In Tennis, Baseline Battles Are The Norm, Even at Wimbledon
Wimbledon used to provide sports fans and casual players with an annual refresher on how to play serve-and-volley tennis. In recent years, however, the absence of the clashing styles of baseliner vs. serve-and-volleyer has turned the once glorious grass-court event into a series of mundane baseline brawls. Indeed, the second week, when the grass is worn and the courts are slow, the competitors become baseline automatons, who bang ground-strokes in sync, sans attack-game tactics or creativity.
The Wimbledon fortnight begins Monday, but spectators on the hallowed grounds or fans tuning in for the men’s or women’s final won’t witness anything resembling the rarefied shot-making produced in so many classic confrontations of the past, such as Ashe vs. Connors (1975), Navratilova vs. Evert (1978), McEnroe vs. Borg (1980) or Sampras vs. Becker (1995). A front page photo of a smiling serve-and-volleyer of either gender hoisting the champion’s trophy the day after the final used to be almost commonplace.
Fact is, male serve-and-volleyers won 18 of 19 Wimbledon titles (from 1983-2001), with Andre Agassi breaking the net rushers’ monopoly in 1992, defeating Goran Ivanisevic 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 in the final. Between 1970 and 1987 Navratilova won nine of the 15 Wimbledon crowns captured by women serve-and-volleyers. Chris Evert kept the net attackers from shutting out the baseliners during that period, capturing titles in 1974, 1976 and 1981.
The serve-and-volley dominance at Wimbledon ended more than a decade ago and that, too, is a fact. No female serve-and-volleyer has won the coveted title since Jana Novotna in 1998 and Goran Ivanisevic’s victory in 2001 was the last male serve-and-volleyer to win Wimbledon. (Roger Federer, who’s more of a baseliner than a serve-and-volleyer, is a seven- time Wimbledon champion.) With ball power-hitting baseliners Novak Djokovic, who’s No. 1 in the world, eight-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, World No. 1 Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova among the top seeds, the era of the baseliners most likely will continue, much to the chagrin of NBC analyst John McEnroe, who served and volleyed his way to three Wimbledon titles (1981, 1983-84)
“Did you ever think in your wildest dreams that you’d be watching Wimbledon with everybody staying back on their serve on the men’s side,” said McEnroe, while covering Wimbledon last year. “I just don’t know what the future holds.”
No one else does. But if the absence of the action-packed serve-and-volley style of play becomes permanent and baseline battles remains tennis’ major attraction, fast surface pro events – not just Wimbledon – might lose some viewers. Nowadays, the basic strategy for nearly every touring pro is to camp on the baseline and bang the ball boldly until his or her opponent makes an error or presents a weak reply. The artistry and spur-of-the-moment creativity displayed through the serve-and-volley style have become wistful memories.
Some say oversized rackets, slow courts and heavy balls are to blame for the disappearance of serve-and-volley champions. Others argue that the tour’s stronger and quicker players made it impossible for the serve-and-volleyers to survive. Actually, a confluence of factors conspired against the style that Jack Kramer perfected more than 60 years ago. More than anything else, these factors changed the tennis landscape:
* Emergence of academies – Nick Bollettieri opened the first major boarding school junior academy in 1978 and ushered in the era of the power game. New York-bred Bollettieri, who never played as a pro, turned dozens of juniors into top-ranked pros. Ten of his former students, including Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Jim Courier, were ranked No. 1 in the world. Juniors throughout the world flocked to his Bradenton, Fla. complex. The two-handed backhand became a fixture in tennis primarily because most juniors at Bollettieri’s begin playing before they’re strong enough to hit one-handed backhands. No special effort was made to position serve-and-volley as an essential part of the lesson plan. Bollettieri explained his decision in a website article in May 2008. “It’s no secret that the American culture favors instant gratification: fast food, ATM machines, frozen foods, etc., etc. All take little energy with immediate results. It’s no different with sports. We inherently take the path of least resistance. So, why is (the serve-and-volley) going the way of home cooked meals? That’s easy, because it takes time and a whole lot of effort to achieve the desired results.” Following Bollettieri’s lead, other national and international academies also emphasize teaching the power game, not serve and volley. Despite his reluctance to develop serve-and-volleyers, Bollettieri’s impact on the game has been significant and he is worthy of recognition for his achievements.
*Scarcity of serve-and-volley coaches – When Pete Sampras was 11 years old, Peter Fischer, then a teaching pro at Jack Kramer’s Tennis Club in southern California, persuaded Sampras to turn in his two-handed backhand for a one-handed model, which is more suited to the serve-and-volley game. The change led to Sampras’ emergence as the game’s dominant pro. In his 14-year career, Sampras won 14 major titles, including seven Wimbledons, was ranked No. 1 in the world for six consecutive years (1993-98) and is recognized as one of the game’s all-time greats. California used to be the major training ground for the game’s top net rushers, but today, few talented juniors sign up for what Bollettieri might call, a long and more arduous road to the top. Perhaps McEnroe, who has a tennis academy in New York, will persuade other retired serve-and-volley greats, such as Sampras, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Goran Ivanisevic to coach talented juniors to strive for greatness at the net, or better yet, build academies and then recruit a cadre of coaches to nurture them.
*Media’s Indifferent take on tennis – Most sports editors viewed tennis as a personality driven sport. Stories about scandals, the private lives of superstars or who received the latest multi-million dollar endorsement deal make the cut, but stories detailing the different styles of play or the fundamentals aren’t always published. Minor sports often get minimum coverage in major print or broadcast outlets when space or air time is tight. If the media’s focus is on the lifestyles of the game’s personalities, and not the game itself, the non-tennis playing public will never understand or appreciate its nuances.
* Top tier athletes don’t choose tennis – During the early years of my career I covered the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association in the early 1970s when Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving was a phenom without a major following. On road trips I played doubles matches regularly with Nets’ head coach Kevin Loughery and his assistant, Rod Thorn. At the time, Arthur Ashe was the lone top-ranked black on tour and our after-match conversations nearly always focused on how different the game will be once the best African American athletes sought careers in tennis instead of basketball. “Can you imagine how great Dr. J would be if he had spent his childhood playing tennis instead of basketball?” Thorn often asked. “I bet you anything, tennis will be dominated by blacks in the next 15 years.” Forty years later, Thorn obviously missed another one. So did I. Navratilova, Becker, McEnroe, Sampras, et al, already proved that a smart, tough and gifted athlete, with an attacking serve-and-volley game, can be a dominant tennis pro. Surely a smart, tough and super-gifted athlete such as Erving, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James might be even more dominant. Clearly, that’s not going to happen. Today’s top basketball pros now earn hundreds of millions of dollars with a fan-base in the hundreds of millions. Why would gifted junior athletes trade in dreams of an NBA career for dreams of a pro tennis career?
Former pro Steffi Graf dominated from the baseline, as does Venus and Serena Williams. Each probably would have won additional major titles had they had been raised on the serve-and-volley game as juniors and knew when and how to hit approach shots when moving to the net. John Isner (6′-9”), with his impressive wingspan and big serves, might have won a few major titles by now if had been developed as a net rusher. Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsongas and Gail Monfils, also baseliners, might have major hard-court titles if they knew the serve-and-volley game.
Consider this: Serve-and-volleyers must include the overhead smash in their repertoire. A serve-and-volleyer flubbing an overhead on a key point in a major final would be as rare as LeBron James missing a slam dunk in the waning moments of an NBA final. Baseliner Novak Djokovic, who rarely sees or hits overheads, smacked three into the net on key points during his loss to Rafael Nadal in the French Open final two weeks ago. No one beats eight-time French Open champion Nadal in a major final after missing three crucial overheads.
A quick scan of the record books reveals that many of the game’s all-time greats were serve-and-volleyers. Their entertaining style is steeped in precision, tactical cunning and artistry akin to poetry in motion. It would be senseless for the game’s leaders to watch silently as an integral part of the game slips away. Consider the problem.
The good news for tennis lovers is that the sport, with its cadre of charismatic superstars and celebrated Grand Slam events – (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open ) continues to draw huge crowds and decent television ratings. Evert expects this year’s Wimbledon will be more of the same. “It’s the one tournament that’s bigger than the players,” Evert says. “Wimbledon is the star more than the players. It’s the showcase.”
Some bad news is the possibility of attendance woes at the 2013 U.S. Open. A United States Tennis Association (USTA) official noted at a banquet last fall that attendance at last year’s Open was slightly up during the first week, but surprisingly down during the second week. Maybe too many people are there because of the excitement associated with seeing New York and a few celebrity players/fans – and not because of excitement generated by the game. Tackle the problem now.