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Mpetshi Perricard’s serve aced Wimbledon. His best friend – and one opponent – knew how to stop it

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WIMBLEDON — Over the course of seven stunning days, it has become the most lethal shot in tennis. 

It’s a serve which comes off the racket of a French 21-year-old named Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard, and the player waiting for it needs to hit it back over the net.

Or, get, cajole, persuade, will, pray it back over.

It’s a rocket blast that can be hard to see, much less get a racket on, let alone return over a piece of mesh 3ft high from 39ft away.

As for making a quality return to take control of a point, or doing it enough times to win a game when Mpetshi Perricard is serving? For seven days, that looked like an impossibility for everyone in the draw.

Except, maybe, for the one player left in the draw who already knows how to pick the Mpetshi Perricard service lock. He’s another Frenchman, a year younger than Mpetshi Perricard, who is having the breakout Grand Slam run that so many have been expecting of him for more than a year.

That would be Arthur Fils, Mpetshi Perricard’s best friend since the two were 10-year-old standouts palling around in France’s national tennis training program. But Fils isn’t about to share any of the secrets he has picked up over all those years with the rest of the field.

Some numbers. Mpetshi Perricard, who is 6 ft 8 (203cm), has hit 105 aces in three matches, including 51 in his first-round win over Sebastian Korda, No. 20 seed here at the All England Club and one of the world’s better grass court players.

Mpetshi Perricard starting his motion (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

He’s winning 85 per cent of his first-serve points. He’s lost three sets but only one that hasn’t gone to a tiebreaker. He’s tied with Ben Shelton for the fastest serve in the tournament at 140mph but even Shelton puts Mpetshi Perricard’s serve in a different class than his, in part because the Frenchman’s second serve can come across the net at 128mph sometimes. 

“Ridiculous,” is how Shelton describes the Mpetshi Perricard offering.

“He basically hits two first serves.”

The status of the big serve, or flat bomb, or boom boom if you’re Boris Becker, has declined in the last two decades. These are not the days of Pete Sampras and so many like him, who sailed to Grand Slam titles on a diet of unreturned serves and tiebreaks won when they needed to, but more often just got one game on the opponent’s serve and considered their work done until the scoreboard told them that they had to start a new set.



‘They slow things down in their minds’: How tennis players return 130mph serves

Four men called Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are mostly responsible for that decline. If you serve a ball faster than 135mph and your first sight when you come out of the motion is the ball you just hit arriving very hard and fast at your ankles, seemingly harder and faster, your days of winning tennis matches are likely on the way out.

In contemporary tennis, the word on people’s lips is “servebot”: an at least mildly derogatory and definitely apathetic term for a player who is essentially unbreakable because their serve is so good, but who is also essentially unlikeable because a hypereffective trebuchet for tennis balls is basically all they have.

Mpetshi Perricard is not that guy. He can move. His volley stings. He has studied videos of the biggest servers, especially John Isner, but watching Ivo Karlovic, who was about seven feet tall, is “a little boring,” he said.

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Mpetshi Perricard’s net game, touch and volleying are well-suited to grass (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

For those seven days at Wimbledon, Fils and Mpetshi Perricard were living out a dream together while trying very hard to not dream; to not think past the next match, even the next set, or game or point that each of them will play.

They are constantly texting each other, and they eat dinner together at tournaments just about every night if their schedules allow. Mpetshi Perricard quickly received Fils’ text after the latter beat Roman Safiullin to make the second week of the a Grand Slam for the first time.

Mpetshi Perricard’s coach, Emmanuel Planque, said no one on the planet has spent more time with Mpetshi Perricard on a tennis court than Fils has.

Fils said Planque was 100 per cent right, which means he has seen and returned more of Mpetshi Perricard’s serves than anyone on the planet.

“He teaches me how to return,” Fils said of Mpetshi Perricard, after a freak knee injury forced No.7 seed Hubert Hurkacz to retire from their second-round match, with Fils holding match point in the fourth set.

“It’s good practice.”

On the eighth day, the reality of professional tennis forced them to wake up. Fils succumbed to Alex de Minaur in the fourth round, a player he beat at the Barcelona Open in April, but on clay, which is the Australian’s least-favorite surface.

De Minaur, the No. 9 seed, loves grass because it allows him to capitalize on his speed and sublime movement while keeping his hard, flat shots nice and low. He used that to full effect on Fils, despite an admirable rally from the Frenchman in the fourth set, winning 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

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Fils’ incredibly impressive performance against Hurkacz got him to the third round (Rob Newell/Camerasport via Getty Images)

Mpetshi Perricard faced Lorenzo Musetti, the rising Italian who has quietly put together a solid grass season.

Musetti was a semifinalist in Stuttgart and a finalist at Queen’s, and this is his first Wimbledon second week. Despite saying he felt lost on the stuff a year ago, Musetti has a higher win-rate on grass and clay than on hard courts, and he has a game that suits the surface too. Not just a knifing backhand slice and a good serve, but an economy of movement when returning serve that takes his complicated forehand and one-handed backhand out of the equation. He chips and carves and blocks the ball back, ready to put his tools to good use in rallies, where they will actually be effective.

“I don’t know, I’m just focused on the next one,” Mpetshi Perricard said when asked how far he could go after beating Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland in four sets on Saturday.

“I already lost to Musetti, so I don’t know.”

Sure, but Mpetshi Perricard already lost at Wimbledon, too. He lost his final match in qualifying to Maxime Janvier, another Frenchman, in four sets — three of which went to a tiebreak. Then, Mpetshi Perricard ended up with one of the “lucky loser” spots that arise when a player withdraws at the last minute. He was in the locker room after a practice session last Saturday when a tournament official called him to ask if he’d like to play in the Wimbledon main draw for the first time.

Was he nervous? Not at all, he said. A good opportunity, no pressure, a great experience.

Since then, Mpetshi Perricard and his serve have become unstoppable forces with no immovable objects in sight. He hits that first serve like he is smacking a rock with a frying pan, then watches it slash to the corners of the service box. Opponents just let their eyes drop to the grass and move to the other side of the court.

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Mpetshi Perricard’s serve was similarly effective at Queen’s, the Wimbledon warm-up event (James Fearn/Getty Images)

Fils doesn’t have a bad serve himself but their bodies and their games are completely different. 

Fils, who grew up near Paris, is an all-court player with a build in in the goldilocks zone of the all-time greats. A little over six-feet tall, a perfectly crafted athlete who desperately wanted to play striker and score goals for Paris Saint-Germain, but wasn’t quite good enough.

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Fils is into a Grand Slam second week for the first time (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

Mpetshi Perricard, who is from Lyon, is in the mould of the new generation of tennis humans like Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev. Closer to seven feet tall than six, they look a bit out of place on a tennis court, until they start serving, their long arms and spines giving them extra leverage to snap balls down from on high.

Mpetshi Perricard also played a little soccer, dabbling in basketball and swimming before focusing on tennis, mostly because he was better at it than the other sports and believed he could exploit his strength and size while learning the movement.

That part of the game is still a work in progress for Mpetshi Perricard, Planque said. His serve has been his biggest weapon since he and Fils were pre-teens working with Planque and other national coaches at France’s Tennis Federation, along with a few other top players their age, including Arthur Cazaux and Luca Van Assche. They are a bit like the young and coming Italians, led by Jannik Sinner, who pushed each other through their junior years and at regional tournaments on the lower rungs of the sport.

Planque knows that Mpetshi Perricard is always going ride on his serve. 

He doesn’t want to play long rallies,” he said. “The goal is to be aggressive from the first shot.”

He also wants him coming to the net at every chance, even serving and volleying, a dying art that most players only use as a surprise tactic. 

“I’m an old-style coach,” Planque said.

Old-style too is one of Mpetshi Perricard’s groundstrokes. Like Musetti, he is the rare young player who uses a one-handed backhand — even though he now wishes he didn’t, looking enviously at Isner’s two-hander on those videos. As Musetti learned, making service returns with one hand is a struggle.

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Mpetshi Perricard’s booming serve, one-handed backhand and soft net game feel like a throwback (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

And while his first serve is the star, improving his second was one of his main goals coming into this season. He crushes the first ball and if he misses, he tries to do something a little different with the second one, which is averaging 117 mph. Maybe he’ll put a little spin on it or go down the middle or into the body, rather than going out wide, which he so often does with his first ball.

“It works for now,” he said last week after the win over Ruusuvuori. “We’ll see if, against the top player, it’s going to work.”

He did see, and he didn’t like what was in front of his eyes. Musetti won the serve battle, taking 79 per cent of first-serve points to Mpetshi Perricard’s 67, amd 84 per cent of second-serve points to Mpetshi Perricard’s 53.

He won the return battle too. 32 per cent of first-serve return points to Mpetshi Perricard’s 20 per cent; 33 per cent of second-serve return points to Mpetshi Perricard’s 16 per cent.

After the match, Musetti agreed that facing the serve is like being a goalkeeper in a penalty shootout, and said that his coach had explained that to break, he would need to have the cushion of 0-40, not relying on 30-40 or even 15-40 as a chance, because it could so easily be snatched away. Musetti had to pick his moment of comfort, before the discomfort began again in the next game.

That’s not just for now. Mpetshi Perricard’s serve looks set to be discomfiting top returners for many years to come.

As for Fils, he might be getting some texts from other players soon.

(Top photo: John Walton / PA Images via Getty Images) 

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