Where Have All the Volleys Gone?

Rob YorkSenior Writer IAugust 4, 2008

This is the second in a four-part series of articles about the abundance of power-baseliners in professional tennis today, the absence of other styles of play and what this means for the game.

Stefan Edberg and Patrick Rafter played three times: all in 1995, when Edberg’s glory days had passed and Rafter’s were still to come. Each was tightly contested, but all were won by Edberg. Though they took place at minor events where fewer TV viewers were able to see, we can be certain that there was a lot of serving and volleying.

These players, along with guys like Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Richard Krajicek, were often lumped together as serve-and-volleyers. However, any observant fan could see a huge difference when comparing guys like Edberg and Rafter to Becker and Krajicek.

If the net rushing, big serving Pure Power Player (PPP) discussed last week is practically extinct in today’s baseline-oriented culture, then the pure serve and volleyer (S&V) has certainly gone the way of the dinosaur; specifically the Velociraptor.

Unlike their fellow fleet-footed species that defended stoutly, making their habitat at the baseline, S&Vs were more predatory. However, in contrast with the lumbering, carnivorous PPPs who relied on size and power, S&Vs struck with swift, cutting volleys.

Edberg and Rafter were the men’s game’s best examples of this style in the ‘90s: truth be told, they were the only male examples of pure S&Vs winning majors during that decade. They, along with Tim Henman, possessed a similar batch of skills.

Their groundstrokes were consistent, but not weapons; they served bigger than the likes of Jim Courier and Andre Agassi but less so than Sampras and Becker. Those shots weren’t designed to win matches for them; they were designed to put them in the best position to do their magic at the net.

It’s because of that magical feel they possessed around the net that S&Vs are the type of player most missed, both in the men’s and women’s tours. The deftness of the volleys they could hit, sometimes it seemed from anywhere on the court, coupled with the tension their net-rushing ways created are nowhere to be found today.

At least some of the nostalgia that tennis fans currently feel for this style is probably due to selective memory, because S&Vs generated more than their share of service winners and easy volley put-aways, all unworthy of highlight reels.

Still, it’s hard not to smile when watching Edberg out-finesse the original PPP, Becker, in the 1988 and 1990 Wimbledon finals, just as it was when Rafter ran circles around Greg Rusedski and Mark Philippoussis in the U.S. Open finals he won.

It was also highly engaging to see the contrast when Rafter faced Agassi for three consecutive years at Wimbledon, not to mention the duels John McEnroe had with Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.

First, let’s classify what an S&V is, or rather was. Once there were only wooden racquets, so 130 mph serves were rare; hence no Pure Power Players. It was also very rare to see pros simply blast groundstroke winners by an opponent who was also standing at the baseline; hence no power-baseliners.

The game was divided into S&Vs, who sought to get into net behind a good serve or approach shot, and the counterpunchers who sought to keep that from happening.

Had they been playing with today’s graphite racquets and modern training techniques, they may have played with different styles (Rod Laver was classified as an S&V, but since he could do nearly anything with a tennis ball, it’s hard to say what style he would’ve employed in the 1990s).

Connors and Ivan Lendl created the power-baseliner style, then PPPs like Becker and Sampras emerged, able to serve huge, volley competently and rip groundstrokes.

By the 1990s, the S&V was defined by what he did not do as much as by what he did. Players like Rafter, Edberg, Henman and Jonas Bjorkman all have solid serves and hit groundstrokes well, but need to get to net in order to win. Rafter and Edberg showed that they could triumph in majors repeatedly based on their athleticism and their refusal to stay in groundstroke wars.

Even so, their lack of weapons, aside from the volley, made their lives very difficult. Watching Edberg’s classic matches with Becker, it often seemed that the former was at the latter’s mercy, needing Becker to miss returns and not hit too many service winners (which goes a long way in explaining Becker’s 25-10 lead in their head-to-head meetings).

One gets the same feeling watching Sampras-Rafter clips, even though the latter did score some big wins against Sampras in the late ‘90s. Also, really strong baseliners like Courier and Agassi were often capable of pinning S&Vs to the back court and wearing them down.

If we want to see another player use this style in the future, he’ll have to have 1) exceptional volleys, 2) great athleticism, 3) good, but not overpowering serves and groundstrokes, and 4) a healthy sense of masochism. As Sampras said in A Champion’s Mind, Rafter had to work extremely hard to hold. Unless all of these factors coalesce again, we may only be able to see great volleys on YouTube.