Attacking Dreams

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For a while there, it seemed like old times again. Among all the unexpected results so far at Wimbledon, none has been quite as surprising as the success of a few unsung journeymen who took advantage of the cool, humid conditions to take us back a few decades, back to when serve-and-volley tennis was the order of the day, and the titans of turf rained down monstrous serves—and backed them up with untouchable volleys that sounded like they’d been shot from cannons rather than trampolined off the strings of a tennis racquet.

There was much shouting and weeping for joy, at least among tennis fans of a certain age—baby boomers, mostly, the very fans who created the tennis boom shortly after the Open era, and have yet to dispel from their imaginations the ghosts of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe and Tony Roche, much as they might admire and enjoy the work of Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic.

For there was Dustin  Brown, dreadlocks flying, serving and touch-volleying his way to a win during which he approached the net 87 times. And there was Sergiy Stakhovsky rushing the net 96 times behind a booming serve and then smacking away razor-cut backhand volleys or punching through the same but on the forehand side. Igor Sijsling also took advantage of those rusty tools, the sliced backhand and cut volley, to advance.

What’s more, the early upsets created by these daring and bold dissidents in an era dominated by atomic and sometimes seemingly endless baseline exchanges were resounding ones. Brown took down former Wimbledon champ Lleyton Hewitt, and Sijsling vanquished Milos Raonic. Ironically, Raonic is exactly the kind of player who, two or three generations ago, most likely would have been a serve-and-volley specialist.

But it was Stakhovsky who turned in the biggest upset of them all, one destined to become part of the lore and legend of the game. He ended defending champ Roger Federer’s astonishing streak of 36 straight Grand Slam singles quarterfinals (or better) with his second-round triumph.

"He was uncomfortable to play against,” Federer admitted later. “I think he served and volleyed really well. It was difficult to get into that much rhythm clearly against a player like that.”

Hewitt was also sobered and impressed following his loss to Brown: “Yeah, well, his (Brown’s) half-volley pickups, drop shot half-volleys, low volleys—all of them were pretty good. His hands, he had pretty good control on tough shots out there.”

And let’s not forget that not all the players who are inclined to attack the net met with similar success—Frenchmen Nicolas Mahut and Michael Llodra didn’t survive the second round. But the big questions in the wake of this unusual burst of serve-and-volley glory are:  How do you account for it? Are we seeing the beginning of a trend—even a minor one? And is there any chance it can last—even if it’s at just this one tournament?

There’s no doubt that these results and an equally impressive resurgence in the use of slice, even by baseliners, had a lot to do with the ambient conditions. The success of these men demonstrates that while the grass courts at Wimbledon are playing slower and more like hard courts, that comparison only goes so far—even at the best of times.

The bounce on the grass remains much lower than the clay on which most of the players labor for almost three months before Wimbledon. It’s lower than the bounce on most hard courts. And he cooler and damper it gets, the more pronounced that difference becomes. The combination of grass, cool weather, and humidity creates a perfect storm for both servers (especially those proficient with the now neglected slice serve) and volleyers, as well as for the actual, dying-breed of serve-and-volleyers (those who rush the net behind the serve, come hell, high water, or Rafael Nadal’s forehand).

As Stakhovsky said, “Grass is very adaptive to the weather conditions.  When it's windy and it's not that hot, it's faster.  When it's hot, it's very slow.”

Slow, but perhaps not quite as slow as some think. Sijsling is of the ignorance is bliss school. He put it this way: “I heard it (the grass) became slower, but I haven't been playing a lot of years here. So to me, the grass is still pretty fast, one of the fastest surfaces. I try to play attacking game and use the serve and volley in my advantage.”

In fact, a fair number of players are aware of the potential benefits of serve-and-volley tennis, and the reality may be that the biggest impediment to a resurgence of attacking tennis is the lack of fast-court surfaces, or tournaments where the conditions can have as much impact as they had at Wimbledon this week. After all, none of this is rocket science; players right up into the Federer era had little trouble making the transition from flat-out serve-and-volley play to the more prudent baseline game demanded by slower surfaces.

Federer himself said, “It is a tactic you can use if you play it the right way—if you have a big enough serve, you move good enough. Clearly you also have to be good enough from the baseline on the return because you need a break once in a while.”

It’s too bad that Federer stopped short of adding that the surface also has to be friendly to the attacking game—or at least more friendly than it has been in recent years.

Federer does touch on another subtle but important point—the shift of emphasis in recent years from the serve to the return—a change propelled according to some by changes in racquet frame and string technology that are more helpful to the returner than the server.

And that’s where I believe some of the major misconceptions and one of the great shortcomings of this era lies. Servers have turned the game over to returners. By eschewing the attacking game so comprehensively, they’ve not just invited returners to play with a lot more confidence, they’ve also unshackled them from what was traditionally one of the greatest challenges for even a good returner—return placement.

Today’s players know they can take huge cuts and produce returns that make spectators ooooh and aaaaah because they don’t have to be accurate, they can hit with as much topspin as they like (real world meaning: the ball can travel as high over the middle of the net as possible); they don’t even have to worry about where an opponent is. But demand that a returner reduce his target area from one half of the court or the other to a much narrower window along either sideline, and it’s an entirely different ballgame. Force him to hit the ball past you and now you’re adding the element created by something familiar to all tennis players and fans—pressure.

We may never see serve-and-volley tennis of the kind that we grew accustomed to back in the 1960s and 70s, and I don’t think it’s a poorer game for that. But we could certainly use seeing a lot more of the attacking game than we do now, and that would make it a richer game, as well as a more demanding one for many of the players.

You may remember that baseliner Ivan Lendl—whose lifelong quest to win Wimbledon never did pan out—was considered a pariah for a good portion of his career, partly because he took particular satisfaction in drilling opponents (particularly his rival John McEnroe) who dared to attack the net against him.

Federer, it was noted, also hit the ball at Stakhovsky a number of times during their match. He was asked a number of questions about it later, some of them seeming to suggest that there was something untoward or inappropriately aggressive about hitting the ball as hard as you can, right at your opponent.

"It's more tactical, I guess.” Federer replied, unperturbed. “I knew coming in he was going to come. I knew sometimes also I was going to go after him just to try to win the point, not to hurt him.”

He smiled and added, “This is not the juniors here.” 

No, indeed. And when Federer comes off looking like another Lendl, you know something weird is going on. Maybe that isn’t entirely bad, either.

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