Serve & Volley's Decline

By Mike Emmett

Spring 2011

Blame the style’s decline on technology.

Remember the good old days of tennis? John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg – serve and volleyer against counter-puncher – lefty vs. righty – whatever one guy did, the other guy did completely the opposite. This made for great theatre. Today is all about power and blistering groundstrokes. Players today can’t get to the net because the ball is traveling too fast and the capacity to use the geometry/angles of the court have increased tremendously with better equipment.

Serve and volley tennis is gone forever. So sad but so true! The reason is simple – TECHNOLOGY. The strings in the racquets are so much better today - players can hit scorching groundstrokes from all areas of the court with pin-point accuracy. In many rallies today you will see 10 to 15 great shots that comprise only one point. Back in my generation – one good shot usually meant the point was over. Players can’t get to the net because the baseliners are too good! There is too much court to cover and today’s players don’t think it is worth the gamble. The only time we see players venturing to the net is when they’ve hit a ball that is so far out of reach that they know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they will receive a floater – one that is easily picked off and hit into the open court.

The strings have made mediocre players decent, good players very good and great players almost unbeatable. 35 years ago, with wood racquets and low budget strings, these mind-boggling shots from the baseline were impossible. When a penetrating forehand or backhand was hit to a corner in the 70s and 80s the point was basically over. And if it wasn’t over in one shot, it was most certainly over in two shots. Strings have given players of today the ability to counter-attack with incredible success – the shots that these baseliners hit when they are stretched to maximum capacity would have been impossible with the old technology. But today, the ‘so called’ miracle shots happen on a regular basis. Players can hit the ball to all parts of the court, with power, from areas that were once thought of as impossible. Highlight reel shots are a common occurrence in the 21st century. Back in the previous generations – with continental grips, steel racquets and goofy looking string – players couldn’t muster up enough racquet speed, or spin to hit the kind of shots being executed on a daily basis at today’s major tournaments. Sure the athletes are better today than in yester-year, but the discrepancy is gigantic now in the shot-making and it is all because of the strings and the frames. If you like players blasting the ball from the baseline and never relenting – then this is the kind of tennis you will enjoy for quite some time. This new game is here to stay and for those who witnessed the game 30 years ago and beyond and admired the craftiness and thought patterns on a point-by-point basis – you will be disappointed by today’s brand of tennis.

John McEnroe, who won 7 grand slams in his hay-day, is a better player today than he was 20 years ago – the reason is technology. Even Johnny Mac, playing on the senior circuit, is playing predominantly from the baseline because he just can’t find a way to get to the net because there is too much court to cover.

John McEnroe, who won 7 grand slams in his hay-day, is a better player today than he was 20 years ago – the reason is technology.

Today’s strings allow players to dip the balls and create angles, while still accelerating through the ball, giving the net rushers no time to react. Modern technology has given players the ability to swing without fear. ‘Unloading on every shot’ makes it impossible for the ‘chip and charge’ mentality from the previous decades. Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Clijsters, and the Williams Sisters – they all swing out on every ball with unbelievable success – penetrating all angles of the court - and this makes it very difficult for guys like Isner, Querrey and Fish to advance to the net. When you can hit the ball on a dime from 80 feet away with maximum power – something has to give! And unfortunately the volley game is what’s disappeared.

I once witnessed Nadal at the Rexall centre while warming up for a match. He’d receive ball after ball with speed, spin and depth. And he could hit random targets at ease – targets I would have thought too tough. For sure, Nadal is an incredibly gifted athlete, but these targets he was picking off were tight to the lines, tight to the net and virtually impossible for players from past generations, who didn’t have today’s technology. No wonder Federer has difficulty getting to the net against such a precise baseliner.

Technology isn’t solely to blame, however. Coaching is a major culprit as well.

Tennis coaches and teachers are under tremendous pressure to produce quick results. So what is the easiest way for them? Simple, put a bunch of kids on a tennis court and make them hit balls from the baseline. This is the way the coaches of today are instructing their kids to play tennis.

It takes many years to develop all the skills and the athletic body of a decent serve and volley player. And sadly, many coaches don’t have the skills to develop a player’s volley the way they can develop the groundstrokes. Many coaches of today don’t seem to understand the importance of learning how to volley.

Make volleying a part of your game and reach your full potential.

To give an example of how easy it is to develop baseline ‘robots’; I saw a teacher (from a ‘famous’ school in North America) with four kids on the court and he was having the kids hit balls from the baseline to each other, which would have been satisfactory if not for the sixty balls that were spread all over both service boxes! These balls were in the way – but no-one moved them once throughout the entire practice. In my opinion, this is a horrible way to teach groundstrokes – but it’s just what many coaches in this generation do!!

The most appalling part of this exercise is that this went on for almost forty five of a sixty minute lesson. The scene repeated itself for the next four hours with the next groups of youngsters, every afternoon, all winter long and the parents were sitting and watching! Not only does this signify laziness on the part of the coach, the lack of variety and creativity does nothing to encourage the love of the sport or experimentation and self development among the students.

Unfortunately this seems to be the way many kids are being taught all over the world – it is a consistent trend. A trend that will continue as long as we see the professionals playing the baseline game! Do I need to tell you that those kids will probably never volley in their lives? At a recent OTA tournament at our club I saw that the kids didn’t come to the net to practice their volleys in the allotted 5 minutes. And, of course, in their match they never came close to hitting a volley.

The lack of interest in giving youngsters the full package of tennis continues at the highest levels. While coaching ITF and ETA tournaments, I have seen coaches allowing 14 and 15 year old boys and girls to play entire doubles matches with both players on the baseline whether they served or returned! Doubles is meant to be played at the net. Court coverage is difficult in singles when at the net, but not with 2 players in doubles!

This limited vision of coaches toward the development of their youngsters, only reveals that everyone, Federations, parents, coaches and players, is more concerned about winning through imitation of current styles than encouraging individuals to develop varied skills to reach their full potential…and sadly, I believe it’s ruining the game!