View Point: What Happened to Serve-And-Volley Tennis?

January 29, 2011 · Print This Article

by: Michael Emmett

Remember the good old days of tennis? John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg – serve and volleyer against counter-puncher – lefty vs. righty – whatever one guy did, the other guy did completely the opposite. This made for great theatre. Today is all about power and blistering groundstokes. Players today can’t get to the net because the ball is traveling too fast and the geometry/angles of the court have increased tremendously with better equipment.

Serve and volley tennis is gone forever. So sad but so true! The reason is simple – TECHNOLOGY. The strings in the racquets are so much better today – players can hit scorching groundstrokes from all areas of the court with pin-point accuracy. In many rallies today you will see 10 to 15 great shots that comprise of only one point. Back in my generation – one good shot meant the point was over. Players can’t get to the net because the baseliners are too good! There is too much court to cover and today’s players don’t think it is worth the gamble. The only time we see players venturing to the net are when they’ve hit a ball that is so far out of reach that they know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they will receive a floater – one that is easily picked off and hit into the open court.

The strings have made mediocre players decent, good players very good and great players almost unbeatable. 35 years ago, with wood racquets, and low budget strings, these mind-boggling shots from the baseline were impossible. When a penetrating forehand or backhand was hit to a corner in the 70s and 80s the point was basically over. And if it wasn’t over in one shot it was most certainly over in two shots. Strings have given players of today the ability to counter-attack with incredible success – the shots that these baseliners hit when they are stretched to maximum capacity would have been impossible with the old technology.

But today, the ‘so called’ miracle shots happen on a regular basis. Players can hit the ball in all parts of the court with power from areas that were once thought of as impossible. Highlight reel shots are a common occurrence in the 21st century. Back in the previous generations – with continental grips, steel racquets and goofy looking string – players couldn’t muster up enough racquet speed, or spin to hit the kind of shots being executed on a daily basis at today’s major tournaments. Sure the athletes are better today than in yester-year but the discrepancy is gigantic now in the shot-making and it is all because of the strings and the frames. If you like players blasting the ball from the baseline and never relenting – then this is the kind of tennis you will enjoy for quite some time. This new game is here to stay and for those who witnessed the game 30 years ago and beyond and admired the craftiness and thought patterns on a point-by-point basis – you will be disappointed by today’s brand of tennis.

John McEnroe, who won 7 grand slams in his hay-day, is a better player today than he was 20 years ago – the reason is technology. Even Johnny Mac, playing on the senior circuit, is playing predominantly from the baseline because he just can’t find a way to get to the net because there is too much court to cover.

Today’s strings allow players to dip the balls and create angles while still accelerating through the ball giving the net rushers no time to react. Modern technology has given players the ability to swing without fear. ‘Unloading on every shot’ makes it impossible for the “chip and charge” mentality from the previous decades. Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Clijsters, and The Williams Sisters – they all swing out on every ball with unbelievable success – penetrating all angles of the court – and this makes it very difficult for guys like Isner, Querrey and Fish to advance to the net. When you can hit the ball on a dime from 80 feet away with maximum power – something has to give! And unfortunately, the volley game is what’s disappeared.

I once witnessed Nadal at the Rexall center while warming up for a match. He’d receive ball after ball with speed, spin and depth. And he could hit random targets at ease – targets I would have thought too tough. For sure Nadal is an incredibly gifted athlete but these targets he was picking off were tight to the lines, tight to the net and virtually impossible for players from past generations who didn’t have today’s technology. No wonder, Federer has difficulty getting to the net against such a precise baseliner.

Technology isn’t solely to blame, however.

Coaching is a major culprit as well.

Tennis coaches and teachers are under tremendous pressure to produce quick results. So what is the easiest way for them? Simple, put a bunch of kids on a tennis court and make them hit balls from the baseline. This is the way the coaches of today are instructing their kids to play tennis.

It takes many years to develop all the skills and the athletic body of a decent serve and volley player.  And sadly, many coaches don’t have the skills to develop a player’s volley the way they can develop the groundstrokes. Coaches of today don’t understand the importance of learning how to volley.

To give an example of how easy it is to develop baseline ‘robots’; I saw a teacher (from a ‘famous’ school in North America) with four kids on the court and he was having the kids hit balls from the baseline to each other, which would have been satisfactory if not for the sixty balls that were spread all over both service boxes! These balls were in the way – but no-one moved them once throughout the entire practice. And in my opinion, this is a horrible way to teach groundstrokes – it’s just what many coaches in this generation do!!

The most appalling part of this exercise is that this went on for almost forty five of a sixty minute lesson and the scene repeated itself for the next four hours with the next group of youngsters every afternoon, the whole forsaken winter long and the parents where sitting and watching! This is disgraceful and the coach should be reprimanded for his laziness.

This is the way many kids are being taught all over the world – it is a consistent trend. A trend that will continue as long as we see the professionals playing the baseline game! Do I need to tell you that those kids will never volley in their lives? Children warming up for a recent OTA tournament at our club didn’t even come to the net to practice their volleys in the allotted 5 minutes. And, of course, in their match they never came close to hitting a volley.

Sure those teachers/instructors are incompetent and should be fired or re-trained, but the truth is that the lack of interest in giving youngsters the full package of tennis happens at the highest levels. Take for example: While coaching ITF and ETA tournaments, I have seen coaches allowing 14 and 15 year old boys and girls to play entire doubles matches with both players on the baseline whether they served or returned, as a team they both stayed on the baseline! This is wrong – and any coach who teaches this way should be instantly fired. Doubles is meant to be played at the net. I explained above that court coverage is difficult in singles when at the net, but not with 2 players in doubles!!

This lopsided vision of coaches toward the development of their youngsters, only reveals that everyone; Federations, parents, coaches and players are more concerned about winning and not reaching their full potential.

And sadly, it’s ruining the game!

Michael Emmett is the Head Tennis Professional of Mayfair Lakeshore Racquet and Fitness Club.

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4 Responses to “View Point: What Happened to Serve-And-Volley Tennis?”

  1. Tweets that mention View Point: What Happened to Serve-And-Volley Tennis? : Tennis Connected -- Topsy.com on January 29th, 2011 8:43 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tennis Connected and Cari Champion, João Henrique. João Henrique said: RT @TennisConnected: New blog post: View Point: What Happened to Serve-And-Volley Tennis? http://bit.ly/f1rW2F [...]

  2. DF on September 11th, 2011 11:21 am

    Nice article. I’m 34 years old, and, while I agree that technology certainly changed the game in a dramatic fashion, I’d say the bulk of that change happened 20-25 years ago. I’m at the age where I was right on the cusp of playing my entire life with some type of graphite racket, and, while racket and string technology still improves incrementally, I’d say today’s technology is still similar to what I was using in 1990. I think the difference these days is that top players have also spent their entire lives training on graphite, and they’ve been able to develop their entire game on the newer technology, unlike players like Lendl, Edberg, etc, who had to adapt to the new technology. Essentially, these new guys have been ripping shots since a very young age, and, when combining that with new levels of body size and fitness, I think we’re at a very good place in terms of tennis mastery and beauty. Gone are the days of slow, comical rallies, and gone are the days of 2 shot points from the Sampras era. These new guys are sustaining rallies with the duration of the old game and the power of the ’90s game, and I think it is both a nice balance and fun to watch.

  3. WK on November 9th, 2011 12:51 pm

    Reduced, but not dead, at least not yet. I think the greater problem is not that it’s “impossible” now but that it’s just not taught, so most players don’t even think to try it. But at least on a fast court, it can still work: witness Mardy Fish taking Granollers and Berdych apart with S&V in Wimbledon 2011. It’s clearly a viable strategy if you can use it and remain in the top 10:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3-mv-m8muk

  4. Sara on January 26th, 2012 2:10 pm

    I always enjoyed serve and volley. It was my preferred style of play in both high school and college tennis, and it worked extremely well because it was so rare and coaches never taught their players how to counter. Players generally had no clue what to do with it. I had a tricky serve and was always most comfortable and confident at the net, so it worked well for me.

    I think this methodology nowadays of teaching only one style is a mistake. I was a serve and volleyer, and when that didn’t work I’d switch to baselining, and when that didn’t work I’d switch again. Being flexible and unpredictable was what won me the most matches, not any kind of prodigy-esque skill on my part, or the latest technology. I won states, tournaments, etc. with a twenty dollar Walmart racket. I was always very proud of that. ;)

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