x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

In search of a net result at Wimbledon players stand and deliver

Without sounding like a bitter sports nostalgist, Osman Samiuddin admits he really misses watching a full-time, committed serve and volleyer, especially at a venue such as Wimbledon.

Ivan Lendl, right, who is Andy Murray's coach, says 'the spin on the ball that is given by the string and also by the strength of the guys and their technique' are the reasons there are less serve and volley players, but Lendl was not much of a serve and volleyer himself.
Ivan Lendl, right, who is Andy Murray's coach, says 'the spin on the ball that is given by the string and also by the strength of the guys and their technique' are the reasons there are less serve and volley players, but Lendl was not much of a serve and volleyer himself.

It makes for a pretty sight, but it'd be nice if the grass closer to the nets on the courts of Wimbledon were not so green, fresh and untrampled. There used to be a time when that patch of grass was as worn out and brown as the areas around the baseline.

Now, without sounding like a bitter sports nostalgist, or some pining tennis classicist, or even particularly ungrateful for tennis as it stands now, can I just say I really miss watching a full-time, committed serve and volleyer?

To come to terms with not seeing one at Wimbledon, of all venues, feels like one of those many little wrongs society has just accepted over time and moved on from.

This lament is an old one, of course, and the reasons for it, all valid, are well known.

We will come to those, but first a personal theory, not nearly as credible.

What I loved most about serve and volleying was that it represented an activism, to the point of madness.

It wasn't just that you committed to rushing to the net every point, it was a cause the player lived and so it went beyond risk because they rushed every point, good serve or bad, poor return or not, because they had to.

It was not just tactic, or style of play. It was a style of man, or woman.

A personality.

And those who did were invariably not only a little different to everyone else but were in the process, revealing something of themselves in doing so: the natural showiness of Boris Becker (he didn't need to make all the dives he did); the cool of Stefan Edberg (how did he manage to make such risk look so secure?); the aloofness of Pete Sampras (because serve and volleying is a lonely pursuit); and even the more refined, New York, art-collecting hipster side of John McEnroe (because to serve and volley, unarguably, is also to appreciate beauty).

In those years, this was proof of the diversity not just of how players played, but how they actually were.

Increasingly, today's players find it easier and beneficial to be, more or less, drawn from the same large well of personality and appearance: smoothened out through agents and advertisers.

They are known to us in modes not moods.

Can it not be argued that this homogeneity of personality has also seeped into games geared towards some risk-free nirvana?

Take, for example, Roger Federer, who's always looked such a natural serve and volleyer and used to play that way much more when younger but does so infrequently now.

You could, if you wanted, coincide the change in his game - the development, let's say - with him ceasing to be the pony-tailed and headbanded, angry and interesting punk, and becoming instead this gentle Zen brand ambassador for all the world's whiteness.

Maybe not. Maybe this is just idle hand-wringing brought about by that very significant 2002 Wimbledon final between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian in which, for the first time, neither player once went to the net and which has become a template.

Maybe we should just accept Federer's explanation.

"I obviously came here in the year when I played Sampras, let's say, I was serve and volleying 80 per cent of the first serve, 50 per cent on the second serve.

"I remember once speaking to Wayne Ferreira, who I was playing doubles with. He said he used to serve and volley always first serve, 50 per cent of the second serve.

"And towards the end of his career at Wimbledon, he used to serve and volley 50 per cent of his first serve and not anymore on his second serve.

"You wonder, how in the world has that happened?

"Have we become such incredible return players or can we not volley anymore, or is it just a combination of slower balls, slower courts?

"I think it's definitely a bit of a combination of many things."

Ivan Lendl, currently coaching Andy Murray and formerly a visitor to the net only to shake hands, believes changes in strings, not just rackets, to be responsible.

"The reason is mainly because of the spin on the ball that is given by the string and also by the strength of the guys and their technique," he said. "So to come to the net and be fishing for that ball when the guy takes a full swing and it has 8,000rpm on that ball … it becomes very, very difficult to volley and put away."

Maybe that is all, though to resign yourself to such truths alone is itself a little like abandoning the fantasy of the serve and volleyer in favour of the realism of the baseliner.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE