A reader named Lance writes in with a good question:
I was hoping you could settle a tennis-related debate I’ve been having with my co-workers. First some background: I’m in my mid-30s, in pretty good shape, and I play recreational tennis once or twice a week. Now, imagine I have to play a best of 5 set against Roger Federer such that every single hit off his racquet (that plays) MUST be a winner — or he loses the match. Every one of his serves must be an ace (though not necessarily on the first serve), every return of MY serve must be a winner. If I reach the ball while it’s live, regardless of whether I return it, he loses. If he commits an unforced error, he loses. I have no illusions of taking a point off Rog, but I’m pretty sure I could make contact, or he’d double fault or commit an unforced error, at least once in 72 chances. What do you think?
You’re correct to write off the 72-points-straight scenario. Even if you handcuffed his feet together, he’d bunny-hop all over the court and hit comfortable rally balls back until you croaked. Somehow, you’d look like the clumsy one. Seventy-two winners straight is a much trickier proposition, because Roger suddenly has to assume a fair amount of risk.
This is going to be a match played at the extremes. By stipulation, points will last no longer than two strokes. Assuming that you have rudimentary racket skills and that you are—as you say—in good shape, foot speed will be your only meaningful weapon here. For the purposes of this match, your racket is merely a wide mallet that needs to make glancing contact with an object. Your body is the precious vehicle that gets the mallet close to the object. This is to say: spend much more time practicing suicide sprints than forehands.
Let’s say you’re on return. You’re facing one of the game’s great servers, with over 10,000 aces to his name. Because Roger’s going for outright winners, he’s not going to play any serves into your body; he’s going to hit it to one or the other corner of the service box. Your best strategy might be standing in a normal returning position, a little ahead of the baseline to try and cut off the severe angles, while taking turns (using some random-as-possible, hard-to-discern pattern) leaping to the left and the right until you finally guess right and make contact with the ball. Beyond the coin-flip odds of guessing right, it will be insanely hard to visually register—let alone make contact with—his 110-mph serve, especially if he gets two faults. He will send them bounding higher than your head, or skidding lower than your calves. (Also, if he picks up on your Flailing Guesswork approach, he might then start playing the occasional body serve to amuse himself.) Pray to any god(s) you care about, but I don’t think you’ll manage this once in 36 tries. It will look uglier than the second clip here:
But! Let’s say you’re on serve, now. In principle the server has a tremendous advantage in tennis; in this case it’s like tweezing a few grains of sand to one side of the balance while the rest of the beach still sits on the other. It’s very, very hard to hit return winners, yes. But Fed is used to prepping for a 131-mph Kevin Anderson boomer. Your enthusiastic dink is going to feel like a tee-ball set-up. He will dip fondue in the time between his split-step and his actual return. I’ve seen him do this to a grown man’s kick serve, after all. It’s really one of his most disrespectful tendencies:
And the fast variation, just a few weeks ago:
That was against professional competition. He’s not going to have to try as hard to ping balls back while a weekend warrior serves vigorously enough to slip discs. If you tried to come at Fed with a “hard” serve, he would likely just redirect the pace right back into the corner of the court farthest from you, at some 70 mph, with healthy margin for error, before you’ve even found your footing again. These shouldn’t be terribly challenging put-away shots for him, but then again ... he’s 37, the back’s tightening up, the pair of twins made a ruckus last night, and maybe he’s bound to shank one. Even if he doesn’t, you should be able to get close to one of these returns with that many chances. Still, it’s in your interest to create as much chaos as possible here, and limit his ability to blow the ball right past you.
That’s why I would opt for a flukier, weirdo play. After a steady diet of normal serves, you could suddenly mix in a “drop shot” serve and then rush to the net. The ball’s low height and lack of pace constraints his offensive options somewhat. If he hits a drop shot back in reply, at least you’re already up close to the net. Hopefully you’ve practiced enough sprinting to be able to swing your mallet at it before it bounces twice. If instead he hits a lob in reply, you’ll have a little bit of time to sprint back to the baseline and, similarly, lash out at the ball. (Relatedly, does straight-up throwing the racket count as contact?) Again, you have 36 opportunities to get this right, or for him to get it wrong. I honestly think it’s doable, so long as you practice this—
—and also have developed the visual reaction time of an Adderall-addled Twitch streamer, plus the golem thighs of Saquon Barkley. You can do this.
P.S. He’s not going to double-fault.