It's a good thing that tennis players aren't asked to replace their divots. Otherwise Andy Roddick would spend the bulk of the grass-court season on his opponents' side of the net. As Wimbledon kicked off on Monday, odds were good that Roddick would become the first player to break the 150-mph mark with a serve. En route to winning the Queen's Club tournament, a Wimbledon tune-up in London, Roddick tied tennis's record by smiting a 149-mph serve against Andre Agassi. Another Roddick offering, clocked at 154 mph, was stopped short by the net. "You know if Andy's serves are good or out," says Belgium's Xavier Malisse, who played an exhibition match against Roddick last week, "because they literally leave marks on the grass."
While we feel for Roddick's opponents, obligated as they are to try to get the ball back in play, at least they are equipped with rackets. Pity the poor lineswoman stationed behind the baseline during the Malisse match who was struck by three of Roddick's errant serves. The crowd giggled, but they didn't see the woman afterward as she applied ice to her welts. "I'm serious; when Andy plays, the linespeople should wear catchers' equipment," says Brad Gilbert, Roddick's new coach. "He has the biggest serve in the world."
Statistically, anyway, Gilbert is right. But Roddick is simply the leading exponent of a trend. Since the ATP began using a radar gun in 1991, the velocity of the serve has steadily risen (chart, right). A titanic serve may not be a prerequisite for success-consider counterpunchers Agassi and Juan Carlos Ferrero, who are ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in the world, respectively—but firepower is the cornerstone of 21st-century men's tennis, whose players come with noms de guerre like Scud ( Mark Philippoussis), Pistol ( Pete Sampras) and Russian Rocket ( Marat Safin).
At Wimbledon the serve is boldfaced all the more. The greensward is a fast surface, i.e., one that offers little friction to impede the speed of shots. What's more, the ball tends to skid on grass and bounce less predictably than it does on hard courts. Beyond that, studies have shown that at Wimbledon, serves leave players' rackets faster than they do at any other major. "That tells me it's partly psychological," says Howard Brody, an emeritus physics professor at Penn and co-author of The Physics and Technology of Tennis. "Players know it's advantageous to hit the ball harder on grass—so they do."
As it happens, the distance from the server's baseline to the returner's service line is 60 feet—almost exactly the distance between the pitcher's mound and home plate. But batters have it rougher than serve returners. Because force equals mass times acceleration, and because a tennis ball has roughly one third the mass of a baseball, serves are much more susceptible to air resistance. Also, a tennis ball can lose up to 30% of its force when it bounces. According to Brody, by the time a returner tries to make contact, the serve has slowed to half the speed it registered on the radar gun—which takes its reading as the ball comes off the server's racket.
If there's a drawback to bludgeoning your serve, it's that the ball can come back awfully fast. Neither Stefan Edberg nor John McEnroe was a threat to win a fast-serve contest. But both "kicked" their serves with so much spin that the balls should have required turn signals. By throwing changeups instead of fastballs, as it were, they gave themselves an extra few steps toward the net. It's no accident that they won Wimbledon five times between them. Says Pat Rafter, another exceptional kick-serve-and-volley practitioner, who reached the Wimbledon final in 2000 and '01, "If I had a 130-mile-an-hour serve, I'd be hitting every first volley at my feet."
Put another way, an exceptional return game can be as potent a weapon as an extraordinary serve. That fuzzy yellow 149-mph blur that Roddick served against Agassi—did we mention that it wasn't a service winner, much less an ace? Agassi, perhaps the best returner the sport has known, batted it back in the court as if it were an eephus pitch, even though Roddick eventually won the point. Told that he had returned the fastest serve ever registered, Agassi smiled. "Sounds like I had some kind of record too," he said, issuing another sharp return.
As for Roddick, the source of his unparalleled voltage is something of a mystery. While his 6'3", 190-pound body is ideal for tennis, he certainly has taller and stronger colleagues. True, Roddick is armed with a high-tech, graphite-based racket that weighs barely 11 ounces strung. But who these days isn't? Gilbert believes that Roddick is simply blessed with a "live arm," one of the benefits of being 20. Perhaps a better explanation is that Roddick's service motion is exceptionally efficient, a symphony of muscles working in concert. "People see my chicken arms and are surprised with my serve," he says, "but they don't realize how much of the serve is in the legs."
Currently ranked No. 6 in the world (and seeded fifth at Wimbledon), Roddick is possessed of abundant charisma. He already has the requisite celebrity girlfriend, singer Mandy Moore. More important, he is a genuinely good kid: On June 2 he took a train from London to Paris so he could meet face-to-face with his then coach, Tarik Benhabiles, and explain why he was ending their professional relationship. (Roddick has since said that he wanted a "fresh voice" giving him advice.) He knows as well as anyone that the only thing he needs to reach superstardom is a big-time title. That his serves are creating so much buzz—literally and figuratively—only adds to the pressure.
If Roddick's much-awaited breakthrough comes at this Wimbledon, it won't be thanks to the draw gods. His second-round opponent is Britain's Greg Rusedski, who not only beat Roddick at Wimbledon last year but also happens to be the only other player to have served 149 mph. Rusedski has been injured for much of the past year, but he just won a tune-up in Nottingham. If he is on and Roddick is misfiring, the Great American Hope may have been eliminated by the time you read this article. Such is the power of power. "It doesn't matter who you're playing," says Gilbert. "Holding serve means everything."