It’s pretty much become the norm now that each time Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal play out a hard hitting Grand Slam finale, a few obituaries in memory of serve and volley are written. When this happened after 2012′s Australian Open epic, it made me a bit uncomfortable. No, of course, each to his own and people can have their own views and preferences on the whole thing, nothing against that. But a funereal note sounds especially discordant when the rest of the audience is celebrating a great era of tennis, right?
I sometimes wonder if such articles are written by people who are reluctant to say they are still diehard Roger Federer fans. But that doesn’t make sense. I am still very much a Fedex fan, while conceding that his two younger rivals have upstaged him for the moment. Secondly, Federer has an excellent baseline game, otherwise he wouldn’t be where he is. So what is it exactly that the serve and volley club still craves for?
Most such obituaries start with Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. Yeah, the two gave us three epic Wimbledon encounters; there’s no denying they were both a treat to watch, whether against each other or just in their own right. And hey, I have nothing against serve and volley per se (nor the baseline game, for that matter). But I would like to suggest that such a perspective is a bit limited. You have to consider tennis before and after Edberg to get to grips with the role of the baseline game in tennis.
It’s not hard to see why a Djokovic would prefer to pound groundstrokes from the baseline: the risk of getting passed is too great and when you play as astute a defender as Nadal (or Andy Murray), the margins are really thin. One extravagant approach too many could be the difference between victory and defeat. Djokovic is at the peak of his career and it’s understandable why he would want to stick to the winning strategy.
Because even the legendary Billy Tilden did not see it very differently. He said that if a great serve-and-volleyer and a great baseliner play each other, the baseliner would win because he would pass the volleyer with his groundstrokes. All the more reason why two baseliners playing each other would prefer to stick to their strength. Whoever makes the first move to the net may end up losing the point.
A certain Swedish champion confirms Tilden’s theory. Yes, Bjorn Borg, the king of Wimbledon in the 70s. He could play the netgame when he had to, but he preferred to dominate from the baseline. Jimmy Connors who won Wimbledon twice also preferred to play from the baseline. So it’s not unusual to see baseliners do well even on grass courts and hard courts (which is the chief source of anguish for the S&V club). Why then did the notion that Wimbledon and US Open are the home of S&V take root?
For that, maybe it’s time to look at the 80s from a different light. The first graphite racquets arrived in the mid 80s and made the serve an even more lethal weapon than before. It made sense to move to the net right behind the serve and cut the short return (if any) from the opponent. Boris Becker had a wonderful service motion as such but with graphite racquets, he was unstoppable when he found his rhythm. Pete Sampras’s rise in the 90s was based on similar strengths. Sampras was a great volleyer and hit great groundstrokes as well but the serve was his chief strength. The only baseliner who won at Wimbledon in the 90s was Andre Agassi and he had to overcome serious resistance from big serving Goran Ivanisevic for that.
Those who basked in the glory of the Edberg-Becker-Lendl rivalry didn’t care much for the Sampras era. But the Sampras era was my first experience of tennis and it is very important to me. I did not know what to expect from the game then as a child but looking back, I can certainly see why people moaned about Pistol Pete acing his way to victory. It was not a very exciting time in tennis and especially not in comparison to the tennis of today.
Take the Federer-Sampras Wimbledon match of 2001 or Sampras-Rafter in 2000. The QUALITY of serves, volleys, groundstrokes was top notch but the competition was not so engaging because both players had a similar strategy and hardly played rallies of any length. Either the incoming volley was out of the receiver’s reach or the receiver passed the volleyer. Better yet, the guy who served simply hit an ace! You can see why so many sets in competitive Wimbledon matches of that time used to go to tiebreaks. Neither player could break the other’s serve. Compare that to Gustavo Kuerten v/s Juan Carlos Ferrero,French Open 2000. Now that was battle!
In hindsight, when I briefly lost interest in men’s tennis in 2002, it probably had nothing to do with Sampras’s decline and eventual retirement but the state of the game at that time. It was all the things then to me that people blast the current baseline game for being: monotonous, one dimensional and boring. Sampras and Andre Agassi were just personalities who made me want to return, out of habit more than anything. Along came Swiss Ace Federer and he not only served almost as efficiently as Sampras would have, he also utilized every part of the court and passed Andy Roddick till he looked bereft of ideas.
And much of the reason why the game is the way it is today is because Federer raised the level and added a different dimension to the game. Placement and angles became paramount and that is really what Djokovic and Nadal do essentially. They just ‘lack’ his finesse and grace. But in tennis, you get the whole package, you can’t cherry pick.
In summary, I know where those lamenting the dying out of S&V come from but I would simply say that in sports, people are habituated to craving that which they don’t have. In the Sampras era, people wanted to see somebody return and rally and force him to sweat some more for his victories. Today, people don’t want rallies, they want volley and soft touch. I say screw whatever it is that tennis doesn’t have today because it has plenty that a viewer could enjoy and that’s what matters. Missing out on such a truly epic time of tennis as this is, ultimately, your loss.