Wonder Why… Serve and Volley went out of fashion in Tennis

Written by Shahid Judge

Updated: November 21, 2020 3:55:50 pm

Pete SamprasPete Sampras at his prime. (FILE)

At the flip of the millennium, the All England Club – organisers of the Wimbledon Championships – sought to place in place new measures to take care of their fabled grass courts. The 8mm lower top was to stay the identical, because it had been since 1995, however a brand new composition of grass was launched to enhance the sturdiness of the floor. The catch was in the rye.

From the 2001 version of tennis’ most prestigious Grand Slam, the earlier composition of 70 per cent ryegrass and 30 per cent creeping pink fescue was to get replaced by 100 per cent ryegrass.

But it wasn’t until a 12 months later, on the 2002 occasion, when the true results of the transfer got here to the fore. It was the primary time since 1978 that two baseliners, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, had reached the finals of the boys’s singles occasion. And it wasn’t by chance.

What the removing of the 30 per cent creeping pink fescue grass had completed to the Wimbledon floor was take away the pace from the court docket. Neither participant possessed a robust serve, so as a substitute, they relied on their groundstrokes to safe factors. And with no zip left in the floor, the standard serve and volley fashion that was the bread and butter strategy to tennis went lacking because the match was now determined from the baseline. For a event that was typically determined by a participant’s capability to kill off factors on the internet, no participant in that remaining approached the web on their serve.

Hewitt joined the winners’ listing on the All England Club, however that remaining marked the start of a stark decline of the serve and volley recreation.

Consider the stats: at Wimbledon 2002, males’s singles gamers performed serve and volley on 9168 factors, versus 1980 factors in 2018, as per The New York Times. Similarly, the ladies’s singles gamers performed serve and volley 4 instances much less in 2018 than they did in 2002.

That Hewitt-Nalbandian conflict put ahead the primary indicator that the game, because it was identified and performed until then, was about to vary. But the wheels had already been in movement 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 consideration to the development in know-how of the racquet. At the identical time, the typical top of the gamers went up by 5 or 6 inches. I’m 6-foot-4, and again then I used to be among the many tallest gamers. Now I’d be common. So you set these superior racquets in the fingers of guys standing at 6-foot-6, serving massive on quick courts, it takes the rallying ability out of the sport.

“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 sorts of surfaces used in tennis, grass is taken into account the quickest, adopted by onerous courts and the slowest is clay. But as Wimbledon began to scale back the pace on its courts, so did organisers of onerous court docket occasions.

“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 labored 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.”

Neville Godwin, former ATP Coach of the Year who has labored with 2018 Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson says it’s tough to get tempo off the floor on slower surfaces. Facebook/Kevin Anderson

Slower courts permit a participant to get to the ball in time to make a return, therefore prolonging a rally. As a consequence, gamers have a tendency to remain again on the baseline as a substitute of coming as much as the web, both on their very own serve or whereas receiving – once more resulting in longer factors.

“I remember the 1991 Wimbledon final between Boris Becker and Michael Stich. It was a horrible final,” Godwin provides. “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 complete of 42 aces have been hit in the 1994 remaining, and the longest level concerned simply six pictures. Furthermore, in keeping with the BBC, the primary set that lasted 49 minutes had simply 5 minutes of precise play. Meanwhile, in the 2008 remaining between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the opening rally of the match lasted 14 pictures.

After his first-round match in 2019 towards Lloyd Harris, Federer, who has struck 11,344 aces in his profession (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’s the put on and tear on the grass that signifies 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 different main change made by organisers because the 2002 season is the use of heavier balls. Even the best way the balls have been handled was to ensure they have been heavier to hit, needing gamers to generate extra energy to make an efficient 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 significant deterrent to a serve and volley or net-rushing participant. The volley as a shot doesn’t have an extended back-swing as in comparison with the groundstroke, particularly since a participant doesn’t get a lot time to load right into a shot whereas on the internet. And then there’s the floor which doesn’t present a lot tempo.

“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.”


Arguably, it was the event of the racquet frames that first prompted a change from the serve and volley fashion. The use of a brand new sort of strings, in explicit, performed a significant function.

“In the old days everybody played with gut,” says former doubles world no 1 and three-time males’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 3 ways to counter a serve and volley participant or a internet rusher.

The first is to both hit a passing shot via uncovered areas. The second is to play a lob, which sails over the opponent however has sufficient dip to let the ball fall throughout the court-lines – an awesome deal of spin is required for this, aided by the brand new strings. The third measure, normally essentially the most potent methodology performed whereas returning serve, is to play a shot that, although highly effective, goes over the web and then dips on the ft of the participant on the internet, making it tough for the volleyer to get the ball again in play.

Stefan Edberg AP.jpg Powerful racquet frames and strings and heavier balls of the fashionable period have made it tough to be a pure serve-and-volley participant, in the vein of two-time Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg. (AP)

“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 as much as volley after the serve is smart. In a service routine, the ball toss is angled to the entrance of the participant, who would then leap forwards whereas reaching for the ball to strike the serve, and then land contained in the baseline. That ahead momentum is conducive for the push as much as the web. But the pattern now could be to use the brakes after hitting the serve and taking a step again behind the baseline to get into place for a rally.

The power-hitting fashion from the again, particularly with slower courts, has taken away creativity and selection from the sport.

“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 pattern has even trickled right down to the junior ranges.

“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 in the meantime asserts that teaching kids the baseline recreation is actually simpler than the extra tactical serve and volley strategy.

“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 youthful 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 efficient


Knowles attracts on his expertise 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 youthful technology of gamers are extra ‘success’ oriented and decide costs as much as the web 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, additionally a internet 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 gamers right now, 6-foot-8 Anderson, has added the volley into his arsenal regardless of being a baseliner whereas rising up. It’s resulted in the South African reaching the ultimate 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 provides.

Interestingly sufficient, Federer, thought of among the many greatest volleyers of his technology, too wanted a push in direction of the web.

“When he first started practising volleys, he hated it. He wasn’t good at it,” mentioned 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.”


“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 nonetheless gamers that don’t shrink back from dashing as much as the web, be it after their very own serve or throughout a rally. And importantly, some of the better-known proponents of the dying artwork are some of the NextGen stars – the likes of Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The duo, with their flashy one-handed backhands, and aptitude for aggression off the baseline, are identified to let that attacking-instinct information them to the web to complete off factors.

And it’s in gamers like these that the older guard – those that professed serve and volley as their go-to methodology earlier than the baseline brawls began to dominate the game – sees a possible revival in their cherished ways.

“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 children can have somebody to look as much as 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 brand new hope for the outdated trick.

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