Learning to live without serve and volley

ROHIT BRIJNATH

AT Wimbledon last year, on final day, life as we knew it changed forever.

Every year, on the second Sunday, the grass at Centre Court tells a story. Every year, after 12 days of tennis, the strip of grass down the middle, leading from the baseline to the net is worn thinner than the hallway carpet you play cricket on.

Players have run, skidded, slid, pranced, lunged, dived and slipped their way down the middle of the court, galloping to the net after their serves like knights on a solemn mission, tearing and shaving the grass with their shoes.

Except last year. Last year there was no line. Last year, the baseline was run ragged but the path down the centre of the court was relatively untouched. Last year, Hewitt played Nalbandian and if they went to the net before shaking hands at the end we can't remember.

Last year, serve and volley died, was buried in an outside court, and the baseliners spat in the grave and walked off.

Question: If they could do this at Wimbledon, what can we expect anywhere else?

Indeed, switch on the Australian Open, pick up a pad, and notch a cross every time a player comes to the net. Net-cords don't count, neither do drop shots, nor do approaches to finish short lobs. No, count the times a player comes forward and volleys as a deliberate tactic, not because the sun's confused him. Good chance an Indian tailender will score more runs than you get visits to the net.

Things are bad. Ok, so every year's not going to be 1987, when the Top 10 itself had Edberg, Becker, Cash, Noah, Mayotte and McEnroe. That's more serve and volleyers than the entire top 50 these days.

Things are getting worse. Of the five serve and volleyers in the top 50 today, Sampras is 31 and a prolific nappy changer, Henman is 28 but Timorous Tim scares nobody, Rusedski is 29 and in rapid decline, Max Mirnyi is 25 and makes sweeter music on the doubles court, which leaves us with the up-and-down Nicolas Escude.

It's awful strange if you think about it. The only time players come into the top half of the court is to kick the net, eyeball a linesperson, or produce an award-winning rant. It's as if the area between the service line and the net has a sign that says Warning: Mines on it.

What it means is we're getting to watch tennis without seeing half of the game. It's about as absurd as Picasso refusing to use half his colours. Predictably, the drop volley has become an endangered species and the approach shot is on the cusp of extinction.

The baseliner, patrolling his turf like an athletic sentry, is a thing of beauty. These men twist like a matador, dart like a hungry bird, arrange their rackets and arrive at a decision regarding which angle to use, what muscle is required and how spin must be imparted, all faster than one can draw breath.

They draw beautiful pictures but in the end it is the same picture; their art is one-dimensional, like Tendulkar hitting every shot on the off side. Tennis' beauty is best seen in contrast, in Borg passing McEnroe and Becker challenging Lendl. After a while, Hewitt versus Corretja dulls the senses.

In women's tennis this is acceptable, in the men's it is not. The women have muscle, rivalries, sex appeal, controversy, designer clothes, shopping fetishes, pushy parents, bitchiness and Martina Navratilova dispensing wisdom about everything including Steve Waugh's retirement. If the women never came to the net ever again we wouldn't care or notice. It might help Venus beat Serena but it's not going to increase the gate.

But there's no diamond stud in Hewitt's belly button to distract our attention and men's tennis desperately needs some variety. It doesn't say much for the men's game that two 30-plus Americans, so old they can't remember when they were at their peak, provided the most memorable match last year in the U.S. Open final. Colourless players would be less appetising if they at least played a colourful game.

Serve and volley would resuscitate comatose spectators, but as Leander Paes might tell you, it isn't going to happen soon. As the Indian, who did his part in keeping the tradition alive, remarked in Australia last week: "The surfaces have become a joke. They are much slower. Also, tournaments decide on surfaces according to what suits their players best and with the amount of baseliners around, they're happy to put in slower surfaces. Also, only at the French, or at clay tournaments, do they use faster balls. It's done to slow down the server and that hurts us."

Ironically, both the slower surfaces and balls are a direct response to the power game, an effort to tame the big server and make the sport less muscular. But it has stolen the edge from volleyers and given baseliners a longer look at the return. As it is the standard of returning is unprecedented: these guys hit targets so small, on the full run, at full stretch, that snipers in attendance are left blushing. It's probably why anyone not called Pete Sampras who follows his second serve to the net is called an idiot.

So, what do we do now? Design placards, get on to the streets with John McEnroe and demand a return to wooden rackets? Make it mandatory for every player to volley at least once a game, else he gets to have dinner with Damir Dokic?

Ban coaches who tell their charges: "You want to serve and volley? What for? You think Hewitt, Agassi, Safin, Ferrero, Moya, Federer, Novak, Costa got to the top because they volleyed. Forget it kid, hit a 1000 balls from the baseline and go home."

Or maybe just pray that if we're actually going to clone someone, let it be Sampras.