24 January, 2006

RIP: Serve and Volley Tennis

John McEnroe won 82 of his 85 matches in 1984, and he did it serving and volleying. Wikipedia's who's who of serve and volley is:
Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter - a list of has-been's, and most of them from long, long ago. Even Federer, who has a beautiful serve and a fabulous volley, and who took the baton from Sampras, is an all-court player, not a serve and volleyer.

Why did serve and volley die?

Easy. The governing body of tennis didn't like it, and they regulated it away. They tired of watching McEnroe, Edberg, Becker and their friends win entire games with 8 strikes of the ball. They wanted to see the ball spend more time in the air than in the winner's pockets, so they changed the game.


All the governing bodies of tennis needed to do to end serve and volley was make the ball bounce higher. Racket technology enters in, because the baseliners can put power on the ball very easily. Racket size enters in, because you can take a huge crack at the ball when your "sweet spot" is the size of a small melon instead of a half-dollar. But it's the combination of making the balls bouncier and the courts slower that make the ball bounce higher. Also, making the balls larger and slower also tends to defuse the serve just enough to give the returner a chance to return aggressively, instead of desparately.

Add to all this the fact that in general, a serve and volleyer takes 2-4 years longer to develop than a baseliner. So, if two 16 year old kids are playing, the baseliner is going to kill the volleyer. You've really got to want to serve and volley to play it, because all your peers are going to kick your butt for a while.

The serve and volley technician's margin of error is rapidly approaching zero, but it's still not there yet, especially at the garden variety level at which I play. A serve and volleyer at my level can have a pretty strong advantage.

So, why is a high bouncing ball the death of serve and volley? (Only the brave need continue.)

The serve and volleyer trades time for space. He takes away that big oval space just above the center of the net that his opponent would usually hit through. His opponent must either hit the ball very low, very wide, or very high and still get it in. Furthermore, the attacker gets a huge advantage in opening up the opponents court for near, far, angle or straight shots. Space belongs to the attacker. The opponent, however, gets the advantage of time. He can hit the ball so hard, and so fast that the attacker simply cannot respond.

The attacker's approach shot must disarm the defender, or he will find himself watching balls zip by him all day long.

Weaknesses in an approach shot that empower the defender are:
  • High bounces - This is the #1 hope for the defender. The higher the ball, the more he is hitting down on the ball, and the harder he can hit it and still count on the ball to drop into the attacker's court.
  • Slow balls - A slow ball is hard to hit hard with accuracy, but in this case, having time to see which way the attacker is leaning offsets that risk.
  • Short balls - A short ball allows the defender to take away even more time from the attacker and to have more angle options.
  • Light spins - The more spin a ball has, the harder it is to aim.

So, the perfect approach shot will be low, fast, and deep with backspin.

One more point.

A short approach shot down the center of the court with no backspin will usually work just fine, though, if it is only low enough. Why? Because the defender has to generate all of his own power, and still make it drop down into the court. He cannot put a big topspin on the ball to draw it back down, because there is no room for his racket to get under the ball. The defender has to hit a soft lob to have any chance of a winner, and that is a crap shoot - advantage attacker.

Given the high bounce of the Rebound Ace surface in Australia, and the power and accuracy of Federer, Max Mirnyi never stood a chance. 10 years ago, Max might have been able to touch Federer, but 10 years ago Federer would have been a serve and volleyer. ;-)

The best proposal I have heard to give serve and volleyers a chance is to require smaller racket heads.

Either way, I'll tell you this for sure. I play a couple months with a wooden racket every year, just because that is how I learned, and I love to do it. If we went back to wooden rackets, the serve and volley would come back. The baseliner needs that sweet spot a lot worse than the volleyer, and knocking 25 mph of every shot makes a huge difference.

1 comment:

Rich said...

Thanks for taking my request!

This post was a good come-down from what I just wrote over at Thinklings on the art subject. I needed that.

Anyway, it's too bad. I LOVE the serve and volley game. It sure would be nice to have a couple majors that catered to the serve and volleyers (Wimbledon and Australian maybe) and a couple to the baseliners (French and U.S. Open). Or, better yet, one each and two sort of neutral.

The governing bodies of tennis may not have enjoyed it, but man, to see two greats at their craft going against each other with the different styles was great. McEnroe/Connors. Sampras/Agassi. Navratilova/Evert. And then all the foreign greats at both styles. Those matches were SOOOOO much more entertaining than seeing a couple Spaniards (they're generally clay-court specialists, right?) lobbing the ball back and forth over the net for five hours. That's hard to watch.

By the same token, with all the racket advances, Wimbledon has sort of lost a lot of its luster to me. So many aces. So few men with a real chance to win.

I really hope the serve-and-volley comes back. But I read on ESPN where Patrick Rafter doesn't think it will. But with so much history with serve-and-volleyers, you'd think that the tennis gurus would want to keep it in the game, at least some.

Oh, well. It's time for bed. Thanks again for the info.