Bye-bye serve and volley
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Remember the diving exploits of “Boom Boom” Boris Becker? The blinding pace of “Pistol Pete” Sampras’ serves and the inconsistent brilliance of Goran Ivanišević’s? If you had been gripped by the serve-and-volley duels of Wimbledon, you must have felt their absence of late. Players now inevitably camp at the baseline, churning out heavy-spun groundstrokes. The dash to the net after serving has become history. It isn’t that modern players don’t want to emulate the serve-and-volley greats of the past—it’s just that they can’t. Serve and volley as bread-and-butter tennis is now no more than a figment of tennis lore.
It all goes back to 2001, when The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) got rid of its old turf at Wimbledon (a 70:30 mix of rye and creeping red fescue) and introduced 100% perennial ryegrass. This new grass is taller and more durable, allowing the courts to dry better (note that England is rainy), making them harder and helping the balls bounce higher. In comparison, 30% of the old surface was composed of a low-lying creeping grass that retained moisture and made the ball skid. This made for low bounce and the sliding effect which made underspin shots deadly.
It wasn’t a coincidence, then, that while the 2001 final was contested between two heavy servers and quintessential net-rushers—Ivanišević and Patrick Rafter—the 2002 event saw hard-core baseliners Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian fighting for the trophy.
“Not only the courts, even the balls have changed over time. They used to be harder earlier and weren’t as heavy. It was easier to be more aggressive on the volleys,” says Leander Paes, India’s most successful player at Wimbledon with five titles (one men’s doubles and four mixed doubles) to his name. “It isn’t that easy to put away shots on these courts, especially with the balls feeling heavier.”
Jaidip Mukerjea, who reached the fourth round at The Championships four times, in 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1973, is even more vocal about the impact of the change in grass. “On these new courts, there is no way that even Sampras would have got anywhere near his seven titles. It’s a different kind of tennis Wimbledon now demands of its winners.”
It is widely believed that the blitz of aces and winners had made grass-court tennis a bit monotonous—this was, in fact, one of the main reasons for the change in grass.
“The 2001 final was considered one of the most boring as there were hardly any rallies,” says India’s Davis Cup captain Zeeshan Ali. “I am told that there was a meeting of the organizers after that, where it was decided that while grass would be retained, it would be slowed down. I once spoke to Roger (Federer) about it and even he was laughing about how some of the courts feel like clay courts now.” Ali played the singles at Wimbledon in 1989 and figured in four doubles draws, in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991.
While old-school aficionados may not be too pleased, the slower pace on the refurbished courts since 2001 has led to longer matches and more value for money for fans, Ali points out.
But the fact is that the game itself has changed over the years. And the use of technology has been at the centre of that change. Just about 30 years ago, tennis was played with wooden rackets. Now there are graphite and fibreglass rackets that come in oversized frames, weigh half as much as the wooden ones and generate five times as much power and control.
“The use of the wrist to generate topspin was the domain of the really strong in the wooden-racket age. Now, everybody is hitting big while being able to impart spin to tame that pace. It is now foolhardy to rush to the net unless one has a really good opening,” says Ali, who has been coaching for over two decades.
The evolution of strings has added another dimension to the modern game. Gone are the days when rackets were actually strung with guts—literally coiled-up sheep intestines. The latest polyester strings don’t suffer from lost tension or vagaries of the weather. Equipment manufacturer Babolat, in fact, made a new string in 2011 in response to Rafael Nadal’s coach Toni Nadal’s query asking for more topspin. No wonder, then, that Rafael Nadal’s forehand whirls at an average of around 3,200 rpm (revolutions per minute). In contrast, players of the past like Andre Agassi and Sampras are said to have generated topspins of about 1,800 rpm.
“The strings and rackets have made a huge difference. The responsiveness of the frames has improved over the years. They move faster through the air because better aerodynamics reduces the load on the playing arm,” says Paes. “The superior material allows for dexterity in handling and now more players create angles that were the domain of just a gifted few in the past.”
Wilson, another equipment maker, has made rackets that it claims allow for more spin. Babolat has developed others that allow an electronic chip to be placed in the handle to monitor precise stroke patterns.
Back on the court, while the addition of a retractable roof at the Centre Court in 2009 may have allowed Wimbledon to do away with some rain delays, it hasn’t done much for speed. If anything, the added humidity makes the ball slower and play begins to resemble a game on clay.
“The roof changes the conditions and, if anything, it’s almost too perfect. It’s different grass-court tennis,” Andy Murray said in a Telegraph report after a first-round victory under the roof in 2011.
With such changes, the chances of another Becker emerging at Wimbledon are becoming more remote. And the number of teenagers doing well on the tour too is coming down. “The average age of players on the tour is increasing. This implies that experienced guys are sticking around longer,” says Paes. “With a truer bouncing surface that does not favour big servers excessively, it would be real difficult for a rookie to pull off something like Becker’s surprise win in 1989.”
According to USA Today, the average age of men’s top-10 players has increased, from 23.2 years in 1992 to 24.5 years in 2002 and 28.6 in 2015.
“Advances in sports science and a growing understanding of the human body for peak performance have seen the emergence of a faster, stronger tennis player over the last two decades. Longevity means more experience and nothing can beat experience in a tight match,” adds Paes who, at 40, became the oldest player in the Open Era (post 1968, when professionals could play) to win a men’s title when partner Radek Stepanek and he won the 2013 US Open.
And it’s not just the serve-and-volley game that has fallen prey to changing styles. “Don’t forget that the slice backhand is also almost fading away in the new crop of players,” says Paes. The approach shot of choice for a single-handed player on grass, the underspin slice backhand does not have too many adherents on the global stage now. “The synthetic court favours topspin but slows the slice. Since grass courts are disappearing, so is this shot,” says Paes. Apart from Wimbledon, there are now a total of six grass-court tournaments on the men’s professional tour, and five for women.
It’s not just in Wimbledon—tennis has moved towards a more universal surface across the globe. These new synthetic courts don’t allow for natural vagaries. They bounce in a similar manner everywhere. This has narrowed the different styles of play, making the sport more like a baseline grind. With Wimbledon shifting towards a higher bouncing grass court, it was perhaps just a matter of time before serve and volley died a natural death. The net, after all, is no longer the bastion of the brave—it’s become the domain of the hopelessly romantic.