That’s the single most haunting question in the world of tennis today. As Federer and Nadal continue to awe the spectators with their fabulous rallies and scintillating baseline game, most of the fans still yearn for the serve-and-volley game to make a re-entry into the sport.
The art of serve-and-volley had been perfected by tennis greats like Jack Kramer, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and Martina Navratilova to name a few, but of late this art seems to have lost its sheen.
Serve-and-volley is a style of play in tennis where the player serving moves quickly towards the net after the serve. The server then attempts to hit a volley, as opposed to the baseline style, where the server would stay back following the serve and attempt to hit a groundstroke.
The aim of this strategy is to put immediate pressure on the opponent, so that good returns must be made, or else the server can gain advantage. This tactic is especially useful on fast courts (e.g. grass courts) and less so on slow courts (e.g. clay courts). For it to be successful, the player must either have a good serve or be exceptionally quick in movement around the net.
But, as John McEnroe puts it in his book “You Can’t Be Serious!”, the cause of the decline in the serve-and-volley game are the powerful lightweight composite racquets that everyone uses today.
In the days of wooden racquets, it simply wasn't possible to generate enough power to just crush a forehand past your opponent. To be successful, you had to work the point to create unreturnable angles. It is much easier to create angles at the net, so the serve-and-volley game was more popular.
Now, though angles can still be important, with the introduction of wider graphite racquets, everyone hits the ball so hard that it can be difficult to even approach the net.
When you do get there, passing shots from your opponent are much more difficult to handle. So it doesn't pay to work too hard on serve-and-volley skills, so no one does.
To encourage more artistry through the strategic use of angles, McEnroe advocates a return to wooden racquets in the professional game.
Some experts argue that the game has turned more 'vanilla' in the nature of the surfaces. Even the new laid grass surfaces at Wimbledon is slower and the balls sit up more than they used to, due to changes in the undersurface and the type of grass used there.
Even Boris Becker once said, “I could have never won a single Wimbledon on such ‘slow’ surfaces.”
Another interesting fact about the whole issue is the lack of encouragement of serve-and-volley style by the USTA. The coaches now emphasize more on the baseline play of the junior players, and volleying is taught only in respect to doubles game.
The most interesting take on the decline is blamed on a conspiracy theory involving tennis organizers to encourage longer rallies and attract more spectators!
In support of the claim, supporters quote the introduction of new laws [supposedly] against Pancho Gonzales and Jack Kramer to curb their serve-and-volley game.
The rules include the VASSS introduction in '50s, the three-bounce rule and making the second serve line a yard behind. Though the rules were subsequently dropped, the introduction of graphite racquets, hybrid strings, and slower grass courts have eventually managed to kill the serve-and-volley game.
Others neutral to the issue consider serve-and-volley as a created opportunity, not a total game.
It is only one pattern of many used in the game. Top players still move the serve around and use variety at all sections of the court looking to come in and hit the easy volley to close out the point.
Personally, I believe the serve-and-volley can still be employed in the game, though the players need to put in more effort not only in their movements, but also mentally, in order to anticipate the location of the return and move into position early, and the only way to achieve that is practice. After all, practice makes one perfect.
Sources : Wikipedia, TennisForums
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