At the turn of the millennium, the All England Club – organisers of the Wimbledon Championships – sought to put in place new measures to maintain their fabled grass courts. The 8mm cut height was to remain the same, as it had been since 1995, but a new composition of grass was introduced to improve the durability of the surface. The catch was in the rye.
From the 2001 edition of tennis’ most prestigious Grand Slam, the previous composition of 70 per cent ryegrass and 30 per cent creeping red fescue was to be replaced by 100 per cent ryegrass.
But it wasn’t till a year later, at the 2002 event, when the true effects of the move came to the fore. It was the first time since 1978 that two baseliners, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, had reached the finals of the men’s singles event. And it wasn’t by accident.
What the removal of the 30 per cent creeping red fescue grass had done to the Wimbledon surface was take away the speed from the court. Neither player possessed a powerful serve, so instead, they relied on their groundstrokes to secure points. And with no zip left in the surface, the traditional serve and volley style that was the bread and butter approach to tennis went missing as the match was now decided from the baseline. For a tournament that was often decided by a player’s ability to kill off points at the net, no player in that final approached the net on their serve.
Hewitt joined the winners’ list at the All England Club, but that final marked the beginning of a stark decline of the serve and volley game.
Consider the stats: at Wimbledon 2002, men’s singles players played serve and volley on 9168 points, as opposed to 1980 points in 2018, as per The New York Times. Similarly, the women’s singles players played serve and volley four times less in 2018 than they did in 2002.
That Hewitt-Nalbandian clash put forward the first indicator that the sport, as it was known and played till then, was about to change. But the wheels had already been in motion for years.
“When I was playing, the balls were light and the racquets were still very small, starting with the wooden frames, then they became fibre-glass and then graphite and so on,” says former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Vijay Amritraj.
“Nobody paid attention to the advancement in technology of the racquet. At the same time, the average height of the players went up by five or six inches. I’m 6-foot-4, and back then I was among the tallest players. Now I’d be average. So you put these advanced racquets in the hands of guys standing at 6-foot-6, serving big on fast courts, it takes the rallying skill out of the game.
“So the court became slower and the ball became heavier because the players became taller and the racquets became far more advanced. You had to compensate.”
Among the three predominant types of surfaces used in tennis, grass is considered the fastest, followed by hard courts and the slowest is clay. But as Wimbledon started to reduce the speed on its courts, so did organisers of hard court events.
“If you put your hand on the surface of the hard court, it’s very rough. Like a coarse sandpaper,” explains 2017 ATP Coach of the Year Neville Godwin, who has worked with 2018 Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson.
“Earlier on the grass court or faster hard court the ball would (skid) off the surface. Now after the bounce, it sits up a bit higher because the ball grips more with the court. So it gets very difficult to get much pace off the surface to (end a point) when you play the volley.”
Slower courts allow a player to get to the ball in time to make a return, hence prolonging a rally. As a result, players tend to stay back at the baseline instead of coming up to the net, either on their own serve or while receiving – again leading to longer points.
“I remember the 1991 Wimbledon final between Boris Becker and Michael Stich. It was a horrible final,” Godwin adds. “Basically, points were ending quickly and it was just about whoever did well to return who would win the tiebreak. The same happened in 1994 with Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic.”
A total of 42 aces were hit in the 1994 final, and the longest point involved just six shots. Furthermore, according to the BBC, the first set that lasted 49 minutes had just five minutes of actual play. Meanwhile, in the 2008 final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the opening rally of the match lasted 14 shots.
After his first-round match in 2019 against Lloyd Harris, Federer, who has struck 11,344 aces in his career (the third highest in the leaderboard) commented, “I just felt like (the court) was slow, I really couldn’t have any impact. I don’t think I had an ace in the first two sets.”
Interestingly, it is the wear and tear on the grass that indicates a shift from the serve and volley mentality to baseline play.
“In the earlier days, the grass was worn out at the service line, where you’d come up to volley. It was completely rubbed out by the end of the two weeks,” says former India Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj.
“Now it’s happening at the baseline or even behind the baseline. So that means that the Europeans or South Americans, who were used to playing on slower courts from the back, were now able to play and compete on the grass-court with the heavier balls and better racquets. They didn’t need to serve and volley anymore. Now the service area started to be green and the baseline was getting brown.”
The other major change made by organisers since the 2002 season is the use of heavier balls. Even the way the balls were treated was to make sure they were heavier to hit, needing players to generate more power to make an effective drive.
“My last Wimbledon as a player was in 2002, and I had the feeling that they had taken out some of the pressure from the balls and that they added more felt to it,” says Godwin, who coaches 2017 ATP NextGen Finals winner Hyeon Chung of South Korea.
“That makes the ball, not flat, just very heavy. So the ball doesn’t shoot through the grass, it just sits up.”
Playing with heavier balls was a major deterrent to a serve and volley or net-rushing player. The volley as a shot does not have a long back-swing as compared to the groundstroke, especially since a player does not get much time to load into a shot while at the net. And then there is the surface which doesn’t provide much pace.
“The volley is a short-swing shot, so to get speed on the ball is very difficult, especially with the ball now being heavy and the court being slower,” Godwin says. “So if you cast your mind back to the 1990s, and imagine the Sampras of then playing the Novak Djokovic of now in those earlier conditions, Novak wouldn’t stand a chance.”
RACQUETS AND STRINGS
Arguably, it was the development of the racquet frames that first prompted a change from the serve and volley style. The use of a new type of strings, in particular, played a major role.
“In the old days everybody played with gut,” says former doubles world no 1 and three-time men’s doubles Grand Slam champion Mark Knowles. “Now, a company called Luxilon makes them with polyester, which allows everyone to generate more spin. The ball does so much more now than it did in the past, you can create top-spin, dip the ball.”
There are three ways to counter a serve and volley player or a net rusher.
The first is to either hit a passing shot through uncovered areas. The second is to play a lob, which sails over the opponent but has enough dip to let the ball fall within the court-lines – a great deal of spin is required for this, aided by the new strings. The third measure, usually the most potent method played while returning serve, is to play a shot that, though powerful, goes over the net and then dips at the feet of the player at the net, making it difficult for the volleyer to get the ball back in play.
“The racquets and strings have become more powerful and conducive to make returns,” says Anand. “The changes in the technology, the slower courts and heavier balls, they’ve given an advantage to the returner.”
Technically, coming up to volley after the serve makes sense. In a service routine, the ball toss is angled to the front of the player, who would then leap forwards while reaching for the ball to strike the serve, and then land inside the baseline. That forward momentum is conducive for the rush up to the net. But the trend now is to apply the brakes after hitting the serve and taking a step back behind the baseline to get into position for a rally.
The power-hitting style from the back, especially with slower courts, has taken away creativity and variety from the game.
“You miss the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe matchups, the Sampras-Andre Agassi ones, where you had a net rusher play a baseliner,” says Knowles. “Contrasting styles makes it so entertaining. What these guys are doing today is amazing, the athleticism has doubled over the last 10-15 years. However, (variety) is missing.”
The new trend has even trickled down to the junior levels.
“If you go watch junior tournaments and watch them warm-up, they will spend four minutes hitting groundstrokes, and maybe a minute warming up serves,” says Knowles. “They don’t even go up to volley. So I think the transition game is not taught at the lower level anymore. So we are seeing a general shift.”
Anand meanwhile asserts that coaching youngsters the baseline game is essentially easier than the more tactical serve and volley approach.
“If you’re at the baseline, you know it’s coming either forehand or backhand,” he says. “But if you’re coming up, you need to know the timing, measure your footwork, see the direction of the return. You have to know what kind of serve you’ve put in – a kick serve will give you more time to come up whereas a fast flat serve will not give you much time. There’s a lot more skill required for serve and volley.”
His younger brother, Vijay, concurs.
“When people start tennis now, they’re playing from the back of the court and they’re getting good by the time they’re in the U-12 or U-14,” he says. “So they don’t get into a mode of moving forward. You have to lose first before you can win, or change. In a few years, they’ve grown and they have set their style of play. It’s difficult to change the attitude later on.”
Vijay Amritraj employed serve and volley to knock Bjorn Borg out of the 1974 US Open.
How to make the serve and volley effective
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING
Knowles draws on his experience of working with the likes of Mardy Fish (former world no 7), Milos Raonic (former no 3) and Jack Sock (former no 8). He asserts that the younger generation of players are more ‘success’ oriented and judge charges up to the net accordingly.
“When you think about Patrick Rafter, who was a very aggressive player, if he won 55 per cent of the points in a match, he won the match and he was happy with that. But if the modern player gets passed on the first time he comes to the net, he will remember that and not want to try it again,” Knowles asserts.
“It’s a very contentious point with some of the players. They have a success percentage attached to it. If they win eight out of 10 points at the net, you’re still winning 80 per cent of the points when you’re moving forward, so that’s a winning strategy. And then they would counter that ‘no, I remember getting passed on this and passed on that.’ They are hesitant to come up again.”
Meanwhile, Vijay remembers watching Becker, also a net rusher.
“You felt there was no way you could pass him and he’s diving around. So you really truly needed to thread the needle to get past him at the net,” Vijay says. “It’s the attitude. It’s not that he had the greatest volleys in the game. But he literally bullied you into an error. You can have a big guy, 6-foot-6, come to the net and look like Michael Chang (5-foot-9) if he doesn’t have the attitude.”
One of the taller players today, 6-foot-8 Anderson, has added the volley into his arsenal despite being a baseliner while growing up. It’s resulted in the South African reaching the final of the 2017 US Open and 2018 Wimbledon.
“It’s something that was a progression in his game, something he trusted more and he made better decisions, and that helped him reach the Wimbledon final,” Godwin adds.
Interestingly enough, Federer, considered among the best volleyers of his generation, too needed a push towards the net.
“When he first started practising volleys, he hated it. He wasn’t good at it,” said Peter Lundgren, the 20-time Grand Slam champion’s former coach who helped him win his first title at Wimbledon 2003, to The Tennis Podcast. “It was like there were sharks inside the service box.”
RETURN OF THE VOLLEY
“Serve and volley on a regular basis,” opines Anand, “is pretty much dead. The guys who tend to come up to the net now only do it if they have to.”
Crucially, there are still players that don’t shy away from rushing up to the net, be it after their own serve or during a rally. And importantly, some of the better-known proponents of the dying art are some of the NextGen stars – the likes of Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The duo, with their flashy one-handed backhands, and flair for aggression off the baseline, are known to let that attacking-instinct guide them to the net to finish off points.
And it’s in players like these that the older guard – the ones that professed serve and volley as their go-to method before the baseline brawls started to dominate the sport – sees a potential revival in their cherished tactics.
“If one of those players wins a Grand Slam and becomes the top player in the world, then (serve and volley) will come into fashion again,” says Knowles. “Then some of the youngsters will have someone to look up to and say ‘wow, he plays this aggressive style and he finishes up at the net, this is how I want to play.’
“Ultimately, the juniors are going to try and copy their style.”
That’s the new hope for the old trick.
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