Serve-and-Volley, Anyone?

Once the dominant style in tennis, rushing the net is now a vanishing art

man serving a tennis ball
Photograph by Frank Weidenfelder

It is difficult to describe the serenity one attains from striking a tennis ball with authority. Gravity, geometry, and all the forces of nature collaborate, and the fuzzy yellow orb spins as it should. Intent becomes action, and action becomes reality. That is the high. For some, tennis is a hobby; for others, it is a compulsion. For the most stricken, like me, it is a religion that, like Buddhism, allows devotees to transcend time and space and glean insight into the true nature of existence. The most fanatical of us are known as “serve-and-volleyers.” Too impatient to sit at the baseline waiting for enlightenment, we seek purity by serving big and rushing the net, hoping for an easy volley. Success often feels like equal parts hard work and good karma.

“It seems risky, but serve-and-volleying is the opposite of gambling, if you know what you’re doing,” twenty-seven-year-old Matt Klinger, a professional player and former member of Canada’s Davis Cup team, tells me as we stand on a court under the midday heat. “As a serve-and-volleyer, you’re putting all your cards on the table. You’re saying, ‘I’m coming in and if you can pass me consistently, you’ll win. If not, you’re finished.’?” For five months, Klinger has been working with me to polish my net-rushing game. When you follow your serve to the net, you force the player opposite you to make a difficult passing shot. The objective is to set up a volley — a shot in which you return the ball before it touches the ground — that will either be an outright winner or set up an easy finishing volley. While it sounds simple, volleying is an immensely difficult feat that requires lightning agility, intense concentration, and instinctive hand-eye coordination. Tennis is a game of time: you must take time away from your opponent. If you succeed, your adversary will make more mistakes, and you will hit more winners. “Serve-and-volley can be unbelievably tough to play against,” says Dean Coburn, the Tennis Canada coach who works with Peter Polansky, one of the country’s top male prospects. “They just keep coming. It is demoralizing. Of course, in order to serve-and-volley well, you have to be mentally tough. Resilient. You have to have a ‘next’ mentality, a belief that your opponent is going to break down at some time under the pressure.”

The strategy was the dominant style of play in men’s tennis from the fifties through the seventies (but was not fully embraced on the women’s side until the sixties). As recently as ten years ago, serve-and-volley was still fairly prevalent; the average men’s tennis rally was said to last three strokes. “Pistol” Pete Sampras won fourteen Grand Slam titles charging relentlessly forward, applying pressure, driving himself into his opponents’ psyches, crushing their hopes.

Yet today, the art of serve-and-volley is on the verge of becoming a relic, atrick to be employed once in a while to keep an opponent off balance. “In college tennis,” says Coburn, “a lot of top players believe in serve-and-volley, but few guys on the professionaltour are doing it.” In fact, you’ll find only a handful of pure serve-and-volleyers among the top one hundred players on the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals (atp) tour. In coaching circles, there is a drift away from cultivating the idiosyncratic genius of serve-and-volley players such as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, and Patrick Rafter, and toward fostering the overwhelming efficiency and consistency of Spanish phenomenon Rafael Nadal, or the versatility of today’s dominant player, Swiss right-hander Roger Federer, who is happy to pack a lunch and camp out at the baseline. “Ten years ago there were a lot more serve-and-volleyers. No one now is going to come in,” a defiant Sampras, who still plays the occasional game on the World Team Tennis tour, told reporters during Wimbledon in 2006. “I will die serving and volleying. It’s my natural instinct.”

The demise of the serve-and-volley style of tennis could be dismissed as a curious sports footnote were it not for the game’s resonance. Tennis is a barometer of modern culture. When things are on the boil, tennis is on the boom. It has experienced two explosions in popularity, both during periods of social upheaval. The first occurred during the tumultuous twenties, while the latter began in the wake of the Summer of Love and culminated in the early eighties. Throughout these eras, the classic struggle — whether it was Tilden versus Borotra in the late twenties or Borg versus McEnroe in 1980 — always pitted a wily, rock-solid baseliner against a slashing serve-and-volley virtuoso. In essence, it was steady nineteenth-century values (baseline) against streamlined, unsentimental modernism (serve-and-volley). The net rushers were the barbarians at the gate, throwing up skyscrapers, dreaming in Bauhaus, and stomping pastel landscapes.

“Most serve-and-volleyers are wild men,” Klinger tells me during a drill. “It’s like they say, ‘Your game has to reflect your personality.’?”

“But I’m not a wild man.”

“But you were, man, you’ve just got a family now and shit. But inside you’re still fucking crazy. You’ve got to be a little crazy to come to the net, man. If you weren’t crazy, you wouldn’t like it so much. You wouldn’t want to be up there daring people to rip one by you.”

This screw-loose, wild-man-within theory is what led my editor to assign this story. “I want you to bring yourself into it,” he tells me over the phone as we discuss the piece.

I steer the discussion to history. “I can bring it back to the sixteenth century. There are poems extolling the virtues of coming to the net.” I quote sixteenth-century French poet Guillaume de la Perrière: “?’Whoever prefers the bounce to the volley has never been considered a good player…’”

“Yeah,” he says, interrupting. “That’s great, but I want to know, I mean it’s odd, don’t you think…” I hear him draw a breath, choosing words. “Don’t you think it’s odd that you prefer this hyper-aggressive style of play?”

“I guess.”

“Well, I find it strange. You don’t exactly try to dominate conversations.”

“I guess not,” I say, proving his point.

Out on the court, I am hitting serves while Klinger, who stands beside a basket of balls, lets them go by and hits mock-return shots that I must volley and follow in. It is thirty-seven degrees Celsius and sweat is pouring off me. On the courts next to us, players look at me as if I were an exhibit at the zoo. I am the only serve-and-volleyer at my club. It was always in my nature to “come to net,” as they say. As a kid, I would watch McEnroe play Borg, then head out, wooden Dunlop Maxply in hand, and stand in front of a school wall volleying like Johnny Mac. The goal was to hit the ball as many times as possible without letting it hit the ground.

But McEnroe was not the prototype. Jean Borotra (“the Bounding Basque”) was the first truly world-famous serve-and-volleyer, one of France’s “Four Musketeers,” who dominated tennis in the late twenties and early thirties. Borotra started playing while serving in the French army and developed a style in which, according to tennis histor-ian Arthur Voss, “he sought [the net] at every opportunity.” Borotra was followed by Pancho Gonzalez, who grew up playing on the concrete courts of South Central Los Angeles and was never embraced by the wasp tennis establishment. A loner with an explosive temper who only grew more effective when angry, Gonzalez played a serve-and-volley game so devastating that tournament organizers briefly changed the rules in order to prevent him from coming to the net immediately after serving. Legendary Australian player Rod “the Rocket” Laver, though skilled from the backcourt, came in incessantly and won all four of the major singles titles (Wimbledon and the Australian, French, and US Opens) twice each, becoming the only double Grand Slammer in the history of the game. Laver’s style inspired the generation of great serve-and-volley players led by McEnroe, Edberg, and Boris Becker.

Starting in the midseventies, however, technological advances and the popularization of tennis set the stage for the demise of the serve-and-volley ethos. In 1976, Howard Head, an engineer with the sporting goods–manufacturer Prince, introduced an oversized metal tennis racquet with almost sixty-five more square centimetres of hitting surface than the standard wooden racquet of the day. At first, pros laughed at it, dubbing it the “flyswatter,” but club players embraced it. Prince’s sales rose from $3 million in 1976 to $60 million in 1982. The metal racquet was soon replaced by the stronger and lighter “graphite” racquet, made from carbon and other materials, which also sported a large face. The bigger sweet spot on these new racquets made it possible to hit with more force, and the result was a crop of players who had one or two main weapons, such as a big serve and a killer forehand. In the late eighties, players such as Michael Chang were using the bigger racquet to add topspin, playing high-percentage tennis (involving, for instance, hitting cross-court over the low part of the net). This made it easier for baseliners to pass serve-and-volleyers as they charged forward.

Tennis courts have changed, too. Originally, tennis was played indoors, on hardwood floors, but in 1873, in an attempt to make the sport more accessible, an English army officer patented “lawn tennis.” Similarly, in the seventies, as the sport became more popular in North America, hard courts made of asphalt and concrete, which were easier and cheaper to maintain than grass, began to take over. Professional tennis reflected this shift. In 1974, three of the four Grand Slams were played on grass, which favours the serve-and-volleyer. Today, Wimbledon is the only major tourney played on turf. Both the US Open and Australian Open are played on hard courts, the French Open on snail-slow red clay. In recent years, tournament organizers have taken steps to slow down their courts even further and are experimenting with slower balls in an attempt to eliminate the big-serve game and encourage longer ral-lies, which spectators are said to prefer.

Dean Coburn believes that while the serve-and-volley strategy will not live on as a single-minded way of life, it will survive as a facet of the game. He sees a shift to the all-court mastery perfected by Federer. “You’ll see eight or nine guys trying to play like Roger. The philosophy is to try and dictate, but to be able to do it in a different way each point,” says Coburn.

In other words, a pragmatic, flexible approach for a pragmatic, flexible era. Today there are three main types of player: the grinder (Nadal), who hits everything back with heavy topspin, the aggressive baseliner (Agassi), who takes the ball as it rises from its bounce and looks to control play, and the all-court player (Federer), who can stay at the baseline but is comfortable making the occasional foray to the net. But something has been lost with the decline of the serve-and-volley game?—?honesty, perhaps. The pure serve-and-volleyer wasn’t hiding anything. He was coming in. He was going to apply pressure.

At home after my lesson, I go down to the basement and dig up my private stash of videotapes. These are old matches: Connors versus Krickstein, Agassi versus Sampras. I find the tape I am looking for and put it in the vcr. It is Sampras versus Australian serve-and-volley guru Rafter in the 1998 US Open in New York City. There is Rafter, whose brother had acquainted him with Buddhist teachings, sunscreen on his face like war paint, serve-and-volleying the king off the court. I was actually in New York for the match but had it taped so that I could watch it again later. I can still recall the look of absolute concentration on Rafter’s face. “I’ve just got to knuckle down and play my game,” he tells the announcers before play begins. “And if he can beat me at my game, well, I’ve just got to take my hat off to him.” Rafter, who was so poor early in his career that he once slept in an atm lobby, wins in five sets: 6-7, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. He went on to win the championship a few days later, donating all the prize money to a foundation for terminally ill children, proving that nice guys finish…at the net.

Andrew Clark