Sunday, 30 June 2013

The Return Of “Serve and Volley?”

Ladies, Gentlemen, sports lovers and those just feeling sympathetic towards me, firstly let me say thank you for reading my first blog. Some of you have encouraged me to do this for some time because you think I have potential to be a writer, others because you just wanted to get me out of the room. Whatever your motivations, this is the result.

When I was growing up in my parent’s terraced house in Wimbledon, it was the era of  ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras and his deadeye serve. The serve volley tactic he employed was a sure fire way to progress at Wimbledon as shown by his 7 titles. Huge servers and fast courts kept the points short and sharp. To some, cough Rafa Nadal cough, this aggressive tennis was an eyesore, something that should be disposed of as fast as possible. As courts have got slower (not only at Wimbledon), the ball didn’t drive through the court as much, instead bouncing higher and sitting up more. Baseline-hugging counter punching players like Lleyton Hewitt were able to become more effective on the grass courts as they had fractionally more time to make their ground strokes.

In a game of inches and milliseconds like tennis that was all the time that was needed. Rather than being a fearsome all-conquering swarm at the net, the serve and volley players became toothless tigers, constantly being outhit and outthought by the newly powerful counter punchers. Players like Federer changed their style to suit the new reality. When Federer won Wimbledon in 2003 he serve and volleyed 23% of the time, last year he serve and volleyed on 7% of his points. In essence the serve and volley tactic had gone the way of wooden racquets, the tennis headband and McEnroe’s hair. Until this year.

Then Steve Darcis beat Rafa Nadal.                                   
In the first round at Wimbledon. 
In straight sets.  

Steve Darcis, even he looks surprised. picture
The journeyman pro from Belgium, the virtual unknown and supposed lamb to the slaughter, beat the reigning French Open champion. He later said “I just wanted to play my own game, coming to the net and not playing far from the baseline.” This was surely a blip, a leftover of Nadal’s knee injury worries, or Nadal’s decision to play no warm-up tournaments. This was not the return of serve and volleying.

Sergiy Stakhovsky. Daily Mail picture.  
Amazingly, gloriously, this was not the last we would hear of serve and volley, (though it was the last we would hear of Darcis as he retired hurt with a shoulder injury before the next round), as Sergiy Stakhovsky shocked Roger Federer in the second round. Here are some stats to illustrate the magnitude of his win; Stakhovsky became the first player ranked outside the top hundred to beat Federer since Gasquet did it in Monte Carlo in 2005, the first player seemingly since the dawn of time to knock Federer out of a grand slam before the quarter finals. Ridiculously Federer had won more grass court tournaments in his career than Stakhovsky had won grass court matches. After a close first set which Federer won on tie break, Stakhovsky, playing an almost pure serve and volley game on his first serve, never gave up and closed out an incredible 4 set victory.

Top Cat roaring! USATODAY picture.
The improbable Rastafarian German, Dustin Brown proved too much of a mystery for Lleyton Hewitt, smothering the net with his enormous wingspan and freakish athleticism. Other serve and volley practitioners such as Feliciano Lopez, Nicolas Mahut and Michael Llodra all progressed past the first round. Is it just that these guys are great servers then and built only for grass?

Lets focus on the Stakhovsky Vs. Federer match to see how he did it. Unusually for a serve and volley player, Stakhovsky does not have a dominating serve. In the match against Roger Federer he topped out at 124mph, averaged at around 116mph on his first serve and served 17 aces. By comparison in the same match Federer hit 127mph, averaged 116mph with 16 aces. Both players served a similar percentage of first serves in with Federer actually out shining in this department 72% - 66%. Not really much of a difference there then.

The key here was aggression. By coming to the net repeatedly, Stakhovsky forced Federer out his usual role as the aggressor and forced Federer into a counter-punching role. Whilst Federer certainly has the shots and creativity to play this role, by forcing him out of his natural game, Stakhovsky was able to force Federer into uncharacteristic errors. Federer was also unable to find any rhythm due to the shorter nature of the serve and volley points instigated by Stakhovsky. The key here then was aggression; by seizing the initiative and forcing the match to be played on his terms, Stakhovsky was able to dictate the play and ultimately do enough to win.

Is this then the return of the serve and volley? Unfortunately I don’t think it is. Despite many of the most aesthetically pleasing tennis matches involving a contrast in styles, Sampras Vs. Agassi or McEnroe Vs. Borg, serve and volley will probably not be making a comeback. Serve and volley point percentage has only risen from 7% to 8% from last year and that may have a lot to do with the success of its practitioners this year. It is most likely then that this flair up of serve and volleying success has arisen due to novelty factor. Baseline dominant players have become unused to the short and staccato points dictated by the serve and volley game and are often able to get into their usual rhythm. It surprises me that players don’t adopt it more often as a disruption tactic when an opponent is on a hot streak. Many top players, David Ferrer springs to mind, are so foreign to the net and reliant on the western grip that they don’t seem to even know how to serve and volley.

Unfortunately the amount of quality serve and volleyers is continuing to decline, hastened by slow courts and unfavorable conditions. It would be a great shame if, as seems likely, the homogeny of baseline style become the only method of play. The players are all beginning to look the same, play the same and sound the same. This is the end of diversity. Soon there will be no more classic duels with contrasting styles, no more divergent body types, no more 6ft6 eastern Europeans in Wimbledon white with monster serves blowing people away. We should wave goodbye with fondness tennis fans because rather than the return of the serve and volley, this is its swan song.