Serve-and-Volleyers: A Dying Breed?
Serve-and-Volleyers: A Dying Breed?
by Peter Bodo
Photos by Ron Angle.
From the December 2000 / January 2001 issue of TENNIS.
The artful serve-and-volleyer who once dominated professional tennis is all but extinct, a victim of slower surfaces, high-tech racquets, and a sport-wide obsession with power.
The sun-kissed opening day at Wimbledon last June, the virgin grass of Court No. 3 was a rich, tropical green, and Serena Williams had a jaunty lavender bow in her hair. Yet she appeared anything but radiant. After taking the first set from Asa Carlsson, Williams was struggling, her powerful serve neutralized by Carlsson抯 sharp returns.
Serving at 3-2 in the second set, Williams survived two break points and finally reached ad in. She hit a heavy slice serve to Carlsson抯 two-handed backhand, her momentum launching her forward into the court. But instead of proceeding to net, Williams pulled up two steps inside the baseline. An observant Carlsson caught Williams flat-footed and crisply drove the ball down the line for a winner.
Many players of the past -- among them Althea Gibson, the trailblazing African-American Wimbledon champion of 1957 and ?8 -- would have been dumbfounded at Williams?failure to follow such an effective serve to the net and intercept the return with a putaway volley.
Ah, but that was then, and this is now.
In today's pro game, pure attackers like Patrick Rafter are an endangered species.
The style of play at the highest level of tennis has morphed, gradually but radically, since Open tennis arrived in 1968. A combination of changing court surfaces, advanced racquet technology, new teaching methods, and an ever-greater focus on power ground strokes have all but doomed the stylish serve-and-volleyer, who once ruled the courts from London to Melbourne.
The list of attack-oriented male players over the years reads like a Who抯 Who of tennis greats: from Jack Kramer in the 1940s to Pancho Gonzalez in the ?0s, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson in the ?0s, John Newcombe and Stan Smith in the early ?0s, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, and Boris Becker in the ?0s and early ?0s, and Pat Rafter and Pete Sampras of recent vintage. The women抯 list of net-rushing champions is nearly as impressive: Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Billie Jean King, Virginia Wade, Martina Navratilova and, most recently, Jana Novotna.
These players subscribed to the premise that whoever gets to the net first has a better chance of winning the point. Yet that notion, first articulated by Kramer in the late 1940s, has been dumped in the out box, destined for the same filing cabinet as the charter for the Flat Earth Society.
Venus and Serena Williams, while possessing the talent and athleticism to play serve-and-volley tennis, prefer to overpower opponents with their ground games. Venus did rush the net sporadically on her way to the 2000 Wimbledon singles title. But, as she admits, 'if my dad [and coach, Richard] had his way, I would have served and volleyed every point. Even though I抳e never liked to serve and volley, I did it more this year, and it paid off. I抦 getting more comfortable with it, and if you start liking something, you start doing it more.'
But if the Williamses don抰 adopt the attacking style that carried Navratilova, another great athlete, to nine Wimbledon titles, will anybody ever do it? With the retirement of Novotna in 1999, and with the 33-year-old Nathalie Tauziat nearing the end of her career, the few net-rushers remaining in the Sanex WTA抯 ranks are low-profile players like Lisa Raymond and Alexandra Stevenson.
The absence of serve-and-volleyers on the women抯 tour is surprising when you consider Tauziat抯 remarkable mid-career transformation. In her late 20s, she remade herself into a serve-and-volleyer despite her modest size (5-foot-5) and suspect athleticism. She subsequently reached the ?8 Wimbledon final, then vaulted to a career-high No. 3 ranking early in 2000.
'It抯 a very efficient way to play, but many women are afraid,' says Tauziat. 'They think you have to be an athlete like Martina [Navratilova] to succeed with it. I believe I proved you don抰, necessarily.'
But as Serena Williams, who beat Carlsson at the All England Club before losing to sister Venus, says, 'I抦 just not comfortable serving and volleying. It抯 not my game. It may be the thing to do at Wimbledon, but it抯 hard to do when it抯 so different from what抯 become normal to you.'
The outlook is brighter for the serve-and-volleyer on the men抯 side. Rafter, Sampras, Tim Henman, Richard Krajicek, Greg Rusedski, and Jonas Bjorkman all attack the net on at least a semi-regular basis, and all but Henman and Bjorkman have won or reached a Grand Slam final. But none of these players is under age 26, and, aside from 23-year-old Max Mirnyi, who has had more success in doubles than singles, there are few true net-rushers on the horizon.
Sampras, in the 2000 Wimbledon final, which harkened back to the days when serve-and-volley ruled the court.
Nick Bollettieri has his own take on why so few young players of either sex are drawn to the style. 'The basic philosophy of coaching has changed dramatically,' says the celebrated founder of the Bollettieri Tennis Academy. 'It isn抰 about using your weapons anymore. Now what we focus on is eliminating weaknesses. And that, along with changes in equipment and surfaces, has made this the golden age of the service return, which once was a neglected shot that made players vulnerable. It has never been tougher for the pure serve-and-volley player to survive than it is today.'
Bollettieri is partly responsible for this state of affairs. By rearing a bumper crop of pile-driving ground-strokers with two-handed backhands (most notably Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and Monica Seles), he helped spread the word that pros can be just as aggressive from the baseline as they are at the net. That realization has fueled the current love affair with power- baseline play -- as exemplified by the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten, and a host of others梐t the expense of serving and volleying.
The decline of attacking tennis began during the early years of the Open era. As the pro game outgrew country clubs, it no longer was economical to hold events on natural turf, which is expensive to maintain. So the game抯 entrepreneurs began to build large, multi-use facilities and to replace grass with low-maintenance hard courts.
As recently as 1974, three of the four Grand Slams were held on grass. Now it抯 just Wimbledon and a few tune-ups. This directly affected the way the game was played, because grass courts are far more favorable to serve-and-volleyers. The balls bounce low and skid away -- to the advantage of aggressive players who take the ball on the fly and to the detriment of those who favor elaborate backswings, Western grips, and heavy topspin. Today抯 cushioned hard courts, like the U.S. Open抯 Deco-Turf II, are intended to provide a level playing field for a variety of styles. But some believe that the surface-speed pendulum has now swung to the side of the baseliner.
'The game gradually went from fast hard courts to medium and even slow cement courts,' says Bollettieri. 'The slower speed and predictable bounce allow returners to pattern servers, even to target specific return areas. In other words, it has become a counterpuncher抯 dream.'
At the same time, tennis has undergone a racquet revolution during the last 25 years. The seminal moment, according to TENNIS instruction editor Dennis Van der Meer, was the arrival of the open-throat racquet, which added stability, enlarged the sweet spot, and reduced wind resistance. Soon, larger-head racquets appeared, followed by the introduction of materials like graphite and titanium in stiffer, lighter frames.
As a result, today抯 high-tech racquets offer enhanced power and increased swing speed, enabling baseliners to smack return winners and passing shots with unprecedented ease. These frames are also friendlier to the Western grips that facilitate the use of heavy topspin, which is tough for volleyers to handle.
Navratilova, arguably the greatest serve-and-volleyer in women抯 history, says, 'I don抰 know if I could serve and volley consistently in today抯 game because everybody hits the ball so much harder and better off the ground. The powerful racquets help a little on the volley and serve, but they help a whole lot more on ground strokes. You now have people hitting from 10 or 12 feet behind the baseline, and they can still dip the ball low over the net. That makes volleying a nightmare. It抯 particularly troubling for me to see that almost nobody is taking up where I left off.'
Today抯 men hit the ball harder off the ground, too, but they haven抰 come close to killing off the net-rusher. In fact, since McEnroe won Wimbledon in 1983 and Becker took the U.S. Open in ?9, only two male players who aren抰 proficient serve-and-volleyers have triumphed at either of the two most prestigious tournaments in tennis -- Agassi, who won Wimbledon in 1992 and the U.S. Open in ?4 and ?9, and Marat Safin, the champion of this year抯 U.S. Open.
Rafter in particular has thrived with his kamikaze-style attacking game, which has earned him a pair of U.S. Open titles and helped him reach the 2000 Wimbledon final. 'I抦 not crazy about the footwork on grass, and the surface makes my kick serve less effective,' he says. 'But I got to the Wimbledon final despite that by just plain attacking the net. That shows the serve-and-volley style is still strategically valid.'
He抯 not alone in that opinion. Sampras, Henman, Krajicek, Rusedski, and Mark Philippoussis are just as inclined to approach behind quality serves, though each tends to pick his moments to attack when receiving and when serving erratically. Had Sampras been born earlier, he抎 almost certainly have been a relentless serve-and-volleyer on all surfaces, not just grass. And he admits that his transformation into a Wimbledon icon (he has won the event seven out of the last eight years) had little to do with his own initiative.
'As a junior starting out, I was a baseliner with a two-handed backhand,' he says. 'But my coach [Pete Fischer] loved the old players like Laver, and he thought Wimbledon was the most important tournament to win. It抯 kind of an old-fashioned attitude, but it rubbed off on me, shaped my game, and made me the player I am today.'
But Fischer was unique in this regard. The majority of coaches take their cues from the leading players of the moment, not the past. And those, by and large, are aggressive baseliners. 'We coaches never really initiate anything,' says Van der Meer. 'We look to the players to see the evolution of the game, analyze it, and then find a system for teaching it.'
One major obstacle to producing a new generation of serve-and-volleyers is that it takes longer to hone a net-rusher抯 game than a baseliner抯. Rafter didn抰 win his first U.S. Open title until he was 24, and Navratilova had already turned 21 -- relatively late for a female champion -- when she won her first Wimbledon, in 1978.
That抯 because serving and volleying is a difficult undertaking. The abrupt changes of direction, acrobatic lunges for volleys, and leaps to hit overheads that characterize this style of play demand agility, razor-sharp reflexes, and years of practice to master. Yet these days, promising juniors (almost all of whom learn the game from the backcourt first) lay the foundations of their games so early that by the time they抮e old enough to follow their serves to net, usually around age 15 or 16, they抮e already psychologically pinned to the baseline.
The great majority of developing players have two-handed backhands, which limit reach at the net, and Western grips, which make volleying far more difficult. And those touted for stardom have been pushed to 'play up' in age groups, which pits them against opponents several years older. Not surprisingly, these prospects tend to stick with what they do well (hit huge ground strokes) rather than experiment with a new tactic (serving and volleying) that抯 bound to fail against bigger, stronger, and more polished opponents.
'By the time I get to work with a promising 17-year-old, it抯 too late to implant an effective serve-and-volley style,' says Joey Rive, former national boys coach for USA Tennis. 'It抯 very difficult to mess with a recipe for success once a kid has a taste of it.' Tracy Austin and Michael Chang, for instance, won 18-and-under national titles at age 15, while Jennifer Capriati won the girls?hard-court 18s when she was 13. It抯 perhaps more than a coincidence that as pros, all three remained baseliners.
Austin arrived on tour at age 14 with a serviceable volley, but seldom used it because she was so small (4-foot-11, 83 pounds) and because ground strokes had always been her bread and butter. Even after Austin grew six inches over the next few years, she never felt comfortable experimenting with the serve-and-volley game. 'It was good for me to play up, because I was so much better than the other kids in my age group,' Austin says. 'But I also had such a good record, so fast, that it made me stick with the things that worked.'
The growing irrelevance of doubles has also impeded young players from learning to serve and volley. As Todd Woodbridge, who played on one of the best doubles teams of all time with the soon-to-be-retired Mark Woodforde, says, 'In the U.S., many junior events don抰 even offer doubles. Kids today don抰 get to learn how to use their hands at the net. They抮e back at the baseline, pounding away.'
Serena Williams at the U.S. Open this year.
The retreat from net to baseline has come in spite of the fact that compared to yesterday抯 players, most of today抯 athletes are taller and stronger, which should work to their advantage as net-rushers. The top four American women -- Davenport, Venus and Serena Williams, and Monica Seles -- are all at least 5-foot-10, whereas serve-and-volley legends King and Navratilova are only 5-foot-41/2 and 5-foot-71/2, respectively. Likewise, Laver, Emerson, and McEnroe, three of the greatest net-rushers ever, are all 6 feet and under, while 17 of the Top 20 ATP players in 1999 were 6 feet or taller. Granted, there抯 a point of diminishing returns among extremely tall players like 6-7 Marc Rosset (who complains that his height makes it more difficult to get down for low volleys). But even superior athletes of ideal size, including the 6-4 Safin and 6-3 Kuerten, are content to camp out at the baseline rather than put their reach to work at the net.
'The strange thing is that even though the guys are getting bigger and stronger, so few of them are taking advantage of it by playing serve-and-volley tennis,' says Chang, whose height (5-9) limited his playing-style options. 'Their games must have gone in a different direction early on.'
That direction, according to Nick Saviano, USA Tennis director of coaching education, is raw ground-stroke power. 'The biomechanics that yield power most efficiently are created by the open-stance forehand, in which you coil your hips and shoulders, use a short backswing, and generate tremendous power when you unleash the shot,' he says. 'But it抯 a baseliner抯 stance. It isn抰 relevant to the forward-moving serve-and-volley style.' Hence, in the quest for the preemptive forehand strike, many players close the door to serving and volleying. And those bravehearts who do attempt to rush the net must contend with a shot that was virtually unknown to their cohorts of decades past.
'The forehand has become a tremendous weapon, not just as a finishing shot, but as a passing shot,' Van der Meer says. 'Players can no longer afford to hit a setup volley, as you would in classic serve-and-volley tennis. You have just one chance to finish the point with the volley, or you抮e sure to get passed.'
Devotees of the attacking brand of tennis can take solace in the notion that playing styles tend to be cyclical. It抯 possible that the serve-and-volley player may not be dying so much as lying dormant, and that one or two future champions who employ the style might bring it back in vogue.
Then again, neither McEnroe nor Navratilova repopularized serve-and-volley play during the 1980s -- nor stemmed its decline during the ?0s. Indeed, an equally strong case can be made that the day of the net-rusher is gone for good.
'Serve-and-volleyers are almost gone, it抯 true,' says Van der Meer. 'But I know of a talented junior, a girl from Madagascar, who I saw serve-and-volleying on what seemed like every point at the Orange Bowl last year. She抯 being trained at the ITF center in Pretoria, South Africa, where the national tradition is attacking tennis.' That girl -- Aina Rafolomanantsiatosik, a 19-year-old who won the 18s doubles division of the 1999 Eddie Herr International Junior Tennis Championships in Miami -- might just evolve into the next great woman serve-and-volleyer. But the task of becoming a champion employing that style of play is as daunting for her as, well, the spelling of her last name is for us.