Ranking the 10 Best Net Players in Tennis Today
Sergiy Stakhovsky's use of a serve-and-volley game to upset of Roger Federer at Wimbledon rekindled the debate regarding the best net players in tennis today.
The volley is becoming a lost art at the highest level, with the powerful baseliners now ruling the game. Stakhovsky's upset is unlikely to change that trend, but the match at least suggests that net play is not dead.
Perhaps no one today can match the volleying skills of John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Jack Kramer, Stefan Edberg and Billie Jean King. However, there are still a few who know their way around the frontcourt.
Several top-flight players, including Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet, barely missed making our list of the top net players today. And a number of lesser-known players, such as Hsieh Su-wei and Nicolas Mahut, also received serious consideration and fell just short.
Often the best net players have more success in doubles, where the volley plays a more significant role. As a result, some of the top volleyers are not household names.
With all that in mind, we present our countdown of the 10 best net players today. We start with a pair of siblings acts that tied for the final spot.
10. (Tie) Serena and Venus Williams
Venus and Serena Williams don't come to the net a lot during singles matches, relying instead on their powerful groundstrokes.
However, when they play doubles, their volleying skills are evident. They have won 13 Grand Slam doubles titles together, overwhelming opponents with their net play as well as their baseline game.
Venus may be a little more comfortable at the net than her sister and is probably the better volleyer.
"Venus is better adaptable to the grass [than Serena]; she has better volley technique, and she covers the net better," Martina Navratilova told ESPN.com.
10. (Tie) Mike and Bob Bryan
Twins Mike and Bob Bryan are the best men's doubles team in the world at the moment and one of the best in history. That cannot be achieved without excellent net play.
Beyond their volleying skills, the Bryans have a feel and comfort level at the net that enables them to control points and matches.
Their victory at Wimbledon was their fourth straight Grand Slam doubles title, and that does not include a victory in the 2012 Olympics.
The 35-year-old brothers have won 15 Grand Slam doubles titles.
Selecting one over the other is difficult, so we entered them as a unit. But Bob, the lefty, seems to have better net skills and is probably the better net player of the two.
9. Sergiy Stakhovsky
Sergiy Stakhovsky's old-school serve-and-volley tactics in his stunning upset of Roger Federer at Wimbledon earned him a spot on the list.
Although he has not consistently produced the level of net play he displayed against Federer, the touch he showed that day was impressive. His drop volleys and short, angled volleys off both wings kept Federer on the defensive.
Stakhovsky followed every first serve to net against Federer, and he played serve-and-volley on about half his second serves as well.
One match does not prove a player's worth as a volleyer, so we are taking some liberties by listing him. But that match demonstrated how good he can be at net.
8. Cara Black
Cara Black seldom plays singles in tournaments anymore, but she is such a good volleyer that she remains a top doubles player at age 34.
A blog for The New York Times in 2009 called her "one of the best net players," and Charles Bricker of the South Florida Sun Sentinel wrote in 2005, "It's hard to pass a court where little Cara Black is practicing and not get slightly mesmerized by her volleying."
She has won six Grand Slam women's doubles titles and five major titles in mixed doubles.
Her volleying reflexes are evident in this video.
7. Andy Murray
Andy Murray's volleying technique is excellent, and he wins more than his share of points when he charges forward. But his forays to the net are limited, and his success is based on his backcourt game and mental toughness more than his volleying.
With Ivan Lendl as his coach, it seems unlikely Murray will increase his emphasis on net play anytime soon.
Still, Tim Henman, an excellent volleyer in his day, said in The Tennis Space, “There aren’t that many good volleyers on the singles tour. Andy Murray has good technique and he understands how to cover the net, he’s one of the best."
6. Roberta Vinci
One of the very few serve-and-volley players on the women's circuit at the moment, Roberta Vinci has a vast repertoire of shots, highlighted by her elegant touch at the net.
Vinci, 30, is ranked No. 11 in singles, and with her volleying skills, it's surprising that she has never gone past the round of 16 at Wimbledon.
However, her net play has reaped rewards in doubles. She and partner Sara Errani are tied for the No. 1 doubles ranking, and they have won three of the past six Grand Slam doubles titles.
5. Leander Paes
The fact that Leander Paes is still a world-class doubles player at age 40 is evidence of his considerable skills at the net.
Paes began his pro career in 1991, when net play was a more integral part of the game. Now, few are better than him at the subtleties of the volley and half-volley.
He has never won a pro singles tournament, but he has 13 Grand Slam doubles titles, including seven in men's doubles and six in mixed doubles. He and Radek Stepanek got to the semifinals of the 2013 Wimbledon doubles tournament.
This video of a diving backhand volley demonstrates Paes' confidence at the net.
4. Mardy Fish
Mardy Fish is probably the best volleyer among current American players.
What makes him so efficient at the net is his footwork. When he follows his serve to net, he closes in quickly, usually hitting his first volley from inside the service line. His touch on drop volleys and on angled volleys is impressive as well.
"Mardy Fish volleys okay," said Tim Henman, one of the last of the top-flight serve-and-volley players.
That may sound like faint praise, but it's almost hyperbole coming from someone who played when the serve-and-volley game ruled men's tennis.
3. Radek Stepanek
Even though his serve is only average, Radek Stepanek is an effective serve-and-volleyer because of his expertise at the net.
Peter Bodo of ESPN made note of Stepanek's successful style while commenting on his victory over Spain's Nicolas Almagro in a Davis Cup match in 2012. Bodo said, "[He] play[ed] a brand of aggressive, volley-rich tennis that is unfamiliar to Almagro -- and everyone else -- these days."
Although his singles ranking has slipped to No. 51, Stepanek's volleying skills have enabled him to remain a force in doubles.
Currently ranked No. 10 in doubles at age 35, he teamed with Leander Paes to win the 2012 Australian Open, and they reached the semifinals at Wimbledon this year.
2. Roger Federer
Roger Federer volleys less than he did several years ago, when he could be classified as a serve-and-volley practitioner.
Considered an all-court player these days, he still ventures to the net regularly, and his volley remains an artistic marvel.
Few, if any, players in history are more adept at the half-volley, as demonstrated in this video.
Even though he comes in less often than he used to, Federer can still dominate matches from the net. He demonstrated that in the 2012 U.S. Open against Fernando Verdasco, a baseliner with excellent groundstrokes. Federer came to net 27 times that day and won 26 of those points, according to Simon Cambers of Reuters (h/t) Chicago Tribune.
1. Michael Llodra
It's debatable whether Michael Llodra's volley is better than Roger Federer's or Mardy Fish's or Radek Stepanek's. However, there is no question that Llodra relies on his net game more than anyone else.
One of the last pure serve-and-volley players, he comes to the net at every opportunity and usually makes the most of it with his deft volleys.
The reason he is still a factor in the men's tour is his net game. Llodra was ranked as high as 21st in 2011, and now, at age 33, he's No. 50.
He's one of the few who uses pure gut strings in his racket, which enhances his touch at the net, according to Christopher Clarey of The New York Times.
He has soft hands to produce drop volleys and half-volley winners. But he also has learned the nuances of net play, as described by Clarey of The New York Times:
There was also a clear understanding of the geometry of net play: of setting up the next volley with the first, of positioning the body and the racket head in the most advantageous spots. And for many of those who have spent time watching today’s players trade gale-force forehands from several feet behind the baseline, it felt rather like reconnecting with a lost art.