Serve-and-volley

Serve and volley is a style of play in tennis where the player serving moves quickly towards the net after hitting a serve. The server then attempts to hit a volley (a shot where the ball is struck without allowing it to bounce), as opposed to the baseline style, where the server stays back following the serve and attempts to hit a ground stroke (a shot where the ball is allowed to bounce before contact is made). The serve style of play has diminished in recent years with the advances in racquet and string technologies which allows players to generate great amount of top spin on ground strokes and passing shots. Patrick Rafter was the last pure serve and volley player to win a grand slam. Also the slowing of court surfaces and deflation of the balls for greater rallies for the enjoyment of spectators has also put a dampener on the serve and volley style. People also cite the lack of teaching the serve and volley art to juniors who are too small to effectively employ this method in the juniors so it has become obsolete in grassroots tennis.

The aim of this strategy is to put immediate pressure on the opponent with the intent of ending points quickly. Good returns must be made, or else the server can gain advantage. This tactic is especially useful on fast courts (e.g. grass courts) and less so on slow courts (e.g. clay courts). For it to be successful, the player must either have a good serve or be exceptionally quick in movement around the net. Ken Rosewall, for instance, had a very feeble serve but was a very successful serve-and-volley player for two decades. Goran Ivanišević, on the other hand, had success with serve-and-volley strategy with great serves and average volleys.

The Serve and volley era

Although earlier tennis greats such as Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, and Don Budge had been noted for their fine serves and net games, they had not played a serve-and-volley style game. Jack Kramer in the late 1940s was the first world-class player to consistently come to the net after every serve, including his second serve. Kramer writes, however, in his 1979 autobiography, that it was Bobby Riggs, his opponent in the 1948 Pro tennis tour who began the strategy: "When we first started touring he came at me on his first serve, on his second serve, and on my second serve.... my second serve didn't kick like Bobby's, so he could return that deep enough and follow into the net.... It forced me to think attack constantly. I would rush in and try to pound his weakest point -- his backhand. So the style I am famous for was not consciously planned: it was created out of the necessity of dealing with Bobby Riggs."

In the mid-1950s, when Pancho Gonzales was dominating professional tennis with his serve-and-volley game, occasional brief attempts were made to partially negate the power of his serve. This, it was felt, would lead to longer rallies and more spectator interest. At least three times the rules were modified:

  • In several important tournaments such as the United States Professional Championships the Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System (VASSS), devised by James Van Alen, was used. The match was scored as if in table tennis, with 21 points per game, 5 serves per player, and no second serves. The fans preferred the traditional scoring system, however, and in any case Gonzales continued to win under VASSS rules.
  • Jack Kramer, by then the professional tour promoter and no longer its dominant player, also tried a three-bounce rule, in which the server could not come to the net until the ball had been in play for at least three bounces. Gonzales won anyway, and this experiment was dropped.
  • Kramer also tried marking a secondary service line one yard behind the main one, so that the server was further away from the net when he served. Once again Gonzales was undeterred and the original rules were restored.

Other male tennis players known for their serve-and-volley technique include Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter and Richard Krajicek.

Serve-and-volley strategy has traditionally been less common amongst female players. An early pioneer in women's volleying was Elizabeth Ryan, who was at the top of women's game in the mid-late 1920s. But it was later on that serve and volley caught on in women's game. The style propelled Margaret Court to become the all-time leader in Grand Slam titles (24 in singles, 62 total). Later on Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotná became the players known for their serve-and-volley style. More recent than that, players such like Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, and Amelie Mauresmo were willing to come to the net, with Henin and Mauresmo playing a very heavy serve & volley and volleying in general match during the 2006 Wimbledon Finals. Henin was also known for serving and volleying (later on in her career) on set points and match points, such as on Championship point at the 2007 US Open Final against Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Serve and volley today

Although the strategy has become less common nowadays, in both the men's and women's game, a few players still prefer to come in on almost every serve. Notable examples are Michaël Llodra, Feliciano Lopez, Nicolas Mahut, Rajeev Ram, Gilles Müller, Radek Štěpánek, Ivo Karlović and Dustin Brown. Many other players employ the strategy depending on the court surface, such as Roger Federer at Wimbledon, emulating Pete Sampras, who despite being known for his great serve and volley game, did not always come to the net behind the serve on slower courts, particularly on the second serve.

On the women's side, serve-and-volley has become almost extinct at the very top level. Roberta Vinci and Hsieh Su-wei are the only notable (WTA elite) players that prefer to play with this style.[1]

Views on the serve and volley

Bill Tilden, the dominant player of the 1920s and one of the fathers of the cannonball serve, nevertheless preferred to play from the backcourt and liked nothing better than to face an opponent who threw powerful serves and ground strokes at him and who rushed the net — one way or another Tilden would find a way to hit the ball past him. Tilden may also have spent more time analyzing the game of tennis than anyone before or since. His book Match Play and the Spin of the Ball (1925) is still in print and is the definitive work on the subject. In it, Tilden propounds the theory that by definition a great baseline player will always beat a great serve-and-volleyer; his returns of service will, by definition, be impossible to hit for winning volleys. Tilden used this style of play for many years.

Some of the best matches of all time[according to whom?] have pitted great baseliners such as Björn Borg or Andre Agassi against great serve-and-volleyers such as Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe or Pat Rafter. Since Tilden's time, head-to-head results on various surfaces, such as those played out in the famous rivalry between Borg and McEnroe, contradict his theory that great baseline players will inevitably defeat great serve-and-volley ones by definition.[2]

Another perspective on the serve-and-volley game is that it is less tiring than playing constantly from the backcourt. Kramer says in his autobiography that he and Pancho Segura once tried playing three matches in which they allowed the ball to bounce three times before either could approach the net. "I don't believe I could have played tennis the way Segoo and I did for the three nights because it wore me out, running down all those groundstrokes. It was much more gruelling than putting a lot into a serve and following it in." He goes on to say that "Rosewall was a backcourt player when he came into the pros, but he learned very quickly how to play the net. Eventually, for that matter, he became a master of it, as much out of physical preservation as for any other reason. I guarantee you that Kenny wouldn't have lasted into his forties as a world-class player if he hadn't learned to serve and volley."

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