The case of the missing volley

The coaches treat volleying as a dangerous disease, and they inhibit attacking at the net, even when there are obvious opportunities to shorten points, writes Bud Collins.

When Tenacious Tim departed, taking his volleys with him, the four-day Henman Open was closed, and the other tournament, modestly called The Lawn Tennis Championships, resumed in the grassy playpens of the All England Club.

It made me wonder: where does Tim keep his volleys when he’s not plying his trade? Volleys are getting scarcer and scarcer in this day and age, seen as often in a game of tennis as a player smiling. (All right, I know jolly Jelly Jankovic, the Belle of Belgrade, isn’t afraid to grin during business hours. But she’s as rare as... right — a volley.)

Does Tim have a volley vault in which to store those precious strokes that are such a delightful Wimbledon staple? In the hands of such as Stefan Edberg, belly-flopping Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Tony Roche, John McEnroe — to name a few masters — they cheered onlookers as sudden acrobatic thrusts that ended a point. There was no waiting through the double-digit exchanges of today to see who would get more bored on the baseline and lose the point.

As a doddering devotee of serve-and-volley, I remember the excitement when Rod Laver and John Newcombe, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall tore into each other; and I don’t want to overlook probably the greatest female finale, 1970. Then Margaret Court and Billie Jean King went for each other’s jugular up close and personal, Margaret winning, 14-12, 11-9.

Throughout the years that concluded with the championship duels of Sampras-Patrick Rafter in 2000 and Rafter-Goran Ivanisevic in 2001, the volley was a respectable, honoured tool. But in 2002 Lleyton Hewitt committed heresy, winning from the rear without once playing a serve-and-volley point. And he was actually proud of it, while Aussie old boys shuddered. Two commendable anniversaries celebrated this year belong to Jack Kramer and Virginia Wade — his a sixtieth of winning the championship, hers a thirtieth. Both were dash-and-crash, chip-and-charge volleyers. So was the late Althea Gibson, the first black player to take the title, a half-century ago.

And it should be noted that Spencer Gore, the seminal Wimbledon champ in 1877, was a volleyer. (However, P. Frank Hadow spoiled the fun the following year by conceiving and hoisting the lob. The beaten Gore, pouting, never returned.)

But where has the volley flown? Thinking that Scotland Yard might have a Department of Missing Volleys, I made a phone call. The answer was terse and depressing. “We don’t search for missing volleys any more because the volley is dead.”

But what about your homeboy, Henman?

‘Totally mad. As out of date as spats. If he persists, we may have to send the gentlemen in white coats to restrain him.’

If the dear old volley is dead, I wondered who killed it?

“We know, but we aren’t naming names,” said the man at the Yard. ’Too easy to get involved in lawsuits without absolute proof.”

And too many culprits, as I have detected. Principally they are the manufacturers of rackets and strings; the players’ coaches; the International Tennis Federation; the Women’s Tennis Association and Association of Tennis Pros. They’ve all contributed to bringing about an imbalance of the game, favouring mindless back-court grinders and killing the volley.

Heavy-hearted, I charge them with volleyslaughter. They’re all guilty. Unfortunately the ITF, not one of your more thoughtful governing organisations, let technology run wild, and so have the ATP and WTA.

Rackets and strings are overpowered, making finesse and volleying much more difficult. Rackets for professionals should be no larger than 27in long, 9in wide, and strung with traditional gut. They are far larger than that. The coaches treat volleying as a dangerous disease, and they inhibit attacking at the net, even when there are obvious opportunities to shorten points. It’s become a wear-‘em-down-physically game.

Because of Roger Federer’s unique skill and grace, he seems a throwback, one who can and will volley precisely. But his kind of style and smoothness has largely vanished.

I suspect that Henman’s battles against Charlie Moya and Feliciano Lopez will linger as the most beguiling of the tourney.

Henman’s attacking style drove his foes into a similar mood, and the matches became marvellous volleying smorgasbords.

They gave us hope that the volley may yet be resuscitated. Still, if it’s really dead, say a prayer in its memory, and wish that Tim, bless him, has preserved a few for next year.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007