‘I played the game the way it ought to be played’ – Martina Navratilova, who served and volleyed to 59 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles.
Oliver Campbell would have relished watching Maxime Cressy serve and volley. Campbell, an American star who won three U.S. singles titles (1890–1892) and two U.S. doubles titles (in 1888, 1891 and 1892), once said, “I ran to the net behind every service until the day I retired.”
Maurice McLoughlin followed suit in the early 1900s. Nicknamed “The California Comet,” he streaked to the net behind dynamic serves and captivated crowds with spectacular volleys and smashes. More Californian champions emulated McLoughlin and capitalised on fast hard courts in the Golden State and on slick, low-bouncing grass at three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. The most famous were Ellsworth Vines, Alice Marble, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Billie Jean King, and Pete Sampras.
Two more Americans were proponents of the art. Althea Gibson, the first Black tennis champion, served and volleyed in the 1950s, and John McEnroe, another superb athlete, did it with panache and controversy in the 1980s. Foreign champions Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Margaret Court, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg also showcased their adventurous but highly skilful serve and volley style.
Yet, in the early 2000s, serving and volleying suddenly plummeted in popularity and success. Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter served and volleyed on every first and second serve in the 2001 Wimbledon final. Shockingly, in the 2002 final, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian never went to the net behind their serves in a yawn-inspiring battle of cautious baseliners.
The legendary Roger Federer also switched tactics during this transitional period. At the 2001 Wimbledon, Federer served and volleyed 100 percent of the time on his first serve and more than 50 percent of the time on his second serve when he upset seven-time champion Sampras. But the Swiss maestro served and volleyed only five times during his victory over Rafael Nadal in the 2006 Wimbledon final. As Bob Dylan wrote, “… the times, they are a-changin’.”
The reasons for the rapid decline of serving and volleying are many and diverse. In 2002, Wimbledon changed from a 70/30 combination of rye grass and creeping red fescue grass to 100 percent perennial grass, thus slowing the once-fast and unpredictable surface. Three-time titlist Becker once admitted, “I could have never won a single Wimbledon on such ‘slow’ surfaces.”
Taller, faster, and better-positioned athletes can reach and neutralise more big serves than ever. Lightweight composite rackets generate more power and polyester strings more topspin than ever. Lastly, superb two-handed backhands, most notably struck by Novak Djokovic, often defuse explosive serves and produce excellent passing shots off sharp volleys. The odds have become more even, and very few risk serving and volleying now.
Campbell, the pioneer of non-stop serving and volleying, could not have foreseen — and would have been aghast at — the near-extinction of this highly athletic and entertaining playing style. Now, the 6’6” Cressy, who has surged to a career-high No. 33, has made it his mission to ensure the serve and volley doesn’t die — at least during his career
.Although Maxime was born and raised in Paris, France, where slow red clay is the surface du jour, he adored the powerful, precision serving of Sampras along with the adroit, elegant volleying of Rafter and strived to emulate their serve-and-volley games.
In this candid interview, the 25-year-old American tells how he defied the odds and sceptics to emerge this year as a potential successor to his boyhood idols.
Q. You suffered major setbacks early in your tennis career. Why did the French tennis federation drop you from its elite junior program? And how did you react to its decision?
A. I was 16 years old when they decided to let me go because my tournament results weren’t good enough, even though I had ambition and a vision. They didn’t believe in my serve and volley potential, and they didn’t believe my game style would be efficient and strong enough to get me to the pro level. Their decision made me stronger and even more determined to prove them wrong and show them I had huge potential.
Please tell me about your tennis rivalry with your brothers Jonathan and Mathieu and what that revealed about your competitive nature at an early age.
I definitely attribute my competitive energy and work ethic to being with my brothers on a daily basis. My brothers, who were seven and 10 years older, were really into tennis. I followed them around at tournaments, and I observed their competitiveness. I wanted to be a tennis player like them, but I wanted to be betterthan them. So my rivalry with my brothers helped instill my competitiveness and passion for tennis. We would train for hours on the courts, and thankfully, they always accepted my requests to play one or two more hours.
You couldn’t make the singles starting line-up in your first year at UCLA. What were you and your game lacking then? Did you then wonder if you’d ever succeed as a tennis player?
I had many doubts when I wasn’t in the singles starting line-up. But I was focusing then more on doubles. I had the game to be in the singles line-up, but I didn’t have the mentality and the confidence. And my results as a junior were not good enough to prove I was worthy enough to be a starter. At that time, I wasn’t thinking about going on the professional tour.
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As a senior, you then starred at UCLA, posting a 26-0 doubles record, winning the 2019 NCAA doubles title with Keegan Smith, and ending your career as the No. 1 doubles player and No. 17 singles player in the nation. In what ways did American college tennis help you develop as a player and a person?
College tennis definitely enabled me to learn how to multi-task and succeed in my studies and my tennis. It enabled me to have more of a balance between the tennis side and the other areas of my life. It helped me mature in general. I had to focus more on being a student and getting good grades than being an athlete. Tennis came second, especially in the beginning.
What areas as a player really improved during your four years at UCLA?
The main area was my confidence and my belief in my ability to be a top player on the professional tour. During my sophomore, junior, and senior years, I started to have more and more professional aspirations. I competed in the Futures (tournaments) and gained that fire to become a top professional.
At the 2021 US Open, you survived four match points to upset Pablo Carreño Busta, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7) and reach the third round. What do you remember most about that match? And why was it an important stepping stone in your pro career?
What I remember most is the energetic shift I had when I was down two sets to love. I really felt that I had nothing to lose (then), and I started to focus on what I could control, which was my serve. I just completely turned around the match, and my opponent felt a lot more pressure because I was extremely sharp on my service games. So the most memorable moments were that turnaround and also the four match points that I saved.
The win gave me extra confidence I could beat these top 10 players. That win alone didn’t make the biggest difference (in my career), but it helped my confidence, for sure.
Ranked an unimposing No. 112, you started 2022 with a bang at a 250 event in Melbourne. You qualified and then upset No. 26 Reilly Opelka and No. 28 Grigor Dimitrov to reach the final, where Rafael Nadal defeated you 7-6 (6), 6-3. What did you learn from this tournament?
I learned I could compete with the best players in the world. The match against Nadal gave me a lot of inner strength to believe I have the level to potentially beat the top players in the world. They are very tough. That tournament really did change my life.
In terms of technique or tactics, was there anything that happened in those three matches that, substantively, gave you a reason to have more confidence?
No, the key was that my routines were enough to be able to beat these players. I didn’t need to change any of my routines then and won’t have to for the entire season to come.
After Daniil Medvedev defeated you 6-2, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 in the 2022 Australian Open fourth round, he called your game “boring.” You retorted, “There needs to be a new way of winning for people to start seeing tennis as more exciting and thrilling.” Would you please explain what you meant?
I meant that tennis needs to have some variety, and it’s mainly dominated by baseline play. Playing that serve-and-volley game can add that variety to today’s game and bring a lot more excitement for fans when they see something different from what they’re used to for the past 10-20 years. Also, older fans who watched tennis when serve-volley was common would really see that game style being reborn. My main goal is to develop that game style to such a high level that people start to believe it’s a very efficient game style, even in today’s game, regardless of all the excuses I’ve been told.
Which champions inspired you to serve and volley?
Pete Sampras and Pat Rafter mainly, and Richard Krajicek as well.
I have a big serve and then I see what happens. If he’s close to the baseline, I tend to hit deep volleys a lot. If he’s positioned much farther back, I hit short volleys — angle volleys and drop volleys
— Maxime Cressy
Have you spoken to elite players who have served and volleyed, such as Sampras, Rafter, and Edberg, or have you observed their technique? If so, what did you learn? What did you copy?
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to speak to them. I haven’t made it my priority yet to meet any of these elite athletes from the past. But I would gladly love to in the months to come.
I did copy a lot of their patterns. I was once told that Pete Sampras’s secret was that his serve was unpredictable. I definitely was inspired by Pete Sampras’s serves a lot, mainly focusing on the serve up the “T” and his hip turn and shoulder turn, which are very smooth. I’ve also used Edberg’s and Rafter’s kick serve a little bit.
Do you also mix up your volleys to keep opponents off-balance?
I’m very instinctive (at the net). My volley depends on where the opponent is standing on the baseline. I have a big serve and then I see what happens. If he’s close to the baseline, I tend to hit deep volleys a lot. If he’s positioned much farther back, I hit short volleys — angle volleys and drop volleys.
After the Australian Open, you lost five straight first-round matches at hard court tournaments. What happened?
Yeah, I had a realisation that I had done something very special in Australia, especially in the eyes of my family and friends and other people.
That feeling of having done something very big distracted me from my main focus of being No. 1 and to become the best player using that (serve-volley) game style. My vision drifted. In Australia, I was giving my undivided attention to becoming No. 1. Then I let myself get carried away by other influences that told me I had done something great.
In February, you told The Palm Beach Post, “It’s obviously a much more gruelling sport when you play from the baseline, but I think it’s also because most players are scared to go to the net, and there are many opportunities in every rally to come in, but no one comes in. That’s why they’re stuck in those 30-to-40 stroke rallies. That’s why they stay back, and they win all their matches because they’re better than all of those guys at the baseline.” Is this an overstatement, given that Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer are all highly skilled at net and not scared to come in?
I said that as a general statement. Of course, there are players extremely talented at the net as well. But today’s players go to the net (only) 10 percent to 20 percent of the time. But if they went to the net 100 percent of the time, they would play at a much higher level.
You didn’t do much better on European clay, winning only five main draw matches in six tournaments. In retrospect, is serving and volleying on every serve a winning formula on clay?
I believe serving and volleying can be a winning game on clay. I just didn’t have enough confidence in myself. I just need a little more experience and time to realise clay is not a barrier to (successful) serving and volleying.
You played the best sustained tennis of your career on grass. You reached the final at Eastbourne, upset No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 at Wimbledon, and then beat John Isner and Alexander Bublik to capture your first career title at Newport. What are you doing better now than ever before in terms of technique, tactics, or anything else?
My tactics have not changed, but my mentality has changed. A month and a half ago, after the clay season, I re-set my mindset to the mindset I had in Australia. That is that I wanted to be No. 1. I was much more focused on that than on the tennis side. I was much more confident after my match against Hubert Hurkacz (a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 loss in the Halle third round). At that point, I stopped questioning my tennis game and re-focused on the vision of being No. 1, just as I did in Australia.
Let’s talk about confidence. Let’s say the score is love-30 on your serve. If you often come back from love-30 to hold serve, is that a specific example of your building confidence?
Confidence comes from being more consistent than I was before on the serve. Before I had some low points, and what changed is that I started having many fewer low points than before.
Tennis is a sport of great highs and lows. In your Wimbledon debut against Auger-Aliassime, you were terrific, hitting 64 winners against only 27 unforced errors. Afterwards, you said, “It’s a dream come true to compete at this tournament.” However, your ecstasy turned to agony two days later when you lost to Jack Sock in the second round. Down 6-1 in the fourth-set tiebreaker, you exclaimed to your Player Box, “I quit this sport. Why am I here?” How do you handle these highs and lows — both during matches and between tournaments?
The hardest part of this sport is mental. Your mind can drift from being ecstatic to being depressed. The biggest challenge is to manage the free time you have outside the court, manage the team you have. Travelling can be extremely exhausting. There are many challenges in tennis that are not visible to the outside world. I strongly believe the best players are the mentally toughest ones both on and off the court.
Which coaches have been the most influential in your tennis career? And why?
Andrew Mawire, a South African coach, helped me technically on the serve and volley. David Moreau, a Parisian coach, helped me learn the art of hitting two big serves and focusing on my serve. Andy Fitzell, a California native living in Germany, specialises in the analysis and biomechanical research of top professionals, and he helped me with the technical part of the game. Billy Martin, a former world-class player and later my UCLA coach, helped my all-around game, recognised my work ethic, and gave me a lot of hope I could be a singles player in the pros.
How have your current coaches Romain Sichez and Armand D’Harcourt helped you progress?
The biggest component of my success is confidence. That’s what they’ve been able to instil in me the confidence to become No. 1. That’s the best attribute they have. What we do on court are details.
What are some of the details that made you a better player?
I made some changes to my return game. Instead of just reacting on both (groundstroke) sides, I cheat towards one side and react on the other. Also, now I have two (different) second serves. I know people think I hit two first serves, but my mentality is to hit two very strong second serves.
You bring notes to matches to remind you what to do. What are your most common reminders?
The common reminders are to stay focused on what I can control, which is my serves. They also remind me to visualise the spots where I target my serves.
At the 2022 Wimbledon, there was only a 6mph difference between your first and second serve average speed, compared to 20 to 30mph for most men players. Why do you hit your second serves so fast?
It’s to make sure I get the easiest volleys possible. So I hit second serves with a great ratio between risk and reward. I’ve done a lot of research into it. And for me to have rhythm, it’s important to have the same serve. If I miss the first serve, I can adjust on the second serve, which is the same exact serve.
My mission is to become No. 1 using the serve and volley game style. That would be the top of the pyramid in terms of proving to people that serve and volley is efficient
— Maxime Cressy
Which serve returners give you the most trouble? And why?
There haven’t been any returners yet to give me any trouble. I haven’t encountered a player who has hurt me badly with their returns. It’s been mostly a battle with myself.
Have you played Djokovic yet?
Not yet. It will be a good battle between my serve and his return of serve. I do look forward to it.
You rank an impressive No. 6 in the ATP stats serving category, but only No. 73 in the receiving category. You’ve won only 13.8 percent of return games, ranking ahead of only John Isner and Reilly Opelka. Is returning serve better and breaking serve more often the keys to becoming a top 10 player?
Yes, (but) it’s very related to focusing on my serve. The more serenity I have on my serve, the more relaxed I am on my return. So it’s a balance of both.
So you’re not concerned that you have any technical or tactical shortcomings on your serve return.
No. The main issue today is that I get carried away with my thoughts about wanting to break serve (so much). But I was much better in my last tournament at Newport. When I’m more relaxed, that’s when I break serve the most.
Another telling stat is that you rank only No. 49 among the Under Pressure Leaders. The key stat here is that you’ve won only 44.1 percent of your tiebreakers. What do you need to do to play big points and big games better?
I’m going to repeat myself here. The reason I haven’t won more tiebreaks is that I haven’t been focused enough on what I can control and instead was focused on end results. I need to remind myself to keep my mind on the present. I’m working on these things.
Why do you read the same book — Ask and It Is Given by Abraham Hicks — every day? And how has it influenced, even directed, your tennis life?
The reason I read it every day is because I want to get my mind used to only language when it comes to dealing with everyday life, especially my tennis life. I’ve tried to read many different books about the mental side of the game. What has helped me is to only dedicate my energy toward one language, one type of wording. That has helped me tremendously over the years, especially with my belief that I can get there (No. 1). I’m very much into routines, so I don’t like to change. And this book is one of my routines.
You seem like a man on a mission. After upsetting Auger-Aliassime, you said, “I’ve been working so hard and so many hours to get to that point, I had to prove a lot of people wrong, that serve-and-volley was not extinct.” Have you already proved that? If not, what will it take for you to prove that?
My mission is to become No. 1 using the serve and volley game style. That would be the top of the pyramid in terms of proving to people that serve and volley is efficient. Obviously, winning many titles by serving and volleying comes with it. If I do that, a lot of players in the next generation will be inspired to serve and volley. I have more proving to go. I’m only 33 in the world. I have 32 spots higher to go.
I attribute my competitive energy and work ethic to being with my brothers on a daily basis. My brothers, who were seven and 10 years older, were really into tennis. I followed them around at tournaments. I wanted to be a tennis player like them, but I wanted to be better than them.