Completely neglected at Wimbledon, the famous “serve-volley” sequence now seems a vague memory of modern tennis. Witnessing an evolution of the game, which has become more standardized and robotic.
Sunday, July 11, 2021, 6:34 pm. Novak Djokovic, world number 1, has just won his 20th Grand Slam tournament after 3:23 of the match. His sixth Wimbledon, against the Italian Matteo Berrettini. The 34-year-old Serb has not stopped making round trips to Center Court. The result: an earthy, bumpy baseline but pristine green grass near the net. Symbol of a serve-fly now to absent or almost absent subscribers of the most famous tournament in the world.
We must say that the last Wimbledon, home of the offensive spirit of “serve and volley,” was not very long in terms of direct attacks at the net. Used to shorten the baseline rallies of stereotypical players since the 1980s and American southpaw John McEnroe. He has become a shadow of himself in recent years. Sign of an evolution of the game now turned towards versatile styles, like that of Novak Djokovic and where the server-volleyers are no longer a closed circle.
Less than 4% of points played for men at Wimbledon in 2021
Often prized by big names in tennis, such as McEnroe, Becker, Sampras, or even Federer in his early days, Navratilova, Novotna, and Mauresmo among the ladies, the serve-volley broke the codes of traditional tennis. This particular stroke also combined efficiency with elegance. But now, very few are those who try it, except for great servers and players tinged with the “volleyball” spirit of doubles.
At Wimbledon, the serve-volley was used with extreme parsimony in 2021. Less than 4% of the points played in the men’s table before the semi-finals. A crime of lese-majesty is even more visible in the ladies. Representing 1% of the exchanges played in 2018. A striking statistic when 37% of the points played with this same technique in 2001. A date clicks on the London grass, where the great Croatian server Goran Ivanisevic had won the tournament by scoring the trifle of 213 aces in seven games.
“The English changed the type of turf at Wimbledon about 20 years ago. The rebound is now much higher with a more rustic, rougher grass that slows the ball to rise more vertically, where it is. was happening before. […] They brought the change because they feared (Goran) Ivanisevic and players doing aces with all their arms.
They were like, ‘If we don’t do something, our lawn tennis will be endangered by players who play with a single strike'”, explains Guy Forget, ex-French player of the 1980s to 1990s and now director of Roland-Garros.
Large servers have replaced the volleyball servers with destructive thrusts and forehands. Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, or Patrick Rafter were replaced by John Isner, Reilly Opelka, or Ivo Karlovic. Other larger and more powerful morphotypes for players considering the last of the Mohicans. Federer, Herbert, or Mahut all improved versions. Even if the serve-and-volley does not embody the alpha and omega of their game.
Rope as a marker of a new era
Therefore, several parameters are at the origin of the slow. But ceaselessly continuous disappearance of the serve-volley on fast surfaces, such as grass or hard. Pitches have become slower, a more resistant material. Or even the absence of ultra-offensive players and hotheads of tennis all fire all flame. The part of the material in this change of the “tennis” era is one of the main arguments brought to the fore.
“One of the biggest technological developments took place during the time of Gustavo Kuerten (late 1990s). Some players began to play with extremely stiff polyester strings, which allow very plunging trajectories and are favorable to long exchanges. They are now used by 80 to 90% of the players on the circuit, summarising Guy Forget, ex-world number 4.
The game towards the front is much less practiced on grass because the game is much slower now. Additionally, apart from those who play with hybrid strings(10 to 20% of the players), they are often penalized when the players go on the fly. Because a centering error is immediately sanctioned. ”
An evolution of the material is not unanimous in the microcosm of the yellow ball to explain this change of time. “All the old players use the argument of the strings—the material to explain why we play longer and deeper than ‘before. […] Guys were still serving to serve and volley 15 years ago, but the game has changed. It has nothing to do with strings because guys can still choose to use tubular s’ They want it. Everyone is so much faster. The game is going too fast for serve-volley now. It’s too difficult,” said Briton Andy Murray in 2012.
The serve-volley, from a lethal weapon to a simple variation of the game
Since the reorganization of the Wimbledon turf in 2001, the baseline players and blockers have gained the upper hand on grass elsewhere. Lleyton Hewitt, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray took advantage of this development to lift a new lethal weapon on the grass.
According to the New York Times, in the 2002 edition of Wimbledon, players used the serve-volley on 9,168 points compared to just 1,980 in 2018. A whole bunch of tweaks that made serve-and-volley seem like a gameplay variation, mostly used as a tactical last resort to unlock an extreme situation.
For Guy Forget, the uniformization of surfaces created a greater analogy of styles of play: “The grass was very different, so it was the players who went earlier and faster to the net who performed the best. Had to keep up his serve at all costs. Today, we realize that players can return from very far, initiate a rally, and play from the baseline. Same as on clay. When I see (Matteo) Berrettini, who shifts forehand constantly, I tell myself that he hasn’t changed much compared to Roland-Garros. “
A wealth of tennis that has lost its life over the years and style oppositions is the most nostalgic. “If we liked Borg-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi or Federer-Nadal, it must continue … This is where our leaders must think, including the International Federation (ITF), said Guy Forget. The game is always so offensive, but it is offensive in another way. It’s more brutal, it’s bumpier, there are fewer varieties, and ultimately it is the one who manages to attack first but by making fewer mistakes. The problem is that the variation in play is seldom seen, and that’s a shame. ”
A lack of creativity and originality is even more visible in the female table in recent years. The waitresses and raisers have pride. “We remember the legendary duels between Navratilova and Evert or Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Because there were two different ways of playing. And we said to ourselves which of the two will win on grass or clay. That’s nice. If you put two players face to face tomorrow who play strictly the same way, you’re going to have the same style of play still. “
The serve-volley is also a mark of distinction and originality, which has often made it possible to destabilize the best in the world, accustomed to classic oppositions from the baseline. “Before the Davis Cup final against Serbia in Belgrade (in 2010), Djokovic had lost against Michaël Llodra at Bercy. That day Llodra had proposed a style of play that Djokovic did not like, remembers to Forget, then captain. Of the French Davis Cup team. If we take the example of Nadal at Roland Garros and those who beat him or almost beat him, it is Soderling or Isner, boys who at one point do them. get out of their usual style of play …”
Between nostalgia and the necessary evolution of the game: Serve-volley
A regular and clear observation is held year after year in all tournaments around the world. Long played by the best players on the circuit, serve, and volley is currently a rare commodity in tennis. Between nostalgia and the necessary evolution of the game towards longer and enduring exchanges, the debate is still active behind the scenes. However, on the ground, his death is almost final—the failing to be reborn on a few occasions on grass, always a little more than elsewhere.
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