Will the art of serve and volley end with Roger Federer?

With more and more slower courts, defensive tennis is here to stay; Roger Federer could perhaps be the last proponent of offensive game.

It’s not unusual for people to glorify the past by comparing it with the present. In tennis too, there are many who bemoan the death of the serve-and-volley game, and pine for the revival of that dead art. A decade back, we had different court surfaces favouring both the attacking and defensive players; the game was highly unpredictable then with even the less-famous players posing threat to the top seeds. Now, with the homogenisation of courts, the game has become more or less monopolised by the Big Four.

Gone are the days when the four different Grand Slams moulded players with distinctive styles - the faster surfaces of the Wimbledon and the US Open favouring the offensive serve-and-volley players, while the medium-fast and slow courts of the Australian Open and the French Open favouring the defensive baseliners.

With the evolution of rackets and technology, the game has become more physical, favouring the aggressive returners. Nowadays, it’s not just about the skill, but also about strength and stamina as players’ bodies are required to adapt to hit power-packed groundstrokes and longer rallies. With novelty giving way to power and endurance, the matches, at times, turn out to be monotonous when played between similar styled contenders.

According to former world No: 1 and 14-Grand Slam winner Pete Sampras:

“Everyone is staying back and hitting the crap out of the ball, which is fun to watch. Now everyone plays the same way; there’s just four or five guys that are a lot better than the rest. Roger has a little more variety, to come in, you know, slice it, chip and charge occasionally, show a little bit of that. For the most part it’s just everyone staying back and throwing rocks.”

While players like Rafael Nadal believes that defensive game and longer matches draw more crowd,  Roger Federer, winner of 17 Grand Slams shares Sampras’ view.  "If that"s what people want to see, just rallies, rallies, rallies all the time, then it"s good to have a slow court. If you want a bit more even ground for everybody, even the lower-ranked guys and more danger for the top guys, you go with a faster court," Federer said.

If the previous decade was about the overabundance of aces, now we have rallies in galore. These days it is not uncommon to see a 20 plus shots rally ending with an unforced error. That brings to my mind the 54-shot rally between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the US Open final last year; Djokovic won that point when Nadal’s delivery hit the net.

With players rarely approaching the net, we see less innovative winners from their rackets. While it is exciting to watch the rallies, it is equally disappointing that most points are won by forcing the opponent to commit an error. Djokovic and Nadal, both employ this strategy against Federer. The game has become more of technique than of ingenuity. No one does ‘slam dunks’ like Pete Sampras anymore, nor could they, in the current scenario.

Defensive tennis is here to stay with slow courts having higher bounce cater to that style of play, but it is unfair to the serve-and-volley players the same time.

Players like Jo Wilfred Tsonga would have had a better shot at winning a Grand Slam had the courts been not standardised. In 2008, an unseeded Tsonga was able to topple Rafael Nadal in straight sets at the Australian Open semifinals; the very same year the tournament authorities in Melbourne decided to change the court surface to a comparatively faster Plexicushion from Rebound Ace. This year too, the courts were reported to be faster than the previous years, and hence it witnessed a new champion  outside the Big Four, who aced and volleyed to win his first Grand Slam.

Roger Federer once cited that slower courts often meant that only the best players make it to the later rounds. “You sort of protect the top guys really by doing that because you have the best possible chance to have them in the semis at this point, I think. But should that be the goal? I’m not sure,” he opined.

Although just a personal opinion, Federer has a point here. In the past 36 Grand Slam finals, only Juan Martin Del Potro (2009 US Open ) and Stanislas Wawrinka were able to break the Big Four’s spell.

Del Potro won the US Open in a fast DecoTurf surface, but since 2011, the US Open, traditionally considered a hard court event, too has become slower favouring the baseliners.

Not just the Grand Slams, but even the Masters tournaments have made changes to the court surfaces to make the matches longer and exciting. In men’s circuit, other than all-court players like Roger Federer and Andy Murray, we have only a handful of players like Michael Llodra, Nicolas Mahut, Feliciano Lopez, Jo Wilfred Tsonga etc., who engage in serve and volley game occasionally.

With tennis becoming a showdown of more or less similar players on more or less similar courts these days, perhaps we can expect some good matches in the wake of the Masters tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami next month since Federer has claimed to serve and volley more in 2014.

Date: 16th February 2014, Source: Tennis World USA


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