Playing All the Angles
I tried to serve to learn to serve and volley, I really did. But I was a baseliner, and that’s all there was to it. That’s pretty much all there could be to it.
It was watching Michael Llodra play this morning that made realize why there haven’t been many guys who can do both equally well. Llodra is one of the few natural volleyers and net-rushers around, but his ability to do that comes with trade-offs. He has a one-handed backhand and a conservative grip on his forehand, a combination that makes shifting his grips when he gets to the net relatively easy, but which keeps him from being able to dictate from the back of the court. It’s not a matter of choice; he has to come forward to win. (As you can see, if you do commit to this style, you can still win with it, though a nice fast home court doesn’t hurt.) The reverse is true for baseliners, who are constantly being told to come in more “just to mix things up.” It’s certainly possible for someone with a semi-Western grip and a two-handed backhand to get better around the net, but they’re still going to have the best chance of winning when they’re at the baseline.
The problem for me was that I liked to serve and volley. I just couldn’t win points doing it. There’s a sense of adventure to it that’s missing from the baseline grind. You hurtle in and force the action. You have to react immediately, without knowing what type of shot you’re going to need to hit. You have to improvise athletically—bend, lunge, leap—which is a pretty exciting thing to do. The whole court is yours—front, back, above your head, down at your toes. You don't just hit the ball at chest height while standing inside a two-foot strip at the back of the court.
Richard Evans reported seeing Bjorn Borg serve and volley very late in his career in a tournament in Geneva. He’d won the first set in his usual manner, from the backcourt, then shifted to a net-rushing style in the second. His opponent, pleasantly stunned, won the second easily, before Borg grudgingly went back to the same-old, same-old and wrapped up the third. The same was true for me when I played my usual opponents as a kid. I’d serve and volley for a while, enjoying the chance to create different angles, come up with half volleys, jump back for overheads. But I’d eventually get broken doing it. At the end of the match my victorious opponent would say, “I’m glad you decided to serve and volley today. You should keep that up.”
To me, from a spectator’s point of view, there’s nothing about serve and volley tennis that is intrinsically more entertaining than baseline play. There were widespread complaints through the 1960s about how boring the Big Game had become, when both guys were coming in on every ball—points were monotonously short, the same way they could be monotonously long when Borg, Vilas, Lendl, and Wilander were at the heights of their powers 10 or 15 years later. It’s variety that’s entertaining, and that’s why watching Llodra play in such a completely different way from the norm now has been so much fun this week.
It’s a different sport from the first shot on. Llodra’s serve doesn’t exist by itself, the way it does for a baseliner. It’s linked to his next shot; it’s a method to get him to the net—serve and volley can’t be pulled apart. The flow between the two makes the big gun/stay back serving style of most guys today seem disjointed. And because he’s hitting the ball from a little farther inside the court, Llodra can get a sharper angle on his wide serve into the ad court. One major appeal of the serve and volley is that you get to see cause and effect very clearly and very quickly. A purpose is decipherable in each swing. This is also true for Llodra’s slice backhand. Even if he doesn’t get there immediately, you can see that each stroke is a way to eventually move him forward.
Once Llodra is at the net, you get to see a wider variety of angles than you normally do. The court can suddenly be carved up in a dozen new ways, and with his masterful backhand volley—one of the finest strokes on the tour—Llodra is the guy to carve it up. There’s an in-your-face satisfaction in seeing a ball belted past someone else from the baseline. The angled volley provokes a slightly different reaction. It’s elegant and thought-out at the same time; it’s a rapier cut rather than a rifle shot. There’s also, as I said, an adventurous quality to running forward and taking the ball out of the air, of using the other guy’s shot to form an angle for your own.
If everyone served and volleyed, I’d be writing a piece about the beauty of baseline tennis whenever I had the chance. The problem with the Big Game of the 60s is that players' ground strokes, which they used primarily to defend or get them to the net, were so minimal and utilitarian. The world awaits the special talent who, having internalized the advances of power-baseline tennis, is just as adept at serving and volleying and can make use of the entire court with equal facility. Boris Becker may be the closest the sport has gotten to this since I’ve been watching, though I'm sure Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall weren’t too shabby at it, either. Roger Federer could be, because he can play the net, but he’s found that he’s best at it when he’s following a forehand in rather than his serve. Andy Murray has the skill, but not the mentality. For now, this week, on this slick surface, we’ve had Llodra. The over-30 Frenchman is still around to remind us that an alternative tennis universe exists. It’s always an eye-opener.
Have a good weekend.