I watched a show about Rod Laver last week on the Tennis Channel, narrated by one of his acolytes, John McEnroe. It's a thing of beauty—the all-court game that the Rocket developed and refined—frontcourt/backcourt, serve and volley, you name it and he could do it. Arguably his only weakness—relatively speaking—was his serve, which reflected not mechanical weakness but his lack of height. In terms of physical and mental strength and technique, he personified the tennis version of the 5-tool player.
It therefore heartened me to hear Djokovic publicly regret or admonish himself in front of his host, about the current crop of even great players, almost none of whom feel comfortable playing serve and volley, on a regular basis. I will always believe that the player most hurt by this turn in the game, ironically, has been Roger Federer, who actually had the touch to play serve and volley but grew away from it as he matured (see his first great match at Wimbledon against Sampras in 2001 for how well he served and volleyed as a core strategy). That worked fine against everyone—literally—until he ran into the ultimate stroking machine, the clay-court monster, Rafa Nadal. Federer never really developed a weapon that Nadal truly feared, because for all their stylistic differences, they both typically played in the backcourt. And that means they both played defensive tennis.
I know that this may sound archaic given the rackets, the balls, the grunting, the sound and light show that comprises today's "offensive" backcourt rallying. But I stand by my guns: There's only one real version of offensive tennis, and that's played from the back to the front, from the well-placed, if not necessarily huge, serve to the volley. That's the tennis of Kramer, Gonzalez, Ashe, McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, even little guys like Rosewall and Laver, culminating in perhaps the greatest of them all, Pete Sampras.
Sampras was a great athlete, a good mover and ball-striker, with no real weaknesses in his game. And he built his serve and volley into such a weapon that his opponents felt tremendous pressure not to lose their serve, because no one reasonably thought they were likely ever to break Sampras. Too many matches to count Sampras held his serve, and waited patiently for his opponent's one weak service game which he would pounce on to take the set, and eventually the match.
So watching Laver reminded me that in the days of Forest Hills, and of the rotating venues of Australia, only Roland Garros featured the slow, red clay. Just imagine what Sampras' slam record would have been if he had played in the era of three out of every four slams played on the cool, fast grass.
Watching Djokovic, like Federer, is a real treat. He's a great mover and ball striker, a player about as aggressive from the backcourt as is humanly possible. But could he have beat Sampras in his time, on American hard courts? Or on the grass that Laver roamed? More often than not, I doubt it. I hope we get to see that sort of frontcourt artistry more, though I doubt it. Until then, I'll wait for the movie to come out about Sampras.
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