I'll use an example from baseball to illustrate my question. A designated hitter is someone who bats, but is not deployed on the field. In its extreme form, a "one way player" would be someone who was one of the best hitters in the game, but could not field as well as a good minor league player. Examples would be David Ortiz or Frank Thomas.

Are there people in tennis who are great servers but who have trouble at returning serve in the later stages of a major event? That is, they will almost never have their serve broken in a given match, but also almost never break serve? Meaning that a large number, if not the majority, of their sets are decided by tiebreakers?

Put another way, how "lopsided" are John Isner, Ivo Karlovic, or other similarly challenged world class players.

  • 2
    I think John Isner is a classic example of this. I assume that's what generated the question. I don't think any player could be 'great' while only having a serve and not being at least very good at returning, though. That's why Isner is unlikely to compete for a major - he's just not capable of breaking good players enough to win.
    – Joe
    Jul 3 '15 at 21:52
  • Nadal might be the opposite, really. His serve is only decent, but he's amazing at returning. That's part of why he's so good at clay. But it's all relative - I think this would be a hard question to have a legitimately complete answer to. Too hard to judge what the bar is for "terrible".
    – Joe
    Jul 3 '15 at 21:54
  • That's not really objective, though. What's inordinate? I suppose you could tailor a standard such that some people meet or fail to meet it, but I don't think there's any sort of clear objective standard, and certainly there is nothing like the blatant lack of ability some hitters in baseball possess in the field. Any tennis player that is not at least very good on both sides of the ball will never be "great". (And what is "notable" or "great"?)
    – Joe
    Jul 3 '15 at 21:59
  • @Joe: The key standard was "a large number, if not the majority, of their sets go into tiebreakers." So someone in this category can hold serve (in a four point game) against anyone in the world including Djokovic, but can never beat Djokovic because he can never break Djokovic (or even lesser players).
    – Tom Au
    Jul 3 '15 at 22:03
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    I nominate Ivo Karlovic over and above John Isner Jul 5 '15 at 5:31

As the comments say, there are rather striking examples of such players.

It's not clear (to me) how to answer the question of "how lopsided" the players you mention are. The natural answer is "very much, compared to other players with similar achievements". Leaning towards the other end of the spectrum, Santiago Giraldo is well known for having ultra aggressive service returns coupled with an average serve. Less noticeably still, Agassi himself had a rather weak serve, which he made up for with incredible groundstrokes and returns. Fabrice Santoro is an interesting example of a player seemingly without aggressive strokes at all - also an imbalance in a sense.

The difference in level between different strokes is just more blatant when it comes to serving because it sets the rhythm at the beginning of the point, which typically doesn't last enough to develop interesting dynamism.

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