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Hell Is Playing Against A Peaking Servebot

Cameron Norrie runs into the net
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

I want to buy Cam Norrie a get-well card. He lost to Milos Raonic in the first round of the Queen’s Club Championships yesterday by the emotionally shattering score of 6-7 (6), 6-3, 7-6 (9). Norrie hit eight unforced errors in the match. Only eight! That’s less than one unforced error for every four games played.

How did he lose, then? Partly because one of those unforced errors came on Norrie’s lone match point at 7-6 in the third-set tiebreak. If you wanted to criticize Norrie, you would start there. But we do not want to criticize Norrie. This is a safe space for Norrie! The bulk of the reason for the loss—and this is why Norrie deserves the most attentive of therapy sessions should he want them—is that Milos Raonic hit 47 aces. No one had ever hit that many aces in a three-set match before.

“Aces are like rain. You accept them and move on,” Rafael Nadal wrote in his autobiography, Rafa. The context: Nadal was reliving his 2008 Wimbledon final with Roger Federer, a brilliant five-set affair in which Federer blasted 26 aces. That averages to just over five per set, about one-third the ace rate Raonic subjected Norrie to yesterday. You’re talking like you hold the keys to handling great adversity, Rafa? You don’t know what Norrie just went through. 

If one of the greatest players of all time is saying that there’s nothing you can do about aces, however, you know it’s true. The best servers can hit a flat missile to one corner of the box or whip a slower ball to the other corner that springs away from the opponent after the bounce. They use the exact same toss for each serve and hit targets I’d struggle to nail if they let me walk the ball over to the line and draw a circle on it. Even if players manage to guess which serve is coming, they’re going to struggle to make square contact if a good server executes their chosen serve correctly. 

Norrie had to endure the indignity of a total loss of control 47 times! And that doesn’t include all the times he managed to make contact with a serve but couldn’t do anything with it, or the serves he got back in play but weakly enough that Raonic immediately dispatched the return. Because I have pain tolerance equal to Norrie’s, I tallied those up too: Raonic hit 15 service winners and ended the point 15 times with his first shot after the serve. So in total, Norrie had to “play” and lose 77 points in which his return was either nonexistent or made negligible immediately. As is his style, Norrie walked onto the court with a thick band of sunscreen painted horizontally onto his face—presumably to protect from the heat coming off the hell he found himself in, not the sun.

When I was 12 or 13, I entered my first tournament at a nearby tennis club. My first-round match was against a guy who looked to be in his fifties. This’ll be fine, I thought naively. I’ll run him around. Well, I couldn’t run him around because his serve consistently exploded off his racket like a bewitched cannonball. I am not exaggerating when I say I failed to make clean contact with a single first-serve return the entire match. I left the court feeling both bewildered and like I hadn’t even gotten a chance to play tennis. 

Even the best pros can struggle against huge servers, derogatorily referred to as “servebots.” Raonic beat Federer at Wimbledon in 2016. Last year at the same tournament, Hubert Hurkacz, probably the best server on tour at the moment, gave Novak Djokovic—the best returner of all time, by the way—all he could handle. Hurkacz served perfectly, forcing Djokovic to win tiebreaks until he finally broke serve for the first time in the fourth set. In yesterday’s match, with many of his aces coming on second serves, Raonic appeared to have no self-doubt at all. And why should he?

Playing against that level of consistency sucks. Your lifetime of training means nothing as you watch dozens of serves fly untouched to the back wall. Each mistake you make after getting the ball in play or against a second serve hurts 10 times more when you know such opportunities are unicorns. Each of your service games is pressure-filled since you know the bot on the other side of the net will take care of theirs. You fight your way to break point with quality returning, dogged defense, and creative angles, then the servebot erases the game with three nondescript aces in a row. Who cares about art when you can have power?

Norrie’s court presence can ruffle some feathers—he takes fist-pumps and little “come on!” celebrations to a new frequency, even for tennis. After Raonic put Norrie away with a final forehand winner and celebrated the win as emphatically as Norrie celebrated winning a single point, Norrie gave him a cold handshake, quickly clasping his hand and then looking away. After the match he endured, I think he can be forgiven this time. 

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