Stefan Edberg and the 15 Best Serve-and-Volleyers of the Open Era
Swedish great Stefan Edberg was one of the many players in the Open era who thrived on the serve-and volley brand of tennis to dictate play.
Prolific serve-and-volleyers bank on faster courts to ply their trade and this is why the US Open has been rather fruitful for these guys over the years.
The DecoTurf which is used at Flushing Meadows is one of the fastest surfaces there is and provides a reduced amount of friction and lower bounce, thereby aiding players who serve-and-volley.
But this instinctive and lively brand of tennis has been on an alarming decline since the turn of the millennium.
Reasons for this include the gradual shift to slower courts, slower balls and the "improvement" in the technology used in the strings of modern-day rackets which generate a high amount of spin and speed off the ball.
Ironically, these changes were implemented to make the game more exciting and lengthen the rallies.
It was concluded that longer rallies and longer points boost television viewership. Capitalistic society had a new victim.
As the number of players employing it reduce, serve-and-volleying is in danger of being wiped off the face of the tennis courts in the near future.
So, here's looking back at some of the best serve-and-volleyers to have graced the game in the Open era:
Women's No. 3: Jana Novotna
The serve-and-volley game wasn't very lady-like in her time but Jana Novotna chose to be different from her compatriots.
The Czech ace refused to sit back at the baseline and rushed the net as if there were free doughnuts kept there!
Novotna was a complete player and balanced her aggression at the net with some solid groundstrokes from the back.
One of the reasons she was such a good net player was because of her prolific doubles form which won her 12 majors.
Novotna wasn't able to match up to her more illustrious compatriot, Martina Navratilova, but she did win 100 titles in her career—24 in singles and 76 in doubles.
Women's No. 2: Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King is, arguably, the greatest women's tennis player ever.
Standing at just 5'4", King wasn't the biggest player on court. But she made up for her miniature stature with a game to die for!
Playing majorly in the seventies, King introduced the serve-and-volley game into women's tennis. Before her, the concept was pretty much alien to the women's game.
The American was strong and iron-willed. She was aggressive in her approach and took to the net like a bear to honey.
Her dynamism even led her to win the famed "Battle of the Sexes" where she beat former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in three straight sets.
King won a whopping 12 singles, 16 doubles and 11 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles.
Women's No. 1: Martina Navratilova
Martina Navratilova has won everything there is to win in tennis.
A winner of 167 career titles, Navratilova is the most successful tennis player in the world to date.
Her assorted collection of pots includes 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 Grand Slam doubles titles and 10 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.
She is also the only player in the world to have all three events (singles, doubles and mixed doubles) at all the four Grand Slams.
The Czech-American achieved this due to a game that oozed speed, technique and aggression.
Navratilova employed the most efficient brand of serve-and-volley tennis seen in the women's game which was boosted by a deadly backhand volley and a lethal overhead smash.
If Martina approached the net, it was advised to duck for cover!
Men's No. 12: Yannick Noah
Yannick Noah was the definition of flamboyancy during his playing career.
The 6'4" Frenchman who sported dreadlocks was an intimidating figure on the tennis courts. His physical strength, energy and dynamic approach enthralled crowds wherever he played.
Noah, the last Frenchman to win at Roland Garros, loved to serve-and-volley and was quite the force at the net.
His thunderous serves were often backed by a barrage of volleys and smashes so powerful that it's a wonder they didn't rip through the strings of the opponent's racket.
Men's No. 11. Michael Llodra
Michael Llodra is one of the last few top-ranked serve-and-volleyers in the world still standing.
The Frenchman has impressively held fort in today's generation of baseline tennis and continues to do so with seamless efficiency.
Llodra models his game on his idol, Stefan Edberg. In Robin Soderling's words, the 31-year-old has an "unbelievable" serve and his volleys are the "best on the tour".
Being a left-hander, Llodra is able to create difficult and tricky angles with his serve and backs it up with sublime chips and slices coming forward.
A prolific doubles player, Llodra has the ability to embarrass top-ranked baseliners with his serve-and-volleying.
His technique has led him to be called the "best serve-and-volleyer in the world" by the website Essential Tennis.
In today's generation where serve-and-volleying is a dying brand, Llodra is an endangered species.
Men's No. 10: Goran Ivanisevic
Ah Goran! They don't make players like him anymore!
Goran Ivanisevic wasn't a serve-and-volleyer per se, he was more of a big server.
The Croatian, measuring a formidable 6'4", had a monstrous first serve and often didn't need the volleying part after it.
But due to his inefficiency at the back of the court, Ivanisevic often had to try his luck coming forward.
His height definitely helped with the volleys, but they weren't as effective as he would have hoped them to be.
But the 2001 Wimbledon final just brought out the best in him. It was the best showpieces of serve-and-volley tennis I've ever seen. Both Pat Rafter and Ivanisevic were at the net so often, you'd think they just couldn't get enough of each other!
Goran scores bonus points due to that performance. I may be biased, so sue me!
Men's No. 9: Tim Henman
Tim Henman was one of the classiest serve-and-volley players ever and one of the last ones too.
Henman enjoyed playing on faster courts like the old Wimbledon (before the revamp four years ago) and the US Open.
Henman was a stylish player. He was fast, nimble and was a tough nut to crack because of his ability to chip and charge.
However, he could have benefited with a powerful, more versatile serve—like Pete Sampras'. Henman's serve wasn't bad, but if it had been a little more effective, he could have won that Grand Slam trophy that eluded him throughout his career.
Henman carried the hopes of the whole of Britain, and this is one of the reasons he couldn't make it big. He lacked the mental toughness to carry the burden of so many people.
But Henman was a very classy player and I always liked watching him play.
Men's No. 8: Richard Krajicek
Richard Krajicek is the man who gifted Pete Sampras his only defeat at Wimbledon between 1993 and 2000. He holds a 6-4 career record against the American.
Krajicek was a tall Dutch player with an imposive serve and, unlike Ivanisevic, was pretty able with his volleys too.
But like most serve-and-volleyers of his generation, he was found lacking in the groundstrokes department.
However, Krajicek was very proficient at the net and used his height to his advantage.
Perhaps some solidarity in his groundstrokes would have won him more major titles than the solitary 1996 Wimbledon.
Men's No. 7: Michael Stich
Michael Stich is best remembered for his breakout performance at the 1991 Wimbledon tournament.
The 6'4" German, 23 years old at the time, shocked defending champion and world No. 1 Stefan Edberg in the semifinals and did so without breaking the Swede even once.
Then, he beat another top-ranked serve-and-volleyer and compatriot Boris Becker in straight sets in the final.
Stich had a strong and naturally flowing serve which scored a lot of points for him.
Like many serve-and-volleyers, Stich used his height to his advantage, although it did restrict his movement at times.
But unlike most serve-and-volleyers, he was very good at the baseline too. His groundstrokes were strong and accurate.
It's really unfortunate that such a talent couldn't win a few more majors.
Men's No. 6: Patrick Cash
Pat Cash was quite the noticeable figure on tennis courts around the world in the '80s.
Sporting a mullet held together by a black-and-white checked headband and a crossed earring, Cash used to waltz around the courts with his textbook serve-and-volley game.
The Australian had one of the most natural serve-and-volley games ever. It was as if this particular style of tennis was tailor-made just for him.
Other than being a good server, Cash was tremendous at the net. The angles he could create and the power he could generate with his volleys made him the envy of all serve-and-volleyers in his time.
The best part was that he could it so effortlessly.
Cash's breakthrough came at the 1987 edition of Wimbledon where he beat Mats Wilander in the quarters, Jimmy Connors in the semis and world No. 1 Ivan Lendl in the final.
Unfortunately, his career after that was hampered by injuries to his Achilles tendon, knees and back.
It was a real pity, since he had so much potential.
Men's No. 5: Boris Becker
Boris Becker entered the world of tennis with a "Ready to Win" label attached to him.
Becker was just 17 when he won his first Grand Slam at he 1985 Wimbledon and successfully defended his title a year later.
The gutsy German became an instant hit with the crowd due to his power-packed physical game.
His serve was like a canon ball—it was fast, well-placed and extremely powerful. It soon earned him the title of "Boom Boom Becker".
The German was also an imposing character at the net. He was extremely acrobatic and often flew into his volleys, which delighted the crowds.
Becker did not restrict himself to the serve-and-volley game and often experimented from the baseline.
However, his performance was somewhat erratic and he was criticized a lot for this fact.
But the German was a sheer joy to watch on the tennis courts and I really miss antics.
Men's No. 4: Pete Sampras
Pete Sampras possessed one of the most assorted arsenals in the history of the game.
He had everything—a bludgeoning service game, powerful and efficient groundstrokes, and an equally efficient net-game.
Sampras started off his career by attacking from the baseline and then charging towards the net to kill the point. But towards the later part of his career, he began to employ the chip-and-charge strategy.
His service-game percentage was phenomenally high.
He was known for producing aces on crucial points, even with his second serves. He had an accurate and powerful first serve, and an equally lethal second serve, which was great on disguise.
His volleying was also great to watch and he was famous for popularizing the jump-smash, which later got labelled the "slam dunk".
Sampras was an all-rounder and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.
Although he did subscribe to the serve-and-volley game predominantly and to much success, he wasn't an out-and-out serve-and-volleyer. This is why he doesn't rank higher on the list.
Men's No. 3: Patrick Rafter
Pat Rafter is the last out-and-out serve-and-volleyer to win a Grand Slam.
His excellence at the net took him to a French Open semifinal, two Wimbledon finals and two back-to-back US Open titles.
However, one of the reasons the Australian could not win more major titles was because his serve wasn't as proficient as, say, Pete Sampras.
Rafter´s volleys spelled brilliancy. His natural instincts and his sharpness at the net were an utter delight to watch. He was able to play some extraordinary angles from extremely difficult positions and was a real menace at the net.
But he lacked the intimidating and imposing serve that could have propelled him to further greatness.
Regardless, Rafter was a delightful player to watch and has provided some great tennis memories.
I'll even admit that he ranks this high because I'm a little biased towards him due to his blockbuster performance at that epic 2001 Wimbledon final.
Men's No. 2: John McEnroe
John McEnroe was one of the most skilled and controversial players in his time and is considered one of the greats of the game.
Known for his competitiveness and ferocious temper, the American often got on the wrong side of the officials due to his lippy nature, which led to heavy fines and suspensions.
But he made up for his personal flaws with his phenomenal game.
McEnroe, a left-hander, is regarded as one of the best serve-and-volley players to have graced the sport.
His serve is one of the most outrageous and deceptive ones I've seen so far. McEnroe would stand with his back almost entirely facing his opponent, thereby making his serve impossible to read.
He was also able to inject a lot of slice into his serve which sent the ball skidding low and wide.
On the volley, his touch was feathery and his instincts were phenomenal.
McEnroe just made these things look so effortless, it's no wonder he's such a highly regarded player despite his antics.
Men's No. 1: Stefan Edberg
Stefan Edberg chose to be different from his baseline-trotting countrymen—Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander—and boy, am I glad he did!
Edberg is the most graceful serve-and-volleyers I have watched in my life. He was a player who made his living at the net and had all the necessary tools to do so.
The Swede had an attacking serve which was, perhaps not as efficient as that of Pete Sampras', but effective enough to cause problems to the opponent.
He was swift and agile in his movement and exhibited one of the most elegant renditions of volleying ever seen.
Edberg is also the proud owner of one of the finest backhand volleys in the history of the game.
Some of you might disagree with his placement at the top of this list, but I honestly haven't seen a more pure and elegant brand of serve-and-volleying on any other player.
It is players like Edberg who make us realize what we're missing out on watching today's generation of baseliners and I can only hope that the art can be preserved for as long as possible.
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