The future looks bleak. Chris Guccione showed promise, but at 27 he is now ranked 567 despite his formidable serve. Devin Britton won the NCAA Singles title with a mostly serve-and-volley game in 2009 and while his ranking is on an upwards trajectory at 402 in the world, his rise has hardly been meteoric and he’s confessed in interviews to not believing pure serve and volley tennis is viable at the pro level. Is Britton correct?
Can a current professional player be a consistent presence in the top 10 in the world as a genuine serve and volleyer?Tactical Tennis believes so, and here are the reasons why:
Modern Players Are Over-Adapted to Serves With Pace
We talked in Part 1 about the neurological adaption to fast serves that we’ve witnessed over the past decade of professional tennis. As 130mph serves became the norm rather than the exception, we see match after match where players aren’t fazed by service speed unless it is paired with exceptional location.
This is good news for a potential serve and volleyer. With the advent of bigger, stronger players we have seen a definitive shift towards a uniformity of serves. Certainly there are still outliers such as Roanic (exceptionally big with a faster-than-average delivery) and Federer (exceptional location, especially indoors). But there is a distinct lack on the pro tour now of crafty servers in the vein of Rafter and Edberg. Both were capable of serving up close to 130 mph, but instead chose to keep their serve ‘fast enough’ and trade some of their pace for spin, and hence movement and variety.
I recently re-watched the excellent 2000 Wimbledon Semi-Final between Rafter and Agassi. It was striking the incredible variation Rafter brought on serve against one of the greatest returners in the history of the game. It wasn’t just that his disguise was excellent – it was the plethora of options he had available to disguise. A 117 mph slider up the middle, a 110 mph nasty kicker out wide, a 115 mph topspin-slice serve that jammed into the backhand. It was a genuine game of cat-and-mouse, Rafter trying to find combinations to constantly keep Agassi unsettled, and in the process earn himself a shot at that first volley.
Watch a match now, and that aspect is gone. Even Federer, great as he is, has a much small bag of tricks that he reaches into on serve. His first serve down the middle on the deuce side is in a very narrow range of velocities. His wide slider on the deuce, while at a different speed to his flat serve, also falls in a very narrow range. And this is true of most, if not all of, the top players today. A player who genuinely used a mixture of nasty spin with sufficient velocity could earn for himself the one thing that is difficult to find in today’s game – a playable first volley.
Slow Surfaces Aren’t That Bad
It’s an old belief – that slow surfaces punish the attacking player. Slow surfaces make it harder, if not impossible, for serve and volleyers to succeed. And yet, there is evidence to the contrary. Patrick Rafter’s breakthrough came, not at Flushing Meadows in 1997, but earlier that year when he made the semi-finals on clay at Roland Garros. He’s not alone. Tim Henman also made the semi-finals at the French in 2004, at the tail end of his prime. On top of his two quarter-final appearances at Roland Garros, Stefan Edberg made the finals in 1989! The problem with clay for serve and volleyers isn’t the speed of the court. The problem is changing directions rapidly – a critical ability in net play.
The truth is, slow courts hurt the serve and volley player who relies on pace of serve to earn easy volleys at the net. In those cases, they lose a few precious miles per hour that make their delivery much easier to handle. However when we look at the other type of serve and volleyer – the one who serves with heavy spin and variety – slower courts can be as much a boon as a problem.
The reason is that the way a hard-court is slowed down is by adding more sand to the court mixture. This causes more grit, increasing the friction between the ball and the court surface. As a result, the ball is slowed at contact but there is a second side effect – the spin is amplified in comparison to a faster court. As a result a server like Rafter who brought heavy kick or slice in addition to disguise and change of pace will see benefits in the form of extra movement and height in his serve. Additionally he gets a valuable fraction of a second to get closer to the net, cutting off the angles for his opponent’s passing shot attempt. The key is having a serve that is big enough to carry through on a slower court – something that can still rush the opponent without needing to blow the ball by them.
Spinny Strings Work On Serves Too!
There has been so much talk about the effect string technology has had on the game. How it allows groundstrokes to be hit with greater velocity and spin than ever before. The spin potential of monofilaments is undeniable. Yet we see only limited effects of this spin on modern serves. Federer’s second serve is an example of positive use of newer string technology – he has a truly wicked drop on that ball, allowing him to really push the depth of his second serve delivery. As discussed above, virtually all top players are hitting their first serves relatively hard and flat, and in doing so are making little use of the string technology available.
Right now we can only imagine a gnarly serve like Rafter’s or Edberg’s with a full bed of Luxilon in his racket. But having seen some of the truly sick angles Rafter was getting in 2000 without it (first serve kicker aces at 110 mph waaaaay up in the box) I shudder to imagine what he could have managed with modern strings.
Everyone’s Playing Pong
We all remember Pong, right? Watch a modern tennis match and for the majority of the time it is remarkably like that at the top level. Nadal and Djokovic scuttle back and forth laterally pounding shots hard and deep. This is the paradigm of modern tennis. The players are exceptionally talented at lateral movement. And yet there is a break in the pattern. Think of how effective Murray is with his dropshot, and Federer with that short, angled slice backhand. For all their prowess at moving to their right or left, most players struggle (comparatively speaking) moving forward. The power and depth of shot has forced so many players to a comfortable space six feet behind the baseline, where they prowl back and forth.
Part of Murray and Federer’s success is their ability to use more of the court – to play the angles with slice and finesse. The art of push and pull has been largely lost in the modern game. Push someone back, pull them forward. Watch Llodra’s run at the BNP Paribas in 2012 and you see just how good it can be. He sliced and diced his way to the semi-final with judicious use of the drop-volley – catching opponent after opponent on their heels in the process.
The serve and volleyer has the ability to force players out of their typical movement patterns. By using more of the forecourt, they have access to angles and shots not typically seen in the modern game and hence can keep opponents off their game.
The Strike Zone Has Shifted… Up
If we rewind the clock 15 years, the height of the game was very different. Players hit lower over the net with less spin. There was more slice, and more volleys in the course of play. As a result, the typical strike zone was between the knees at the low end, and the shoulders at the high. This strike zone has definitively shifted upwards. Now it typically ranges from the hips at the low end, to above the shoulders. Indeed we see a generation of players who aren’t just capable of playing attacking tennis above their shoulders, they prefer it there!
Technical analysis of Djokovic’s forehand reveals a shot that is practically designed to strike the ball around shoulder height. This is one reason he does so well against Nadal and so poorly against Federer. Nadal’s forehand spins up above the shoulder where Djokovic likes it. Federer’s can flatten his forehand out more, and use his slice backhand to bring the rally height down where Djokovic cannot thrive as much.
In addition the average height of players has increased. We are seeing more successful 6’3-6’7 players than ever before. Del Potro simply loves to line up balls shoulder height and hit downhill.
Needless to say, this is yet another thing that plays to the advantage of a serve and volleyer. Low slices, low volleys – especially combined with the push-pull mentioned above – are the bane of the modern player. It isn’t just forcing them to hit 100 passing shots a match (something they are not well accustomed to doing), but forcing them to do so at knee height from all over the court. The sheer rarity of such a game style makes it all the more effective.
The Big Men Are More Athletic
If we recall the big men of years gone by – Rusedski, Philippoussis – our minds are filled with visions of veritable giants lumbering towards the net. Although nobody would call Mark Philippousis unathletic, only a fool would call him agile in the face of players like Federer, Nadal or Bjorn Phau.
But times have changed. At 6’3, Djokovic is blindlingly quick. At 6’4, Gael Monfils is a freak of nature. The big men aren’t just big now – they are fast too. Monfils easily has the speed of foot, explosiveness and agility to be a successful serve and volley player. And with his height and range, he could cover the net in a way that neither the big (Rusedski) nor athletic (Rafter) men of the past could. Blend someone with Rafter’s athleticism with Philippoussis’ reach and you’ve got a fearsome combination at the net.
The pieces are all there. It isn’t that serve and volley tennis is impossible at the peak of the game today, it is merely that it requires a very specific type of serve and volley player. We need someone tall (6’3-6’4) who is explosive and agile. We need someone with a nasty slice backhand and great volleys. Someone who can chip and charge, attack second serves.
And that brings us to the next point of discussion. He’s 6’3, athletic and has great volleys, so coming up: