(Photo by Anita Aguilar)
The explosion had to come, but when it did, it was surprisingly mild:
“Hit one normal shot!” Ernests Gulbis screamed at himself in the third set of his dismal defeat to Sergiy Stakhovsky. He was down two sets and completely out of his rhythm. But there was a good reason for it: Stakhovsky had never let him into it in the first place.
Yesterday, Roger Federer said that serve-and-volley tennis was still “worth it” on grass. He should know: Stakhovsky beat him by doing it here, in this round, on this day, one year ago. If he can stomach it, Federer should watch a tape of the Ukrainian’s performance against Gulbis today—it was a traditional grass-court clinic, one we see maybe once or twice a season these days.
If Stakhovsky, world No. 90, can do it, certainly Federer can as well, right? Not necessarily. As Federer said yesterday, rushing the net here is a little like getting married—you have to keep at it for better or for worse, through the easy high volleys and the impossible low ones. You have to live and die by it, and that’s what Stakhovsky does. Today he lived, and in his contrast with Gulbis, he showed how thoroughly alien the old serve-and-volley game is from today’s baseline game.
Stakhovsky’s swings were clipped and his shots were light; Gulbis’s swings were long, and his shots heavy. Stakhovsky’s game was connected—serve led to volley, return led to approach shot, well-placed first volley led to putaway second volley, chip led to charge. Gulbis’s shots existed individually; each was meant to do major damage on its own.
On most days and most surfaces, the Gulbis style reigns supreme. There’s too much power in today’s players and racquets for a light-hitting net-rusher to cope. Today, for a couple of hours, the roles were reversed and the sport went back in time. Stakhovsky, looking not unlike David Brenner with his 70s-style hair and headband, played crisp, skidding, sharply-angled shots that made Gulbis’s style, the baseline style, seem ponderous and one-dimensional. Stako, by contrast, had rhythm.
“The guy has a good game plan,” Gulbis said later. “He comes in; he chips the ball; he takes out the pace.”
Learning to do those things well can still be worth it.