In previous decades, Roger Federer, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic would have serve-volleyed at The Championships especially with the sublime touch and movement which all three players possess in the forecourt. However although Wimbledon 2014 saw a little more net play than usual, with Federer in particular drawing from the expertise of coach Stefan Edberg in a bid to counter the big hitters capable of outslugging him from the baseline, serve-volley was still a surprise tactic rather than a defined game plan.
So when and why did serve-volley become virtually extinct from the men’s game? Federer’s career began while some of the greatest serve-volleyers tennis has ever seen, were at the peak of their powers. Think Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic, Pat Rafter and many more.
But by 2002, the baseliners were starting to hold the edge. Slower courts and better technology were giving the likes of Lleyton Hewitt a firm advantage over the more traditional players, even on grass. Federer even had to adapt his game markedly. When he made his breakthrough at Wimbledon 2001, beating Pete Sampras over five sets, he serve-volleyed on first and second serves. By the time he won his second Wimbledon title in 2004, it was his lethal forehand rather than the crispness of his volleys which was setting him apart.
“The game compared to our era has slowed down and I think it has to do with the court and the balls a little bit,” says eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl. “It's a shame not to see more volleying but the reason we don’t is the strings. These days anytime a player gets a good crack at the ball, he can put so much spin on it, it's very difficult to track it down in the air. And it dips more so the volley is so much harder. And because of the strings, you see players developing in the mode of Djokovic, Nadal and Murray. Those are the three guys who have really taken advantage of the current conditions over the past ten years.”
Volleying is still a key skill, Djokovic hired Boris Becker both for his big-match experience and to improve his ability at the net to give him more options against Nadal and Murray in the big matches. Nadal’s transformation from a clay-courter unwilling to venture past the service line if at all possible, into a player capable of winning multiple Wimbledon titles, was largely down to the work he put in on his volleys. John McEnroe even described him recently as the best volleyer in the game.
However serve-volleying requires not just a bullet serve but most importantly, perfect placement as the level of returning in men’s and women’s tennis has increased immeasurably over the past ten years. If a serve is anywhere in the hitting zone, it gets the treatment.
“The game's got a lot slower and more disciplined and the strings are a big factor in that,” says seven-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi. “You get rewarded for swinging big and it seems like the harder you swing, the more control you have.”
“Serve-volleying’s out of the question a lot of the time because the ball can get down at your feet real quick which means you have to close the net a lot faster. It used to be the case that a topspin lob was one of the most beautiful shots to watch in tennis 20-25 years ago but now they're hitting drive passing shots which are arguably topspin lobs because they never have a chance of going out. It's a hard proposition to come in against these guys these days.”
1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash believes that the answer is to speed up the courts again. A couple of tournaments have taken the decision to try and encourage more attacking play with quicker surfaces but Cash believes that more steps need to be taken to get variety back into tennis.
“During the Australian Open, Nadal was saying these courts are really fast and I would have regarded that court as a medium-fast court in my day,” he said.
“We played on a lot of fast, indoor courts and I couldn't help reflecting that if you look at Nadal's career, other than say the odd grass-court match, he's played his whole career on what we would regard as slow courts. That's been a great advantage to him. Obviously Roger's set a benchmark and Nadal through his great skill has dominated at times, but playing on these courts has given him a great advantage.”
“We're seeing the guys playing from the baseline for a reason, because we're now playing on slower courts. For me, it's disappointing to see a good volley or a good shot, coming back all the time. I think it's fair that a good approach shot should be rewarded. I think that at one time it was super fast but it's gone too far the other way and maybe we can find a balance somewhere in the middle in the next 5-10 years.”
However Agassi believes that with the greater physicality in tennis these days, it will still be hard to serve-volley, even on faster courts.
“Just look at the court coverage of the guys in the top 100,” he said. “They're gonna take to a fast court and make it look slow just because of how well they can cover the real estate.”