in. And finally, it would annoy the f*ck out of the Fognini's, Paire's, Kyrgios', and other talented guys who already have a hard time playing these types. Being unusual is a trait the Tall Three should maximise in every possible way. Instead, they have a tendency to stand close in like every other server. It dampens their unorthodoxy. It allows players to just stand deeper and hit it back from normal return angles.
3) Adapt a serve volley style. I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but the future of tennis has room for a serve-volleyer at these heights IF the player actually practices their volleys. If you can't hit groundies, get in! These players will forever be interesting sideshows at the slams, first week parlour tricks, unless they decide to shake up the standard tour style and take the game in a different direction.