How refreshing was it to see Sergei Stakhovsky beat Roger Federer the other day? Any victory against the Swiss genius should be heralded but it was the manner in which Stakhovsky played that made victory all the more special. He got his tactics spot-on with a bit of old-fashioned serve-volley tennis. It was a joy to behold.
Serve-volley tennis has been on the decline since primate Pete Sampras hung up his racket. In days gone by, all the big guns used to serve-volley: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic, Steffan Edberg, the list is endless. These days however it is a dying art. The ground strokes and service return of your average tennis player have improved no-end to the detriment of the volley. Nowadays a venture into the net is about as common as a yeti. The problem is that because the ground strokes are so good, the volley has to be near perfect otherwise the man at the net is just a sitting duck and will be passed easily. Consequently, volleying has no longer become an integral part of the game at a junior level where players rarely learn how to play the shot properly and confidently.
Since Sampras retired, few players have had success with the tactic. Federer used to serve-volley a lot more often in his early career – indeed he beat Sampras in 2001 and also won Wimbledon in 2003 with that strategy. Recently he used it as a surprise tactic. Perhaps, with his advancing years, he should re-embrace the serve-volley in a bid to shorten the points. It may well prolong his career.
Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski used to serve-volley with varying degrees of success. Rusedski employed it throughout his career, reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2002, memorably beating Andy Roddick in straight sets in the process. Henman reached numerous Wimbledon semi-finals with a serve-volley game and it worked well until he played someone who was better than him. Henman’s serve was not quite good enough to trouble the top players and so could be returned with interest as Lleyton Hewitt, Sampras and Ivanisevic all proved.
Roddick had a fearsome serve and used to back it up with some pretty handy volleying. He never used it as his stock tactic, though perhaps he should have because his ground strokes (especially his backhand) were pretty ropey. He still reached three Wimbledon finals, all defeats to Federer and played one of the all-time great matches in his 2009 loss to the Swiss maestro.
Other recent exponents of the art of serve-volley include Sebastian Grosjean – who beat Tim Henman at Wimbledon in 2004, Michael Llodra – who has yet to win anything of note but his commitment to the tactic is unwavering, Pat Rafter – who reached two consecutive Wimbledon finals in 2000 & 2001, and Radek Stepanek, who got soundly beaten by a young Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2005. Britain had its own serve-volley hero in Chris Eaton who, in 2008, beat Boris Pasanski in the first round of Wimbledon. He got absolutely mullered by Dimitri Tursunov in round two and has yet to do anything of note since, but we live in hope.
Apart from Stakhovsky there are still the odd exponents of serve-volley at this year’s championships. In his first round defeat, Gilles Simon employed the strategy against Feliciano Lopez who himself was partial to a little jaunt to the net after one of his serves now and again. Jamaican/German Dustin Brown beat Lleyton Hewitt in round two with a spot of serve-volley action. Even Andy Murray has been known to crack out a serve-volley but only very rarely.
I hope that this mini-renaissance in serve-volley is not a mere flash in the pan but heralds a new era for grass-court tennis. The modern game is all too often a slug-fest from the back of the court relying on brute power. It is time a bit of finesse returned to the sport. Sergei Stakhovsky I salute you for successfully bringing the archaic art form of serve-volley back to SW19.