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bull
Oct 7th, 2001, 10:13 PM
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.

xan
Oct 8th, 2001, 02:14 AM
Very interesting article. It's good to have the mechanics of the various tennis styles set out.

The fact that serve and volley takes longer to master than baseline play goes against it being taken up by impatient young players.

There are a few young up and comers with the style, including selima Sfar and Alicia Molik.

Others of independent spirit like to rush the net ocassionally too. Jana Kandarr does it with some success - but not often enough.

Most players come to the net only when drawn in by a weak return.

Barrie_Dude
Oct 8th, 2001, 02:52 AM
Interesting. I do so enjoy the serve and volley game. I have seen more of it this year than in the recent past. It is an effective weapon.

Togk 182
Oct 8th, 2001, 03:04 AM
i would love 2 hear more bout that girl from madagascar, does some1 has some info bout her??

NejedlyKanepi
Oct 14th, 2001, 05:01 AM
bah, too late and too long for me to read the whole thing.

MAX MIRNYI!!!! hell kill anyone, defeated guga on clay earlier this year and almost took him out at hte us open and hes had HUGE HUGE HUGE(perhaps reflective of his size?) wins in the past as well. sad thing is i think it has to take someone like mirnyi to come along to do decent as a serve and volleyer, in other words someone whos 6'5" or so and has an equally large serve and training mentality who can also earn the nickname "the beast"

TheBoiledEgg
Oct 14th, 2001, 10:39 AM
on the WTA side ......

Roberta "Roby" Vinci .... and her amazing hands <IMG SRC="smilies/smile.gif" border="0">

Selima Sfar will take off where Nathalie left , plus she will improve now that Nathalie will have more time to spend with her.

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:43 PM
These are some quotes from Jana Novotna's web site. She gives her idea about the serve-and-volley. She is one of most talented serve-and-volley player in the history. Her words maybe let you think of sth...

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:45 PM
Serve-and-Volleyers...R.I.P.? tdsinusa
3/13/01 2:07 am
Hi Jana:Of all the lamentable aspects about your absence from the tour, one of the things that bothers me the most is that the serve-and-volley style seems to have gone with you. I think it's quite simply the most beautiful style of play there is in tennis, but with the increases in the size and power of the women players it almost seems to be extinct (thankfully, Pat Rafter's still around on the ATP tour). Tell me, are there any young up-and-coming female serve-and-volleyers out there to look forward to seeing make their mark in the future. Or, are there any top players whose abilities you think would adapt well to what was your style. Please reassure me that this is a cyclical thing, and that we aren't doomed to a lifetime of baseliner vs. baseliner matchups where nearly every shot hinges on whether one player can blow the other off the court with sheer power.

<IMG SRC="smilies/smile.gif" border="0">

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:47 PM
Re: Serve-and-Volleyers...R.I.P.? grny_98
3/13/01 1:30 pm
I share your lament. Did you know Jana began tennis as a baseliner? She only began to attack more frequently when Hana got her uner her wing. It takes someone to step up and see the potential a player posseses to enhance or add another dimension to their games. Why would Venus or Lindsay decide to start attacking when their groundies are their bread and butter. If you remember toward the end of her career, Jana stood at the baseline (mostly due to the power produced from those bashers!) and waited for the right opportunity to come in. Only at Wimbledon did Jana force the issue and blanket the net, or when a match became desparate Jana went with her strength and imposed her volley attacking style. Their are some younger players who can become serve and volleyers out there, Daja Bedanova, Megan Shaughnessy, Vanessa Webb-(a lefty! slicer!)but at what cost? To watch Serena and Clisjters bash passign shots past them? What I think will occurr is that players will begin to forget how to pass, as no one comes in. Once a player out there takes the bull by the horns and tries their hand at net play they will be surprised at the outcome! GO SERVE AND VOLLEYERS! and JANA get out there and coach us to a new generation of attacking players! Once ou've taken a nice hiatus of course!

<IMG SRC="smilies/smile.gif" border="0">

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:51 PM
[/QUOTE]Re: Serve-and-Volleyers...R.I.P.? AD_JNovotna
(32/F/Novotna) 3/27/01 7:46 pm
You seem to be quite knowledgeable about my tennis. I must disagree with you on Bedanova, Shaughnessy and Webb becoming the next generation of serve and volleyers. Bedanova is too small and Shaughnessy doesn't have the hands. Webb has a good lefty serve but that is about it. Look out for Alicia Molik from Australia but give her a few years to develop. Remember, serve and volleyers tend to blossom late.

Jana

[QUOTE] <IMG SRC="smilies/bounce.gif" border="0">

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:53 PM
Re: Serve-and-Volleyers...R.I.P.? AD_JNovotna
(32/F/Novotna) 3/27/01 7:53 pm
My style of tennis was very nice but with today's players strength and power is the name of the game. As for young players, look for Alicia Molik from Australia and a junior player from Mexico, Melissa Torres. They will develop their games but it will take some time. Don't forget to cheer for Nathalie Tauziat as she is still going strong at 33 (almost 34).

Jana

<IMG SRC="smilies/bounce.gif" border="0"> <IMG SRC="smilies/bounce.gif" border="0"> <IMG SRC="smilies/bounce.gif" border="0">

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:54 PM
Re: Serve-and-Volleyers...R.I.P.? grny_98
4/9/01 10:03 pm
Hi Jana! Of Course I watched so many of your matches! I would think you would agree on some points of my observation of your game....you were really an all-court player who could serve and volley primarily on faster surfaces. Bedanova has an awesome potential for net play, she is tall, lanky and gifted..also very young. Shaunessy has the will to do what it takes...Mike

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:56 PM
Re: Serve-and-Volleyers...R.I.P.? AD_JNovotna
(32/F/Novotna) 4/17/01 12:02 pm
Mike,

Still disagree with you on Bedanova. She will never be a serve and volleyer. No hands and likes to sit on the baseline too much. Shaunessy is determined but she too likes the baseline and power game too much to develop the serve and volley style.

Jana

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:57 PM
Re: Serve-and-Volleyers...R.I.P.? grny_98
4/19/01 10:31 am
Hi Jana,

Well, it's differing opinions that make the world go round! I think what you have to remember is that they are young, and that becoming a serve and volley player is a longer process than the baseline mold. If you look at say, Anke Huber, she is never, ever going to be serve volley player. But I don't think that can be said of Shaunessy and especially Bedanova. Jana, have you ever seen the teen player Iroda ????? I cannot remember her last name, perhaps other clubbies can assist on it. She played Serena Williams in a real tough match at the Ericsson, I haven't seen someone so intense since a young Seles, but she is as fats as lightning! Anyway I hope we see a young player already willing to get up to that net and put it all on the line...like you did!
Take Care and I will be looking for your commentary on Fox Sport Net for the Family Circle cup tonight!
Mike

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:58 PM
Re: Serve-and-Volleyers...R.I.P.? tdsinusa
4/19/01 11:55 am
You're thinking of Iroda Tulyaganova, a 19-year old from Uzbekistan. She won the Wimbledon Junior singles title in 1999, and late last year made the final in Shanghai after knocking off Rita Kuti Kis, Jelena Dokic and Tamarine Tanasugarn before losing to Meghann Shaughnessy 6-7,5-7.

bull
Oct 14th, 2001, 08:59 PM
Re: Serve-and-Volleyers...R.I.P.? grny_98
6/6/01 12:39 pm
Thanx, she is an awesome commodity! Too bad she did so poorly at the French, seems to be a slow court palyer, but maybe not?

NejedlyKanepi
Oct 14th, 2001, 09:55 PM
thanks for the quotes <IMG SRC="smilies/wink.gif" border="0">

i agree with jana that neither daja or meghann will take overwhelming partiality to the serve and volley game

fhkung
Jan 5th, 2003, 08:46 PM
seems to be an interesting article,
so *BUMP*:)

BK4ever
Jan 5th, 2003, 09:07 PM
Well, I guess Daja is proving her Jana wrong;)

*JR*
Jan 5th, 2003, 10:13 PM
THIS is a great thread, "no bull"! :D And to r_a_v, look at Xan's flag in the 2nd post (hmmm, sounds like someone we know?). THAT'S what you should display with pride! :p

fhkung
Jan 6th, 2003, 02:36 AM
Originally posted by BK4ever
Well, I guess Daja is proving her Jana wrong;)
let's see how well she does in Wimbies.....
hopefully by then she has adapted completely....

fhkung
Jan 19th, 2003, 06:07 AM
well, i guess Els learned that this is not the way
to go against Serena on rubber......:)

niceman
May 18th, 2003, 08:18 PM
grass season is so close,
hopefully this style will be revived....