Serve and volley still thrills fans on grass

This high backhand volley by seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer dinked away at the net to end Gilles Simon's misery in straight sets in the quarter-finals.
This high backhand volley by seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer dinked away at the net to end Gilles Simon's misery in straight sets in the quarter-finals.PHOTO: REUTERS

WIMBLEDON • It was hardly like the old days, when serve and volley and getting to the net were the rule at Wimbledon instead of the clear exception.

Baseline rallies continued to be the main meal on Wednesday for those enjoying the smorgasbord of the men's quarter-finals, a guest list that included the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the tennis royal Billie Jean King.

But then, cranking back the clock entirely should not be the goal at Wimbledon or any other tournament.

The objective, in a time of an overload of diversions and challenged attention spans, should be variety: a chance for all the strokes in this tough and technical game to still have a legitimate place. Preserve the lobs, the backhand overheads, the half-volley drop-shot winners, the forehand slices, all of it.

By that measure, Wednesday, with its stylistic contrasts and full-court duels, was a rousing success as well as the latest reminder that serve and volley can continue to play a role at the highest level of the sport, despite all the rumblings in recent years of its impending extinction.

In the men's game, the percentage of serve and volley points per match is at its highest at Wimbledon since 2007: up from 8 per cent in 2014 to 10.4 per cent so far this year, according to statistics provided by IBM.

Meanwhile, the percentage of serve-and-volley points being won has remained historically high: 70.6 per cent heading into today's semi-finals (70.6 per cent also was the final number last year).

Clearly, the tactic, used selectively, is paying off handsomely, at least in the men's game.

"I think at least on grass, there's a bit more willingness or recognition again that they can actually win the point quicker this way," said Mark Woodforde, the former Australian net-rusher and doubles star.

He and most tennis fans would miss it if serve and volley is gone for good - a victim of string and racket technology, of slowing surfaces and of coaches who never embraced it and are not comfortable teaching it.

Long back-court rallies generate suspense, but rushing the net has a thrill all its own. It is for gamblers and fast-twitch types, for those who do not want to wait to resolve the conflict but would rather settle the matter now. Executed properly, as Vasek Pospisil, Roger Federer and Richard Gasquet did on Wednesday, serve and volley can be spectacular and effective.

Although the tactic ultimately did not pay off for Pospisil against Andy Murray, it certainly did for Gasquet as he upset the reigning French Open champion, Stan Wawrinka, by 11-9 in the fifth set.

Gasquet only served and volleyed 18 times in his 3hr 28min match. But at 5-5, 0-30 on his serve in the final set, with the momentum flowing in Wawrinka's direction, he used the tactic when he needed points most.

"I went for it in that game and pushed forward and managed to do it," said the Frenchman, who earlier had served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth set and faltered.

Federer set the tone last year, serving and volleying 21.6 per cent of the time on average in his seven matches, which was his highest percentage at Wimbledon in 10 years, although a far cry from his figure of 80.8 per cent in 2002.

This year, he is back down to 13.6 per cent through five matches after beating Gilles Simon on Wednesday. But, according to IBM's research, Federer is approaching the net at other points in the rallies more often than he has since 2003.

He is also winning a slightly greater percentage of points at net - 73.9 per cent - than ever at Wimbledon. Those numbers could drop with Murray waiting in the semi-finals and Novak Djokovic potentially waiting in what would be a rematch of the 2014 final.

But Federer's intentions remain clear. He said: "I love it, I must say. It's a good spell right now in my career, I'm enjoying not waiting for mistakes from my opponent."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2015, with the headline 'Serve and volley still thrills fans on grass'. Print Edition | Subscribe