The End of Serve and Volley

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With the Australian tennis summer over, Australian fans are no doubt suffering from a tennis withdrawal, where you realise how much you’ve taken the tennis for granted over the month of January. There is one thing that the Australian public will certainly not miss however, the call from the commentators for serving and volleying.

Having only watched tennis here in Australia I can’t speak for other broadcasters, but there are a number of well-seasoned commentators that simply don’t understand the many of the tactics in the current game. While he didn’t play as much of a role in this year’s commentary, John Newcombe is a serial offender. I’m not here to question Newk’s credentials, or his knowledge of tennis in general, but the simple fact is that the serve and volley tactic just doesn’t work in this day and age. A winner of 7 Grand Slams by using his serve and volley game indicates he was one of the best at the craft, but unlike a lot of the ex-players now turned commentators, the “expert” commentary he provides is stuck back in his era. While the serve and volley game was the norm for many years, a combination of changes in technology, and the courts, the game has diverted to a more baseline oriented game.

As with every sport, technology can shape the way its athletes go about their business, and tennis is no exception. In previous generations, the string and racket setup was favourable for the serve and volley game. Tightly strung and stiff rackets didn’t provide as much power on shots as we’re used to today, and combined with the speed of the court it made sense to spend the majority of points at the net. Nowadays, the new string and racket technology makes it possible for the majority of points to be played at the baseline. Firstly, the obvious advances in string technology such as the introduction of polyester, nylon and synthetic gut just to name a few, have provided players with many more options in what they can do with their shots. Not only can they control the ball more easily, they can impart huge levels of spin on their shots. And then the racket technology, which has always been evolving, now provides players with more powerful shots with the same effort. While it may not be obvious to the average tennis fan, the new rackets can also provide players with many options to what they want out of their game. Rafael Nadal for example seems to just keep adding weight to the head of his racket in order to get more purchase in his shots. His comeback to competitive tennis next week will be with a new and heavier racket, designed to add more spin (yes more spin, if that’s possible) to his shots.

The other main reason for the change to a more baseline-focused approach to tennis is the speed of the courts. The serve and volley game is based around taking time away from your opponent, something that could be done very easily with the faster courts. With the shift away from 3 Grand Slams on grass courts, the more modern surfaces have slowed the play down. Even Wimbledon has slowed the pace of their courts down to a point where traditional baseliners such as Djokovic, Nadal and Ferrer are producing excellent results without thinking of finishing a point at the net, let alone serve and volleying. This slowing of the courts has reached a point where Roger Federer says he finds it easier to be consistent over the 4 Grand Slams due to the surfaces slowly reaching the same speed. Obviously, there are some occasions which the surfaces may be more extreme than these Grand Slams, such as the blue clay in Madrid which provided an ice like surface for the ball to shoot through. On the whole though, there seems to be some level of homogenisation of the court speed, which I believe is to the benefit of the sport.

The most frustrating thing about John Newcombe’s commentary is his phrase “mix it up a bit”. His usual rant about serve and volleying comes after watching an all court player, such as Roger Federer, come into the net after a serve, or when a big server starts firing down bombs which are very difficult to return. The reason these players do not serve and volley is simple: they are playing the game to suit the surface, as well as their skill-set  So, given that the courts are slower, which favours a baseline game, and the string and racket technology making the net player more vulnerable to passing shots, doesn’t it make sense to stick to a baseline oriented game? Mixing it up a bit does keep your opponent guessing, but serving and volleying 50% of the time just won’t get the job done in today’s game. You can take this example and put it into Newcombe’s era, where the speed of the courts dictated a different style of play, making it impossible to win a match from the baseline. He was simply playing to how the surface dictated he play, and with the 3 grass Grand Slams, and the majority of other courts at a higher pace, it is understandable that you would serve and volley. “Mixing it up” for Newk would mean camping out on the baseline and grinding out a rally – something which would be a huge mistake. Just as players these days can be easily beaten at the net by better returning and retrieving skills, Newk on the baseline would have been carved up by someone chipping in a slice return and following it to the net. Quicker courts dictated that play should happen at the net, so there is no reason why it should have been “mixed up”.

While having expert commentators provide their opinion on the game is great viewing and provides an insight into what a professional player is thinking, having these legends try to preach their way of playing into a game which has changed significantly doesn’t make for good viewing. Current expert commentators such as John McEnroe and Jim Courier have taken their expertise from playing and have evolved their way of thinking about the game to a level which is relevant and extremely interesting to listen to. While the serve and volley game they delivered with such expertise may be a thing of the past, the baseline game that presents us with such an amazing era of tennis should be embraced by all.

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Religiously tennis - senior coach at Canberra School of Tennis, playing and watching. Sydney Swans nut and fan of the five day game.

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