Over the years, grass-court tennis on the women’s side has continued to reward the more powerful baseliners on tour, from the Williams sisters—with 12 Wimbledon titles between them—to Petra Kvitova to last year’s champion, Garbine Muguruza.
It’s a far cry from the past, where serving and volleying was the norm, born of necessity. With the surface providing a truer bounce and the heavier balls, it pays to play from the baseline.
Against those odds, can the forward-thinking players make their own net gains?
At the first grass-court events of the season in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Nottingham, the top seeds were CoCo Vandeweghe and Ashleigh Barty, respectively. Both made it through to the weekend behind contrasting styles: Vandeweghe relies on her powerful serve and groundstrokes which pick up even more speed on faster surfaces, while Barty is more apt to mix it up in her rallies while finishing up points at the net.
Vandeweghe’s two career singles titles have come in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and she’s reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon twice. Barty, meanwhile, reached her first grass-court final in Birmingham just last year. The young Australian is playing catch-up as she took time away from the game before returning to have her best campaign in 2017.
WATCH—Court Report from when Muguruza won Wimbledon in 2017:
Before her comeback, Barty was best known for her doubles play, having partnered with her compatriot Casey Dellacqua to reach the finals at all four Grand Slams.
That proficiency in doubles has helped her develop her all-court style of play, which has enabled her to throw off some of her more powerful opponents—particularly under quicker conditions, like on grass.
She’s not the only top player making headway in that discipline, though, where hair-trigger reflexes and strong volleying are still crucial to success.
Currently, among the WTA’s Top 10 doubles players, only three play in that discipline exclusively: sisters Hao-Ching and Latisha Chan, and Andrea Hlavackova. The rest of the Top 10 is comprised of players who’ve spent the past year ranked among the Top 50 singles players, with Kristina Mladenovic spending time in the Top 10 in both. Right now, Barty is the only player ranked in the Top 20 in singles and doubles, with Kiki Bertens and Barbora Strycova close behind.
Among the women’s Top 25, no one could readily check off “serve-and-volleyer” when it came to defining their style of play. Taylor Townsend is the most prominent practitioner on tour right now, but surprisingly, most of her success as a professional has come on slower clay courts.
Joining serve-and-volley tactics as a near-anachronistic key to strategy on grass is the one-handed backhand. In fact, in the past 20 years, only two players have won Wimbledon with a one-hander: the hard-charging Czech Jana Novotna in 1998 and the versatile Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo in 2006. The one-hander on grass can do damage as a knifing slice, throwing off an opponent’s timing. It can also serve as an effective approach shot.
The net, though, has essentially become “no-women’s land,” even on the grass courts the athletes compete on over a five-week stretch, culminating with Wimbledon. Can a throwback-minded player make an impact on the turf? Perhaps over the course of a few rounds. In today’s game, though, it seems fortune favors the bold—as long as they’re on the baseline.
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