Is serve-volley tennis making a comeback?

Mischa Zverev’s stunning defeat of world number one Andy Murray provides hope for fans of the once-popular art of serve and volley tennis.

Look at the draw for the last eight of the Australian Open and you’ll see something that you haven’t seen for a while – the names of net rushers Mischa Zverev and Milos Raonic.

Two players that employ the serve and volley game have made it to the quarter-finals of a grand slam for the first time in an age.

Zverev’s victory over Murray on Sunday displayed just how effective the tactic can be if done well. The German came to the net 119 times during the match, winning 70 of those points as he employed a tactic that the increasingly frustrated Murray had no answer to.

This unorthodox style of play must have been a treat for younger members of the audience brought up on a diet of baseline bravado, but older fans will remember it well.

Just a generation ago, if you wanted to win Wimbledon or the pre-1988 Australian Open, then you simply had to serve and volley.

The slick grass courts and low bounce gave the advantage to net rushers who followed their serves in for the quick kill.

The mere mention of the names John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Pat Rafter, Michael Stich and Stefan Edberg, for some conjures up images of fast, attacking tennis, where players threw themselves to the ground in an attempt to reach a volley.

A brand of excitement rarely achieved in the present day’s ‘battles of the baseline.’

Even great baseline players like Bjorn Borg, who won Wimbledon five times in a row from 1976-1980, would come to the net, because if they wanted to win in SW19 that was the only way to do it.

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But things have changed – and dramatically so. In just 15 years serve and volley players have gone the way of the dinosaurs. The last pure serve and volleyer to win Wimbledon being Goran Ivanisevic back in 2001.

Pete Sampras, one of the last great advocates of the art, said in 2014 “I was a natural serve and volleyer. Those guys are pretty much extinct today.”

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Today, net rushers are few and far between. Radek Stepanek, currently ranked 102 in the world, is recognised as one of the few remaining practitioners of the art.

While Roger Federer can serve and volley with the best, he only chooses to do so occasionally. Canada’s Milos Raonic, the 24-year-old rising star who made the semi-final at Melbourne and the final of Wimbledon last year, is also a strong serve and volley player who some commentators say is leading a mini-renaissance.

But why did serve and volley die out?

Most pundits peg the beginning of the end for the serve-volley game to developments in racquet and string technology that began in the 1980s, bigger racquet heads made it much easier to impart huge amounts of topspin on the ball while also hitting it very hard.

These technological changes gradually saw baseliners begin to do well at Wimbledon, with Andre Agassi and Jim Courier among the first backcourt players to make inroads in the early 1990s.

The improved equipment also saw players develop huge, booming serves that on grass were nigh on impossible to return. 

This culminated in the 1994 Wimbledon final between Sampras and fellow big server Goran Ivanisevic, sometimes dubbed ‘the match that changed tennis.’
 
Huge serves, lots of aces and virtually no rallies, it drew complaints of boring tennis.

Wimbledon took action, gradually switching to heavier balls and slower grass in a bid to improve the entertainment value. Balls would now bounce higher and travel slower off the turf, creating better conditions for baseline rallies and making it more difficult to serve and volley effectively.

Meanwhile, continued developments in racquet and string technology resulted in ever faster, dipping returns that made things harder for serve-volley players.

The added control that newer, better racquets gave players also made coming into the net riskier, as passing shots became easier to pull off.

As the technology developed kids began to be coached differently, learning the art of topspin from an early age. Coaches agree that it takes much longer and many years of training to become a competent serve and volleyer, so in today’s results oriented world players often take the shortest route to winning – the power game.

These changes have altered the face of the game, leaving baseline tennis as the dominant force and consigning the cut and thrust of serve and volley to the history books.

Net rushing is now a tactic used when players are looking to surprise or pressure their opponent, but Raonic is employing it more often and more effectively. Federer has also begun to use the tactic more frequently over the last two years, possibly in a bid to conserve energy.

Raonic won 141 points at the net during his run to the semi-finals at last year’s Australian Open, and was leading Andy Murray two sets to one until an injury began to affect him, handing the advantage to Murray.

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Whether Raonic’s relative success at Melbourne and Wimbledon last year, Federer’s silky skills at the net, and Zverev’s recent stunning success over Murray will encourage other players to increase the frequency of their visits to the net is hard to tell.

But fans of the ancient art of all-out attack will certainly be hoping that it does.

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