The era of McEnroe, Sampras, Steffi, Becker and Borg was the time of the serve and volley, when spectators would applaud thunderously and rise to their feet when Conners or another master of finesse would come to net to put the ball away.
I was not yet a tennis fan in those days, but a quick YouTube search turns up a trove of videos that can teach players a great deal, tactically, about how to put even more pressure on the opponent.
It feels like overnight that the tennis game has turned into a baseline brawl rather than the players charging the net and producing those finesse shots with their soft hands. There is a lot of speculation as to why players of both sexes do not go to net anymore.
Pros & Cons
Going to the net allows players to put more pressure on their opponents and take away time from them as well. Giving your opponent a different look can get into their head and can make them panic, which could contribute to an error. Even losing a first point at the net demonstrates a certain boldness to the opponent. There are cons as well, mind you. Now that players are hitting flatter and harder, one cannot just waltz up to the net any time one feels like it.
If you want to successfully serve and volley, you need an accurate serve. There are types of serve and volley combos that players like Federer, Tsonga, Murray, Nadal and Djokovic have demonstrated in their career to be very effective.
The first combo is the wide serve that takes your opponent, opens the court and gives you time to charge the net and put away the volley.
Another combo is the body serve, which is very underrated. It is especially effective on the women’s tour but is seen in the men’s game as well. When a body serve is hit, the receiver is not able to get away from the ball, meaning that they cannot move around the ball with their feet to swing their arms freely. This usually causes a short floater that can be attacked.
Keep in mind, this is all easier said than done.
When players were serving and volleying in that style's golden age, they had a lot more time than players today, who are now trained to stay down low and take the ball early to prevent the opponent from recovering after a shot. This strategy was quite evident during the Australian Open finals match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic earlier this year.
Every single player on the tour is capable of serve and volleying. It is harder to do these days, but not impossible to accomplish. Players still utilize the serve and volley in several situations—either when they want to put pressure on an opponent, a previous shot has led them too far towards the net, or it seems impossible to win the point through conventional means.
Roger Federer would serve and volley on more than one occasion during a given match in his younger days, but now he scarcely does so. It is easy to get sucked into the baseline game, but since Roger is aging, it would be good for him to incorporate the serve and volley more in his game. He is already capable of disrupting his opponent's rhythm and momentum with any of his shots, but coming to the net is a good way of getting in an opponent's face and showing dominance—although Federer does that simply by stepping onto the court.
In order to volley successfully, a player needs soft hands to create drop shots and to be able to return the ball when the opponent hits a rocket at your toes while you are at the net. Roger Federer is the prime example of soft hands. He is able to create any angle at any time from anywhere on the court. Federer's most recent dead drop shot, at Indian Wells against Kudlar, was a pure demonstration of soft hands.
Soft hands are more common in men than in women, but women such as Francesca Schiavone, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, Maria Kirilenko, Romina Oprandi and Svetlana Kuznetsova are great examples of female players with soft hands. I would put Kim Clijsters on that last as well, even though she is not of the same caliber—she's just not afraid to come to net when she needs to.
The women’s player that excelled most at the net, and on the baseline of course, had to be the female version of Roger Federer, Justine Henin. She was, and still is, my favorite female tennis player. The way she pounced on balls at the net at such a small size was outstanding and bewildering. She may have had to force herself to become more aggressive, but you couldn’t tell that from the way she played as a pro. She showed no fear when she came to the net.
Players that have grown up playing on clay courts were pushed to go to net and put the ball away. By that logic of thinking, you might think that anyone who has grown up playing on clay courts has soft hands, but that's not true. They are smart in terms of what to do when it comes to going to net, but that does not necessarily mean that all clay-courters have soft hands. It is a talent that you are either born with or not.
It would be nice to see players come to net more on both tours. Serve and volleying ads flair and offense to one's game and creates a whole new dimension of tennis.
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