Where have all the serve and volleyers gone?

Imagine football without the forward pass or boxing without body punching or basketball without inside shooting. Those sports would be greatly diminished. So would tennis if serving and volleying becomes extinct.


"The great beauty of tennis is the inexhaustible variety of playing methods to which one may make recourse."

— Don Budge, 1939

Imagine football without the forward pass or boxing without body punching or basketball without inside shooting. Those sports would be greatly diminished. So would tennis if serving and volleying becomes extinct.

Just such a dire fate stares tennis in the face now. Only nine players in the men's top 100 regularly serve and volley: Pete Sampras (age 31), Tim Henman (28), Max Mirnyi (26 on July 6), Taylor Dent (22), Radek Stepanek (24), Jonas Bjorkman (31), Greg Rusedski (29), Richard Krajicek (31), and Justin Gimelstob (26). Tellingly, none rank among the top 20. Another handful of players sometimes serve and volley: Roger Federer (21), Paradorn Srichaphan (24), Tommy Haas (25), Mark Philippoussis (26) and Todd Martin (32).

The women's game appears even bleaker with 29-year-old Lisa Raymond, ranked No. 21, the only practitioner of this dying art.

Serving and volleying has steadily decreased during the past 30 years. In 1973, when three of the four Grand Slams were staged on grass, six of the top 10 players nearly always served and volleyed on that surface:

Ilie Nastase, John Newcombe, Tom Okker, Stan Smith, Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe. Three more, Jimmy Connors, ageless Ken Rosewall and clay-bred Jan Kodes, came in often, too.

Ten years later, with Wimbledon and the Australian Open contested on grass, (the U.S. Open dropped grass in 1975) just three among the top 10 served and volleyed: John McEnroe, Yannick Noah and Kevin Curren. Many hybrid, all-court stylists, except for Connors, had disappeared, with the remaining players, such as Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Jimmy Arias and Jose-Luis Clerc, confirmed baseliners.

With Wimbledon the last Grand Slam bastion of grass in 1993 (the Australian Open went to hard courts in 1988), the trend was temporarily halted, at least among top 10 competitors. Pete Sampras, Michael Stich and Stefan Edberg, all exceptionally talented and graceful serve and volleyers, were joined by Goran Ivanisevic and Cedric Pioline.

Serving and volleying declined <147,4,0>even more dramatically on the women's side.

In 1975, the first year of the WTA rankings, seven of the top 10 women served and volleyed frequently, at least on grass: Virginia Wade, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong, Margaret Court, Olga Morozova and Francoise Durr. Ten years later, there were still six: Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova, Pam Shriver, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, Zina Garrison and Helena Sukova. But by 1995, when Jana Novotna temporarily dropped out of the elite, not a single woman streaked to the net behind her serve.

Why did serve and volleying go onto the endangered species list?

Several changes doomed this exciting style of play but none more than the abandonment of grass at the U.S. and Australian Opens and the subsequent death of the summer grass court circuits in America and Down Under. Today the sweet smell of grass remains only at Wimbledon, tune-up tourneys two weeks before it, and the anti-climactic Newport event after it.

"It happened because of the surfaces we grow up on," says Pete Sampras, the greatest serve and volleyer in history. "Laver and the Aussies of the `50s and `60s grew up playing on grass. Even Connors grew up on some grass. As time went on, grass became a surface we just saw once a year at Wimbledon. Kids today are playing on hard courts and clay. So they just naturally start playing from the backcourt. And that's how they are breaking through on the men's and women's Challenger Circuits. At age 20, you end up playing like you did when you were 13."

True enough, unless you happen to be Sampras and have Pete Fischer as your coach. Until he was 14, Sampras counter-punched with a two-handed backhand - "I played like Andre then" - and rarely ventured to the net. Then the prescient Fischer changed his backhand to a one-hander and created a serve-and-volley game that enabled Sampras to capitalise on his supreme natural talent and capture a record seven Wimbledon titles, plus five United States and two Australian Opens.

Fischer recognised that no premier men serve and volleyers, except for Connors, had double-fisted backhands, and his goal was to see his prot�g� win Wimbledon. "It was risky, and I didn't want to do it," recalls Sampras. "I lost a lot of matches. I still wanted to go back to the two-handed backhand. At 16 or 17, it finally clicked and I got more confidence. I stuck with it and my serving and volleying. Why? I don't know."

Sampras foresees even less serving and volleying in the future unless the ATP and ITF take his advice. "If they want to bring serve and volleyers back in five or six years, we have to have more of a grass court season," he says. "It's got to be much more than adding another week or two of grass court events between the French and Wimbledon. I don't have the answers as to where and when. But they should create Satellite and Challenger grass court circuits. Just as you have guys breaking through on clay, they would have the same opportunity on grass. The basic concept is to start kids playing on grass or a fast indoor court when they're 10 or 12 and give them grass tournaments when they're 16, 17 and 18, and then they're forced to play a certain way."

Jack Kramer refined the modern serve-and-volley game in the 1940s (Maurice McLaughlin actually introduced it in the early 1900s) and popularised the term "The Big Game." He relentlessly charged net off both serves and laments the near-death of that entertaining style as well as the grass on which it flourished. "Now there's almost no grass to clean up on, only Wimbledon," says Kramer. "That's one God-damn tournament. Where do you make your money? That's only two weeks out of the 40 you're playing."

Kramer credits the punishing two-handed backhand for the reign of powerful baseliners today. "Instead of coming in on an approach shot as soon as you could, the pressure tactic that I found so effective, two-handed players in these last 11, 12 years feel more comfortable banging five shots and then getting a winning placement on the sixth shot," says Kramer.

Not only do double-handers shun serving and volleying, with Bjorkman and Martin the notable exceptions, but they make life miserable for those who do. "All these kids with two-handed backhands and semi-Western forehands, Agassi types, are dynamic against the serve and volleyer," says Kramer.

"In the serve and volley era, we weren't facing these two-handed backhands when we came in," he recalls. "Most people, except for (Don) Budge and Frank Kovacs, would produce some form of a weaker, slice backhand on service returns, if you had a high kicker second serve."

Kramer contends that the "Big Game" of yesteryear must live on because "Who in hell wants to see two backcourt players hit 15 to 20 groundstrokes on every point? If you have only one style, there's nothing! Fans want to see two different styles <147,5,0>of the game and which is best on the day. The best match worth watching today is a good-conditioned Sampras playing a good-conditioned Agassi."

But how can tennis produce more Samprases?

"If I had a chance to advise a real good athlete, I would say, `Don't even think about playing tennis until you're 11 or 12.' If he starts late enough, he won't have a lot of grip problems to overcome," says Kramer, who played baseball, basketball and football before switching to tennis. "Sampras was smart enough to overcome a grip problem and get rid of his two-handed backhand, or he wouldn't be the player he became."

That game plan is easier said than done. In this "gotta get good quick" era, many kids with future glory in mind start playing at 5, 6 or 7, and their grips and swings are pretty much locked in by the time they are 12 or 13.

Kramer recommends: "You have to find a coach who says to himself, `Here is a real athlete, and I want to sell him and his parents that he has a chance to be a Sampras. He's going to lose in the 12s and 14s and lose until he gets to be 17 or 18 when he gains full strength and ability. And when he loses, he'll get discouraged. But he's going to have to be an individual and not join the baseline chorus, and then he is going to be damn good playing the aggressive, serve and volley game.' It takes a special player and a special coach to pull this off."

Tony Pickard, another elder statesman of the game, guided Stefan Edberg for 13 years to six Grand Slam titles and the No. 1 ranking. Pickard believes serve and volleyers are disappearing because "there aren't a lot of coaches out there who can teach it to the boys and say, `Listen, if you put this dimension into your game, there will be a time in a match when you can use it.' The coaches coming into the game now are people who have grown up with as it is today, which is basically played from the back of the court."

Pickard believes rising American star Andy Roddick has a perfect game to incorporate some serving and volleying. "He has a 135 miles per hour first serve and a great kick second serve. If he was taught to go forward off that serve, he would have so many easy shots to play, even if he weren't a great volleyer," asserts Pickard. "It wouldn't take that long to teach him how to volley really well. If Roddick did that, he could cause opponents enormous problems on any surface.

"(Tarik) Benhabiles has done a hell of a good job with him, but Benhabiles played from the back of the court," continues Pickard. "The greatest attribute a coach can have is to add the other dimensions that a player doesn't have."

Pam Shriver, a Hall of Famer with 22 Grand Slam doubles titles, defends coaches because "if they see a certain style of play is apt to be more successful, then they are going to coach it." They are also products of their environments.

"If you come from Europe and you're used to playing on slow clay, then you're going to teach a less aggressive style. If you come from Southern California where there are mostly fast hard courts, you'll see a different style of coach," says Shriver. "Robert Lansdorp, who has been out there forever, teaches a hard, flat groundstroke, a more aggressive, penetrating shot because it's a high-percentage play there."

Because no coach knows it all, Shriver advocates specialty coaching. "Some coaches, like Roddick's coach, may not have a serve-and-volley background, but they can get some help from specialists," says Shriver. "People go to Lansdorp for certain specialty items, and people might go to a serve-and-volley coach. A couple hours with Roy Emerson or Tony Pickard are beautiful for the serve and volley."

Rod Laver, tennis' only double Grand Slammer (in 1962 and '69), agrees that serving and volleying is rarely taught nowadays. "I think juniors should be learning to volley more, but not just serve and volley," he contends. "They should learn approach and volley and return of serve and volley."

Even so, Laver philosophises, "That's just the way it is. Young players are learning to play from the baseline with big serves, like Andy Roddick. The game of tennis is fine."

No one I talked with shares Laver's satisfaction about the state of the on-court game, but some, like Shriver, think playing styles go in cycles. "Did people 10 or 15 years ago, when Becker and Edberg played in Wimbledon finals and then Becker-Stich and Sampras-Ivanisevic, ever think we would have this guy Lleyton Hewitt winning Wimbledon and being No. 1 in the world the last two years? They thought the game had passed by that style of champion, and it was always going to be power, power, huge serves, short rallies. And they were wrong!"

The fact that some playing styles — such as the Lawford, chop, and Continental forehands — have disappeared forever, doesn't bother Shriver. "The game of tennis has too much variety for things not to be cyclical, and for champions to come around with different styles," she insists. "There's no reason why in the women and men's games, you won't have a serve and volley champion again."

Could Dent, the youngest serve and volleyer, also be remembered in 2010 or 2015 as tennis' last one? "It's a definite possibility," concedes Dent, whom Shriver last year asserted "has the potential to equal serve and volleying greats, such as Sampras, Edberg, Becker and McEnroe."

Dent says: "But I believe some kids growing up are going to say, `I want to play like Sampras' or `I want to play like Rafter.' Or if I get good enough, they'll say, `I want to play like Taylor Dent.' Other serve and volleyers will come along, but they're going to be rare."

One has to question that role model or idol theory since very few juniors seemingly patterned their games after the ultimate serve and volleyers, Sampras and Navratilova, anyway during the past 15 years.

The No. 39 ranked Dent, who has dropped 15 pounds to become quicker and more agile at net, offers two reasons why few can make a dent at net these days. "Guys return so well and pass so well that it's tough to be efficient serving and volleying," he says. "You don't get the free points guys got 30 years ago when it was tough to generate a lot of power and topspin with wood rackets" — when his Australian father Phil was a world-class player.

The more relevant comparison, however, is with 15 to 20 years ago. Then relatively large graphite rackets were prevalent, yet serve and volleyers still flourished. "If you think back to 1985-86, when you had Prince rackets, Wilson mid-size, Head mid-size, technology had progressed dramatically by then," says Pickard. "You had people who used large racket heads that returned serves unbelievably well. But even during that time, people like Edberg and Becker succeeded over them." Sampras, of course, then ruled the 1990s, with Rafter, Stich, Krajicek and Ivanisevic also winning major titles.

Navratilova disagrees and advocates that the ITF legislate to reduce racket head size to lessen the dominance of ground strokes. "The modern rackets have helped ground strokes a huge amount - exponentially," she told British journalist Richard Eaton. "They are so much more powerful that now if you have to hit two or three volleys, you will probably lose the point. Smaller racket heads would change all the shots. There would be less topspin and pace. It wouldn't be possible just to play from 15 feet behind the baseline, and it will require more skill."

Rod Cross, who with Dr. Howard Brody and Crawford Lindsay, wrote the acclaimed book, The Physics and Technology of Tennis, agrees with Navratilova, about topspin anyway, and proposes a reasonable, workable compromise. "The extra 1 inch available in the modern 10-inch wide frame — that the vast majority of world-class pros use — allows the player to get as much topspin as he or she needs," explains Cross, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Sydney, Australia. "Consequently, a solution to what some consider boring and excessive baseline topspin is to reduce racquet width from the current 10 inches to about 9 or 9.5 inches."

"Rackets don't explain the problem," says Mary Carillo, a respected TV sports commentator for NBC, CBS and TNT. "I agree with Pickard, even though the rackets have helped the baseliners, the returners of serve, a lot more than the serve and volleyers. It's become a dying art because of a whole set of changes. For example, a lot of players today have bigger backhands than forehands. So where the hell do you serve?

"Unless tennis changes surfaces, I don't see serve and volleying coming back," argues Carillo. "I wish they had a longer grass court season and a better-spaced grass court season from the clay court season. Other sports do a much-better job of changing rules to improve their sports than tennis."

Carillo is right. Other sports monitor playing styles and regularly re-evaluate the rules to A. maintain a good balance between offense and defense, B. insure overall fairness, C. maintain a diversity of playing styles, and D. keep the sport entertaining for fans. Basketball, in particular, enacted major rule changes - such as the 24-second clock and goaltending — during the past 50 years to accommodate the increasingly athletic style and physical size of NBA players.

Ironically, the ITF and ATP have tweaked the balls and courts only to produce some unintended consequences. "In the mid-1990s after some complaints by the media and fans, they thought that if you slow up the ball, we'd have guys serving less aces," says Bjorkman, a genial Swede who stars in doubles with Todd Woodbridge. "But the heavier ball only took away from the serve and volley. And guys are still producing a lot of aces."

Bjorkman, the ATP Player Council president in 2000-01, advocates that pro tournaments speed up their indoor and hard courts to keep the serve and volley alive there. "Look who is winning indoors these days," says Bjorkman. "They don't have to play any serve and volley at all. Nicolas Lapentti won Lyon, for instance. Albert Costa hadn't won very many matches on hard courts before. Even if he's improved a lot now, with the courts and balls slower, he reached the semis at Key Biscayne. I would rather play on high-altitude clay, than play Indian Wells. Some of the slowest hard courts are in America in the spring."

Bjorkman and rocket-serving Greg Rusedski also criticised Wimbledon for slowing its grass and thus handicapping serve and volleyers even more. Wimbledon kept its grass the same height (5/16") at The Championships last year, but the introduction of rye-grass along with a relatively dry spring produced slightly higher and slower bounces. "They were prepared the same way as ever," Eddie Seward, the chief groundsman, told the International Herald Tribune. Seward also noted that the ball bounced 85 percent as high as a hardcourt - compared to its normal 80 percent - due to the dry weather in the first week. Contrarily, Sampras and Raymond have detected no change in Wimby's lawns in recent years. "To win Wimbledon today, a serve and volleyer has to have the weather on her side," says Raymond. "If it's damp and cool, a serve and volleyer, by keeping the ball low, has a much better chance. If it's a hot fortnight and the courts are playing firm and hard, the returner has a good crack at the serve."

The bad bounces that once drew criticism from players now, ironically, are yearned for by serve and volleyers. "The bounces are so true now because there are so few serve and volleyers to chew up the court inside the baseline anymore," points out Dent. "It's a vicious circle because the serve and volleyer has always helped his own cause by chewing up the court. It's not starting to favour the baseliner, but it's equalling out a lot more."

No one I interviewed begrudged the fact that two baseliners, Hewitt and unheralded David Nalbandian, competed in the 2002 Wimbledon final, which was so boring that the women's doubles final gained higher TV ratings in America. Both earned it fair and square, whipping some netrushers along the way. Hewitt ousted perennial contender Tim Henman and Bjorkman, while Nalbandian beat Wayne Arthurs, who had stopped Dent in four tiebreakers. Even so, Dent confides, "I said to myself, `I can't believe there are two baseliners in the Wimbledon final. I want a piece of these guys.' "

If the men serve and volleyers don't have enough game to win Wimbledon, heaven help the women. "It's a losing percentage game if you are going to go in with a serve anything shy of Serena's," explains Shriver. "You're going to be punished by the returns. In the 25 years I've been involved, the serve returns have improved more than the serve."

"Tennis has evolved into such a power game," agrees 5'5" Raymond. "The girls are a lot stronger and fitter, and because of that they are hitting their groundstrokes and service returns a lot harder. It's become much more difficult to cover the net. If you could take Serena as a mold, she would definitely be a candidate as someone who could evolve into a serve and volleyer. She amazingly athletic and so strong and fast."

Many years ago "Big Bill" Tilden opined: "In any match between the perfect baseline player and the perfect net rusher, I would take the baseliner every time."

Shriver sees future champions emerging not from two separate schools - baseline versus serve and volley -- but rather as a hybrid of styles. "Roger Federer has amazing all-court skills and can serve and volley if he chooses. Champions of the future will be able to play several different styles with equal comfort."

Could No. 6-ranked Amelie Mauresmo turn into such a champion? Mauresmo, who a few months ago resignedly announced that her goal was No. 3 because Serena and Venus Willliams were virtually unbeatable, now is practicing hard on the serve and volley game. She used it when she was 13 and 14 but later abandoned it.

Durr, the 1968 French Open champion and now a highly regarded coach, isn't optimistic about Mauresmo's new strategy. "I don't see her improving much unless she decides to work harder," says Durr. "She only employs coaches who don't push her too hard. She is like Noah. She wants a good life, money and recognition but will not make the sacrifice to be No. 1."

The desertion of top-flight singles players from doubles in the past 25 years has paralleled the decline of serving and volleying in singles and may have accelerated the trend. None of the top ten teams in the ATP Doubles Race include a player ranked in the singles top 20, which means the top singles men play doubles either too infrequently or not especially well. Either way, unless these baseliners do both, they'll lack the serve and volley skills and confidence to try it even occasionally in singles.

Some pros see that critical connection and are trying to remedy the problem. "Very few of the Swedes, except for Edberg and me, served and volleyed," says Bjorkman. "Enqvist, Johansson, Norman rarely played doubles before. Now they do, and it's because they want to improve their volley."

In sharp contrast, 15 of the top 30 women in singles are also ranked in the top 30 in the WTA's individual doubles rankings. What's shocking is that so few, only about 25 percent, according to No. 3 Raymond, actually serve and volley in doubles. "The girls don't serve and volley anymore. Only about three or four teams serve and volley all the time, and the rest do it about three times a game. When Lindsay Davenport plays doubles with me, it helps her volley in singles."

Certainly all playing styles have their more and less attractive expressions. Most would agree, however, that endless baseline rallies test the patience of Job, while a profusion of aces and service winners are equally tiresome to watch. On the other hand, screaming 2001 U.S. Open spectators loved the rip-roaring baseline battle between Hewitt and Andy Roddick, just as they relished the dazzling shotmaking, including rapid-fire net duels, in Sampras-Rafter matches.

Serving and volleying, therefore, presents something of a paradox. The serve, while graceful and awesome at its best, requires the least athleticism of any tennis shot. Volleying, or more precisely, net-rushing showcases the most athleticism. Not only are lunging, reflex and touch volleys - not to mention the sprints back to whack leaping overheads - spectacularly entertaining for fans, they are also thrilling for players themselves.

"It's so much fun when you're serving and volleying well and you pretty much dominate the match," enthuses Dent. "It's very exciting," agrees Sampras. "You come out there with a lot of power and aggression. And if you're doing it well, you feel like you're unbeatable."

The extroverted Bjorkman enjoys it for other reasons, too. "I like to show my athletic ability and my personality, especially at the U.S. Open. Americans, especially New Yorkers, always seem to support you," says Bjorkman. "Often spectacular shots at net get the biggest reaction from fans.

"And if you get pumped up and they scream at you and you look at them, that makes them want to watch you again because that's exciting. And you get more fans on your side."

If that ego gratification does not motivate aspiring juniors to give serving and volleying a try, perhaps these encouraging words from two former Wimbledon champions will. "Guys who come to net will beat a backcourt player," contends seven-time Grand Slam titlist McEnroe. Pat Cash, the 1987 winner, predicts, "I believe the next truly great player is going to be a serve-volleyer because as a tactic, it's a massive advantage."

What if Sampras and Navratilova, who at 46 is still winning doubles tournaments the old-fashioned way at net, make history in a way they never intended, as the last serve-and-volley champions?

"It would be a tragedy because stylistically to lose serving and volleying would be awful for the sport," concludes Carillo, who teamed with McEnroe to win the 1977 French Open mixed doubles crown. "I loved those Sampras-Rafter match-ups when you had two highly athletic serve and volleyers. They were astounding, great stuff.

"We had those great rivalries, McEnroe-Borg, Chrissie-Martina, Sampras-Agassi," says Carillo. The fun part was that they were so stylistically different; they had such different ways of winning points.

"If tennis lost that, it would be greatly diminished," stresses Carillo. "I'd miss it like hell. Some great baseline matches still intrigue me, maybe as much as serve and volley matches. But in the end, I want to see styles clash. I want to see strategies clash. The best matches I've ever seen have all of that going for them."