There may be some confusion among this year’s US Open attendees who catch Taylor Dent on court; especially for those who have only started watching in the past few years.
“Why is he going to the net so often after he serves? Doesn’t he have a Big Forehand he can hit hard from a safer position at the back of the court? And why does he double-fault so much?”
Though raised in United States and holding American citizenship, Dent inherited the serving-and-volleying tactics of the great Australians Rod Laver, John Newcombe, and Ken Rosewall, just to name a few.
You see, Taylor Dent is the son of Phil Dent, one of the lesser-known Australian pros of the 1960s-70s who still happened to win 25 doubles titles, a couple of singles titles, and even reached the finals of the Australian Open in 1974 before falling to the game’s then-alpha male, proto-power baseliner Jimmy Connors.
Despite the growing influence of Connors and a few others, the serve-and-volley approach remained a viable means of reaching the top of the men’s game until the late-'90s.
By that time, it had splintered into the approaches of the pure serve-and-volleyer, whose whole game was designed to get him to net, and the Pure Power Player who viewed net-rushing as the logical extension of his huge serving and hard hitting.
Dent has always split the difference between these approaches: Like a PPP, he has an enormous serve capable of reaching the 140s. Like a pure S&V he generally abstains from driving through the ball, preferring instead to slice it and charge the net.
On a good day it seems he combines the assets of the two: 2003 would have to be his career year, as he won three titles, whipping Andy Roddick in the Memphis final and then winning back-to-back titles near the end of the season.
At the US Open, he upset Fernando Gonzales and won the first set against Andre Agassi before withdrawing injured (a recurring theme for Dent, but more on that later).
At other times, he seems to have adopted mismatched characteristics of both styles: Though his movement is decent, no one would mistake his court coverage with that of champion S&Vs such as Stefan Edberg and Patrick Rafter.
And while he has the serve of a PPP, he doesn’t have a groundstroke weapon like Mark Philippoussis’ forehand or Ivan Ljubicic’s backhand. In a sense, he may require a new classification: The big server who volleys.
Perhaps the most unfortunate quality he shares with net-rushers of both types is their tendency toward injury: From Rafter to Justin Gimelstob, net-rushers have frequently lost much of their careers to health concerns.
Perhaps it’s the constant need to push forward, make sudden stops and quick changes of direction; perhaps it’s because most net-rushers are bigger guys, and therefore put more strain on their joints.
Either way, by 2006 Dent was struggling to stay active at all due to injuries in his back and groin. In 2007 he had back surgery, and would not return to action until May 2008. Only this year did Dent, now 28, return to Grand Slam competition, losing in the opening rounds of the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
Dent is already doing better at this year’s US Open. In round 1 he met the lefty Spaniard Feliciano Lopez.
It was an interesting matchup, as the Spaniard has the heavy forehand typical of modern power baseliners, but his slice backhand, smooth-yet-explosive serve and comfortable net coverage also hearken back to the days of more forward movement.
Lopez, being a former US Open quarterfinalist, surely went into their encounter as the favorite. However, after dropping a 6-4 first set, Dent squeaked out an 8-6 win in the second set tiebreaker and controlled the match from there.
Dent hit 18 aces, put his first serve in the box 64 percent of the time and won 81 percent of first serve points. He also committed 10 double faults, but more than anything this may indicate Dent’s focus on good service placement, which is essential for net rushers.
In the next round, the American with the Australian roots faces a winnable encounter with another Spaniard: This time it’s Ivan Navarro, a 27-year-old who has never been ranked higher than No. 67. However, in his first round he showed he could handle hard serving, ushering out 6’10” Ivo Karlovic in straight sets.
If Dent overcomes Navarro, his next assignment would probably be with the current No. 2 Andy Murray, one of the Open favorites who is 2-0 against Dent, having bested the American twice in his rookie year of 2005.
Dent faces long odds of reaching the second week, so spectators wanting a demonstration of classic Australian-style volleying ought to catch him now.