Giant Killers: The Chip & Charge Artist

Julian JohnsonCorrespondent IMay 1, 2009

15 Jun 2001:  Pete Sampras coach Paul Annacone watches his players match on centre court during the Stella Artois Championships match held at the Queen's Club, in London. \ Mandatory Credit: Gary M Prior/Allsport

"Chip and Charge." You've probably never heard that phrase before if you were born after 1975, not even on the Tennis Channel or ESPN Classic.

Believe it or not, back in the good old days before graphite and hula hoop-sized rackets won the tennis arms race, "chip and charge" was a bread-and-butter tactic for many a great player.

See, a long, long time ago, many tournaments were played on fast, slick grass—including three of the four Grand Slams. Getting to and controlling the net and forcing your opponent to hit lots of passing shots was considered a tactical necessity by many a coaching mind.

As racket technology evolved and murderous serves and baseline power strokes went warp speed, rallies moved from the forecourt, almost exclusively, to the backcourt. The net became a demilitarized zone where players only ventured for the coin toss and the post-match handshake.

The mid 1980s was the tipping point—before technology put a damper on net play altogether—a time when players bred in the chip-and-charge stone age like Stefan Edberg and Hana Mandlikova could still sally forth and attack the net without fear of decapitation.

With its metronomic flow and the ubiquitous two handed backhand, tennis, except at the highest level, has become the aesthetic equivalent of watching a construction backhoe dig up and move dirt.

Dateline August 27, 1986:


John McEnroe after first-round loss to Paul Annacone. The score was 1-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3."

Before he became Pete Sampras' coach, Paul Annacone was a three time All-American at the University of Tennessee. He would reach his highest world ranking of No. 12 in 1984 and reach the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. 

Coincidentally, '84 was the year McEnroe captured two of the four Grand Slams and reached the final of the French Open.

The ninth seed in 1986, McEnroe was on the comeback trail when he faced Annacone in the first round of the Open. He'd taken a six-month leave from the sport following the loss of his No. 1 ranking and title to Ivan Lendl in the 1985 US Open final. 

Annacone's ranking had dipped slightly (to No. 18), but he was what they call today, "a dangerous floater." Nobody wanted to play him, let alone early in a hard court major.

Paul Annacone was an adherent of the chip and charge, the poster child for the tactic. The only ground stroke that he hit, besides during the warm-up, was the return of serve.  First serve...forward, second serve...forward, inside the service box, split step, volley. 

His return of serve was blocked or sliced. He'd sprint to the service line, split step, volley. Boom! Annacone's mantra: forward, ever forward, opponent be damned.

If his opponent was a net rusher, HAH! He would knife a backhand slice up the line with pace or dip it slow, low and smooth cross court towards the alley.  His scrambling opponent's weak reply would be volleyed while hanging over the net.

To beat Annacone when he was on, you had to be ready for a track meet. You had to take the net from him.  And you had to be super sharp off the ground, particularly passing shots.

Things began well for Mac as he parlayed two service breaks into an easy first set romp. 

Sometimes a player's rep, especially a player of McEnroe's intimidating stature, can buy the bearer a split second of doubt or hesitation in their opponent that can cost them a point or a service game here or there.

The gap between image, rep, and reality would evaporate between the first and second sets.

The second stanza was a carbon copy of the first, only it was Annacone giving the clinic.  Suddenly he had the fresher legs and the livelier serve. 

The upstart and not the Hall of Famer was taking his returns early and sending them back faster than they'd come. Annacone was picking off Mac's floating passing shots and rifling them for winners. 

Or dropping dimes into the open court.

Playing against a hot chip and charge/serve and volley artist is like catching coins rolling at high speed, down hill, onto a sidewalk grate: you'll catch some coin, but many if not most will disappear into the grate, depending on speed, fitness, and accuracy.

The first two sets had passed: 1-6, 6-1.  The match was now a best of three. Something had to give, and it was McEnroe.

He was back, alright, in body. But the hunger, the fire, and the foot-speed had all diminished a hair.  Just enough for a talented young clone to out-Mac Mac. The last two sets were routine: 6-3, 6-3.

It was a death knell of sorts.

McEnroe made a couple of major semis following this: the U.S. Open in '90, Wimbledon in '92. But his days as top dog were over. A long, slow goodbye.

The chip and charge artist may have died that day in 1986 as well. Sure, Navratilova, Edberg, Becker, Rafter and Sampras carried on the tradition of the chip and charge for years after.

Kids aren't bred to be Sampras' or Annacones, or even Federer's: 99% of tennis academy kids are being trained for the baseline shuffle.

They've turned the chip and charge artist into a dinosaur, a fossil, one dragged from the mothballs on the odd occasion, but never nurtured, rarely embraced.

Like the knuckleballer in baseball, the likes of Paul Annacone may rarely be seen again. But he had his day.


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