The return of the serve-volley

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.

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Wimbledon 2013

It’s time for Wimbledon.  Over the next two weeks (or possibly more if the weather decides to play silly buggers) SW19 will be echoing with the sound of Pimm’s bottles being opened, strawberries being de-stalked and the retractable roof clanking its way shut.  Given the area, with the exception of the roof that’s not so different from any other time of the year.  To be honest, previewing the winners of this year’s tournament isn’t really that difficult – Serena Williams is invincible at the moment, and will walk the women’s tournament on a surface that suits her game down to the ground (pun intended).  As for the men, one of the big four will be victorious, probably, in my opinion, Rafael Nadal.

Speaking of Nadal, the main talking point pre-tournament has been the decision of the Wimbledon Committee (taking a few minutes out from spreading Stilton on a Jacob’s cracker, whilst simultaneously sniffing a glass of vintage tawny and pushing a poor person in the face) to seed the Majorcan at number 5, below the man he trounced in the French Open final last month, David Ferrer.  This is a tricky issue.  Quite frankly it is ludicrous that Nadal should be seeded lower than Ferrer (and some, including me, might argue lower than number 2), and anyone who thinks otherwise is certifiable, but the Committee, who in the past were permitted a certain amount of licence in the seeding, have since 2002 used a complicated system, involving ATP ranking, current form, phases of the moon and, crucially, performances at previous Wimbledons.  Given Nadal reached the final every year from 2006 until 2011, this particular criterion should, you would think, not present a problem.  However, apparently largest weighting is given to the most recent tournament (naturally), so Nadal’s injury-affected defeat to Lukas Rosol last year comes into play, and once all the calculations have been done, it turns out he’s only the fifth-most likely player to win.

Had Nadal and Ferrer been drawn in the same quarter, then we could reasonably expect the usual suspects to make up the semi-finals.  Instead we have a lop-sided draw, with the bottom half in particular absolutely loaded – the probable quarter-final line-up being Nadal v Roger Federer and Andy Murray v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  Despite the Swiss maestro’s waning powers (and no matter what anyone might tell you, his is the most aesthetically-pleasing backhand in the game) no Federer v Nadal match should take place before the semi-finals.  The opposite side’s projected line-up of Djokovic v Berdych and Ferrer v Del Potro doesn’t have the same allure.

Let’s then look at some other matches and potential matches that could produce some fireworks.  In the bottom half, the potential fourth round clash between Nadal and Stan Wawrinka could be a classic.  Wawrinka always looks like he should do better than he does – he has all the talent, and when he gets it right he can be almost unplayable, such as the famous match against Murray in 2009, the first ever match played under the roof.  Yet he still lost that game, which has been the difference between the top four and the rest over the last few years – the ability to somehow grind out a win even when your opponent is playing inspired tennis.  Further down there is a potential second round meeting between another extravagantly-gifted but slightly wayward player in the opinionated Latvian Ernests Gulbis and Tsonga.  Again it is highly unlikely that Gulbis will be able to beat the Frenchman, but if he plays to his best, he will certainly make it an entertaining game.

Up in the top half, there is a projected meeting in the third round between Juan Martin Del Potro and Grigor Dimitrov (or to give him his official title, Mr M Sharapova).  Dimitrov, winner of Junior Wimbledon in 2008, has been compared to Federer with his single-handed backhand and the apparent ease with which he plays the game, and is a young player on the up.  If he can move the big-hitting, but sometimes ponderous Argentinean around the court, as Ferrer did to such great effect last year, then he could provide an upset.  Another player to watch out for is Milos Raonic, the big-serving Canadian whose game is seemingly perfectly suited to grass.  He has been described as promising for some time now, and with a favourable draw (he is in the same eighth as Ferrer, and could meet him in round 4), it is conceivable he will reach his first Grand Slam quarter-final, possibly even a semi-final.

Now to discuss the winner.  There are two schools of thought here.  For Nadal or Federer to win, they will have to beat each other, followed by Murray/Tsonga and then Djokovic, all of which could well go to 5 sets and will presumably take it out of their legs, notwithstanding their quite astonishing fitness levels.  Murray would have to beat Tsonga, Nadal/Federer and Djokovic, whereas the Serb should stroll into the final with relative ease (his first round match against Florian Mayer could be his trickiest, although Tommy Haas in the fourth round won’t be easy), but won’t have been properly tested and, as such, won’t be as match-sharp as his opponent.  Given Nadal’s form since his comeback, and the fact that he has had the measure of both Federer and Murray over the last few years, I am going to put the de Winter chemise on him, and hope that he retains enough in the tank to squeeze past Djokovic in the final.