Professional Men’s Tennis Has Ripped Out the Volley’s Throat Along with Wimbledon’s Heart

The volley was pronounced dead on Sunday, January 30, 2011 at the conclusion of the Men’s Australian Open Final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.  I watched the match at 9 a.m. pacific time, nearly nine hours after it started.

Part way through the second set, I realized that neither player had hit a single volley.  Yes, you read correctly, an hour into a men’s tennis final, at a non-clay court event, not a single volley had been struck.  There was one overhead, which Andy Murray could not put away, but not a single volley.

I decided to count the volleys and overheads for the match, just for the hell of it.  I counted two volleys, and two overheads, all hit by Murray.  Andy Murray lost every one of those four points, including hitting his second overhead long.  Yikes.

It frightens me that all vestiges of variety have left the professional tennis scene like rabbits fleeing a wolf convention.  What is to blame for the clone-like appearance of the players in men’s professional tennis?  Two-fisted backhands, defense, and hard-hitting with the occasional drop shot, that usually does not work.  Is it the crazy equipment that lets them hit winners from crazy positions?  Is it slower reflexes?  Is serving and volleying just too tiring?

According to Inside Tennis 2011 Yearbook, pg. 23, “When Federer upset Sampras at Wimbledon in ’01, there were 254 serve-and-volley points.  In the ’09 final, Federer and Roddick hit 11 serve-and-volley points.  When Nadal beat Tomas Berdych in the ’10 final, they never served and volleyed.”

With stats like that, no wonder no one serves and volleys anymore.  Wimbledon was once the last true bastion of serve-and-volley tennis, heck, of just plain ol’ volley tennis, but even that hallowed ground has been sullied by the dregs of baseline boredom.  If variety is the spice of life, then we are in for a mighty spice-less decade once Roger Federer retires.

What makes a great rivalry in sports are two primary ingredients:  differing styles and greatness.  If you get two athletes who are great and must compete against one another, you have a good rivalry.  However, if those two players have different, or better yet, completely opposing styles, then you have a recipe for a great rivalry.  Examples:  Agassi / Sampras, Ali / Frazier, Federer / Nadal, Lakers / Celtics (aka Magic / Bird), Evert / Navratilova, McEnroe / Connors, and McEnroe / Borg, to name a few where contrasting styles, produced great rivalries.

In each case you have the light, stylish, usually more artistic athlete pitted against brute force and will.  In some cases, you have the showman against the work-horse or the angry young basher against the more mature, thoughtful player or team.  In any case, the contrasting styles, produced the greatest match-ups.  Tennis and boxing need this more than other sports because they pit athlete versus athlete in a reactive manner, thus the greatness of one, heightens the greatness of the other.  The different paths they take in achieving their ends are vital to the health and interest spectators gain.

The tennis powers-that-be have purposefully created a game where the volley no longer matters.  They have slowed down every surface, including the hallowed ground at the All England Club in Wimbledon, to the point that if they played the game today, some other greats of the open era would never have won a single title there, not because they weren’t good enough, but because we want longer points.  McEnroe, Edberg, Becker, and Sampras, would have a beast of a time winning Wimbledon in today’s climate.  The balls are slower and so is the surface.  Their brand of tennis would have fallen to the likes of Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander (probably would have won a calendar year slam in ’88 if things were as they stand today).  In fact, I believe Ivan Lendl would have won at least 15 slams, playing on the slower surfaces used today.  He would have dominated Wimbledon and the Aussie Open with his fitness, speed, and relentless ground assault.

The dumbing down of the game, so that all that matters are groundstrokes and serves (not as much either) saddens me.  It saddens me that Roger Federer had to alter his natural aggressive, all-court style, to play defense at tournaments, like Wimbledon, that should reward shot-making ability, instead of being a grind it out, French Open-esque, stop that sees almost the same group in the quarter-finals as all the other events.

Rafael Nadal on the other hand, got handed a silver platter.  His hard work and never say die attitude are to be commended.  However, his game lacks subtlety and his shot making is impressive defensively, but flawed and boring from an offensive standpoint.  He does not create.  He is not an artist.  He is a grinder and a flat out fighter, like Joe Frazier.  There is certainly a place in tennis for him and I want him there, but winning Wimbledon without serving and volleying once, should be impossible.  Even Borg had to adjust his game to win Wimbledon.  Nadal has enjoyed the luxury of playing the same brand of tennis on every surface and succeeding, with very little adjustment.  I actually respect the hell out of Rafa, but he is not truly a complete player who has had to develop strokes and styles he’s uncomfortable with to win.

Lendl worked his volley to the bone and became a complete player, but still could not overcome the serve-and-volley prowess of Pat Cash and Boris Becker at Wimbledon.  Two finals, and two straight-set losses later, he hung his head and could be regarded one of the best, except Wimbledon, rightfully so, favored a contrasting style that he could not overcome.  Unless we restore that dignity to that tournament, and add more fast-surfaces to the big events on the ATP Tour, tennis is headed for blands-ville.

Epilogue:  I asked all of my students and friends who are die hard tennis fans what they thought of the Murray-Djokovic Aussie Open Final 2011, and not one of them watched it.  As Stan Lee would say, ‘nuff said.

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