December 6, 2001

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Forgotten art

Rohit Brijnath

When Taylor Dent, 19, 6ft 2in, and one presumes genetically connected somehow to Canadian lumberjacks -- he hits the ball with a muscular swipe that immediately suggests a tree being felled -- walked onto the courts in Madras, something unique transpired.

After exploding his first serve, he did not stay back, or retreat, or move sideways. He sprang forward, towards the net, almost like a pterodactyl swooping on its prey.

It was an act of simplicity; it was also a moment increasingly unique in modern tennis. Serve and volley is a forgotten art, and thus a dying one.

How much evidence do we need:

--Of the Top 10 men in the 2000 ATP Champions Race only two were serve and volleyers. Pete Sampras (No.3) and Tim Henman (No.10).

---Of the Top 100 men in the 2000 ATP Champions Race only 10 were serve and volleyers.

---Of those 10 men---- Sampras, Henman, Patrick Rafter, Richard Krajicek, David Prinsoil, Max Mirnyi, Todd Martin, Greg Rusedski, Justin Gimelstob, Goran Ivanisevic --- only Mirnyi and Gimelstob, hardly frightening names, were under 26.

---Of the first batch of youngsters named in ATPís New Balls Please campaign, promoting upcoming stars --- Mark Philippoussis, Mariano Zabaleta, Lleyton Hewitt, Nicholas Keifer, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andreas Vinciguerra, Marat Safin, Magnus Norman, Tommy Haas, Roger Federer, Gustavo Kuerten, Jan Michael Gambill, Nicholas Lapentti --- not one is a serve and volleyer.

There is a bleakness to this data, a reminder that tennis' reputation as a creative pursuit, has been severely diminished.

Baseline tennis, with its endless sideways movement and blur of roundhouse-groundstrokes, demands an archerís accuracy, a wire-walker's footwork and boxer's pummeling intent. Ah, but there is no wonder.

Tennis's athletic and aesthetic appeal, for me at least, has always been more apparent in its forward-moving men. John McEnroe, who demanded comparisons with jazz saxophonists when he stood at the net, for no less did he improvise; Stefan Edberg, darting like a graceful, hungry swallow across the net, all lightness of foot, all artistic finesse; Pat Cash, all speed and motion, a creature of pure athletic splendor; and of course Boris, the impregnable fortress, propelling all 90kgs of him in the air, turning tennis into some muscular ballet.

With them, and with Sampras, is beginning to disappear an entire repertoire of shots, leaving tennis to rue its one-dimensional status. One morning at Wimbledon in the late 1980s (possibly early 1990s), a Sportsworld colleague of mine, Pradeep Paul, joined me at Wimbledon. He showed me a list of matches he presumed were worth watching; I took the list, tore it up, and took him to see McEnroe playing John Fitzgerlad. First point: McEnroe serves, glides to the net, lets the ball arrive at his racket and collapses his wrist: drop-volley winner. Second point: a replay of the first, except the drop-volley, the ball collapsing onto the court as if punctured, was from the backhand side. Paul reeled; my hair stood.

Today, where is it? That, and the half-volley on the run, the high backhand volley, the stretch, the lunge, the stop volley, the volley off the shoelaces landing on the baseline ... matches go by, entire tournaments, and we see too little of it. Tennis is poorer for it.

Sport, its intricacies, its variety, its difficulties, its pleasure ... is best revealed through contrasts. When Brazil plays West Germany in soccer, styles collide, flair meets discipline, and it is wonderful. And so it is with tennis, when the serve and volleyer stands guardian at the net against the baseliner, his body language clear to all: pass me or die.

Remember McEnroe-Borg, Becker-Lendl, Edberg-Wilander, Sampras-Agassi, it was the time tennis found its most complete expression.

The why of it is complicated, a mesh of time, circumstance, and who knows what. So I went to ask Bob "Nails" Carmichael, Leander Paes's coach, and an Australian who played with, or at least saw, Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Roy Emerson, Tony Roche, Neale Fraser (must I go on?), each one gifted in the nuances of serve and volley.

Bjorn Borg, said Carmichael. The Swede's topspin triggered an unparalleled revolution, spawning generations of impassive men with never-tired legs who whipped forehand and double-fisted backhands from the baseline triumphantly.

When the rackets allowed them to hit outright winners from the baseline, it was clear: why come in?

Dent knows this. First he says serve and volley, with its trickier shots, is a harder art. But more vitally, he suggests that he goes to the net less now, searching for a rounder game, for he says "guys return so well now, I'm always picking returns off my shoelaces". The answer: stay back on second serves.

Grass, says Carmichael. Once all the Grand Slam tournaments, the French excluded, were played on grass, thus automatically producing attacking players, who favoured net play. But grass, too hard and expensive to maintain especially in a world of artificial surfaces, meant it has become limited to just a handful of tournaments each year in Englandís summer.

Balls, finally adds Carmichael. The game is being slowed down, the balls are heavier, and the baseliner now has, one presumes, even more time to make his pass.

What is absurd, inexplicable, even bizarre, is that even European coaches, who preach the baseline game, feel no urgent need to teach their wards the volley. After all, in a world of equal baseliners, having an extra dimension, a further string to the bow, would be an useful edge.

It is why, in possibly the last competitive year of his life, watch Pete Sampras (and Rafter) religiously. By virtue of being the best player through the last decade and possessing a serve and volley style, he has suggested it is a workable, winnable style even today. But the quality of Samprasís game (he is after all among the the two best players ever, with the best second serve ever) also suggests how gifted he needed to be to overcome the baseliners.

Watch Pete. Tape him. Hoard them. It may be many summers before such beauty returns.

Rohit Brijnath

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