Serve-and-volley style no longer serves a person for today's tennis players
Don't bother looking for them. There will be no practitioners of the classic serve-and-volley style advancing through this year's U.S. Open.
"I mean, they're not out there, because if you're doing that, you're not going to win," said Sam Querrey, the 29th-ranked American. His big serve would have made him a prime candidate, 25 years ago, for the technique that has gone completely out of fashion.
Younger tour pros, such as rising 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens, have "never really played a serve-and-volleyer, like, ever," she said. "Maybe the doubles girls will occasionally throw in a serve-and-volley, but no one does it twice a game or anything like that.''
What once was a staple among tennis champions such as Rod Laver, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova has gone the way of the Morse Code. Though the most accomplished male and female players in today's game -- Roger Federer, with 17 major singles titles, and Serena Williams, with 16 -- both have the serve-and-volley in their quiver of weapons, neither is anywhere near being a strict serve-and-volley player.
Not since the last century have serve-and-volleyers freely roamed the land, when the likes of Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter won Grand Slam events.
While Chris Evert's steely baseline consistency influenced a generation of retrievers among the women, Andre Agassi (and before, him, Jimmy Connors) demonstrated that an offensive attack could be generated from a defensive position -- something Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have perfected.
"When I was growing up, already there were the return and baseline players kind of dominating the game, like Agassi, [Gustavo] Kuerten," said Djokovic, a six-time major tournament champion at 26. "So you could feel maybe that Agassi was one of the first players that kind of revolutionized the game. He started returning extremely well to anybody who was coming to the net, making some big passing shots."
Central to this evolution is racket technology, Djokovic said, which "allows players to be able to return the ball much better. It allows them to have more control from the baseline."
Instead of the server confidently rushing the net, in position to lower the boom with a putaway volley, he now is too often caught in no-man's land, vulnerable to the return off his toes or the precise passing shot.
"With the racket and the string and the spin now," Querrey said, "it's just so easy to block a ball down at a guy's feet. Running forehand and passing shots are too easy . . . get a lot of spin, dip it crosscourt, hit the line."
Milos Raonic, the 22-year-old Canadian who recently broke into the top 10, has one of the sport's biggest serves but does not believe a serve-and-volley approach "is the solution for me."
For one thing, he cannot duplicate "the most impressive" aspect of the serve-and-volley by his idol, Sampras.
"The first two steps after the serve," Raonic said. "Every single volley [Sampras hit] was always hit in front of the service line. If you are getting stuck hitting volleys behind the service line, it's just too difficult."
Even as modern servers may not have Sampras' quick feet, today's returners have benefited from an emphasis on fitness and endurance. "Now everybody's basically getting every ball back," Djokovic said. "Some of the defense from the players that you see nowadays, it's incredible."
There was some talk that ye olde serve-and-volley tactic was enjoying a slight revival at this year's Wimbledon when 116th-ranked Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky employed the style to upset Federer and the Netherlands' No. 69 Igor Sijsling used it to defeat Raonic. But Michael Llorda, a 33-year-old Frenchman often cited for keeping the serve-and-volley alive, is ranked a relatively humble 49th and, in 14 years on the tour, never has won a tournament.
Cliff Drysdale, the 72-year-old Hall of Famer who played in the 1960s and '70s, flatly declared the traditional serve-and-volley "history," though McEnroe argued that "subtle changes in the rules" could diminish some of the racket power and restore some of the former method.
Rather than lament its passing, Drysdale warned, "Careful what you wish for. If you change the conditions back to what they used to be, when you were forced to serve-and-volley because you couldn't rely on two bounces being the same, there was nothing more boring to watch than two big servers. The only question was how quickly you could get to the net and who would get there first. I'd much rather watch a tennis match in this generation than the generation with big servers and that's all."
He need not worry. For players of two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka's generation -- she is 24 -- the serve-and-volley "was not something you really tried to do [growing up]. As a kid, you just learn the basic game, the forehand, the backhand. You don't learn to volley.
"Even when I came on the tour [10 years ago], I don't believe the speed was the same as now. You don't have time to get to the net. It comes too quick."
Why go back to something that no longer works?
"No," Querrey said. "I mean, I would just lose."