By Allen Fox, Ph.D. c 2013, all rights reserved
Over the years the game has evolved many times into many different forms. And it seems to be evolving yet again. The volley is beginning to reappear and assume, at the highest levels of the game, increasing importance. But it is not the volley of yesteryear, that of McEnroe, Sampras, Edberg or Rafter. Their volleys were of the chip and charge, serve and volley variety, usually requiring a maneuvering volley or two before finishing the point. By contrast, the new volley is a transition volley, hit after a severe groundstroke or serve has forced the opponent off balance and onto the defense. The volleyer darts forward opportunistically when he or she senses that the reply from an out-of-position opponent will be hit softly, high, or inaccurately. Instead of multiple volleys, the point is usually ended with the first volley or, at most, the second.
These days, Roger Federer is the most obvious practitioner of this type of volley. Although adept at the net and quite capable of mounting an old-style serve and volley attack, he rarely does it. Instead, he serves and volleys sporadically, just enough to keep his opponent guessing and insecure about hitting low-risk, deep, floating returns. The rest of the time he tries to get control of the point with his groundstrokes and looks to pick off high replies from out-of-position opponents at the net. His tremendous speed of foot and flexible hands allow him to make his moves suddenly and with deadly efficiency, deftly controlling the occasional difficult volley forced by an opponent who hits a better shot than anticipated.
Rafael Nadal has also learned to do it. He used to finish only with his big forehand, but in recent years he has become quite adept at the net, probably helped by playing doubles. He is very quick to jump on any ball an opponent hits that floats. Novak Djokovic is working on it, but isn’t nearly as good at it as Nadal, and it has cost him matches. In fact one of the reasons he lost the French final to Nadal this year was because he let Nadal float back too many high, defensive chips without cutting them off at the net. He is normally awfully good at hitting winners from the baseline, but it is a difficult and risky play, and he was just a little less sharp than usual on that day. Even yesterday I was watching Sam Querrey play Jurgen Melzer in the semi-final at Winston-Salem, and both of them were transitioning to the net more than they used to, especially Querrey, who never came in at all a couple of years ago,
Making this play successfully depends on a couple of elements. First, the players have to become better volleyers. This means they must spend more time practicing at net than the usual ten minutes and then back to the baseline for the next two hours. (About 45 minutes a day for several months should make them functional.) And they must practice hitting it on the move forward, which is how they would hit it in a match. So they should practice starting behind the service line and close forward as they hit. The second factor is the timing of the move forward. The decision to go in should be made before hitting the last attacking groundstroke so they can be farther forward by the time the opponent replies. Waiting to see what type of shot the opponents hit before deciding to go forward leaves the volleyer too far from the net at contact and is the usual reason they are often forced to hit swing volleys from mid-court. It’s better to hit a moving punch volley from right on top of the net.
I believe this type of volley will separate more and more of the strong baseliners from the pack. Every top player hits the groundstrokes pretty well. At the very top of the game, particularly on the faster surfaces, the players need something extra. And they are starting to recognize this.
This play works particularly well on an opponent’s backhand side, especially if the shot is a two-hander. When stretched wide these players will often be forced to hit with one hand, a physically weaker shot, and one that generally necessitates a defensive, sliced return. Even players with strong, one-handed backhands will resort to the defensive slice if forced severely. And with the ball moving slower and higher (in an attempt to maintain depth), the best percentage play for hitting a winner is to take the ball in the air. This reduces the opponent’s recovery time and puts one in position for an easy kill if the first volley is not conclusive. The alternative is to allow the ball to sail back to the baseline, giving the opponent more time to get back into the court, and to go for a winner with a groundstroke. Because of time and distance considerations, this shot must be hit very hard and close to the lines, imposing greater risk of error.
A secondary benefit of the transition volley is that it will cause one’s opponent to make more errors. Opponents get jumpy when surprise volleys preclude them from hitting low-risk, defensive returns and regaining proper court position. They are now forced to hit more severe and perilous shots from awkward positions. This factor also operates as a result of the occasional serve and volley. They no longer dare to hit the soft, deep, chip return lest it be intercepted in the air. Now they have to hit off balance with less margin against a fast-moving ball that is difficult to control in the best of circumstances. The result – more errors.
One might question why Federer (who was a serve and volleyer in his early days) and the others have opted to give up on the old serve and volley, chip and charge type of volley? The answer, of course, is because today’s improved equipment, stroke techniques, and training methods have led to more powerful and accurate groundstrokes. In order to profitably attack at the net these days, one must come forward behind heavier artillery than in days of yore. Now the serve returns and passing shots are hit too hard and too accurately for players to venture forward behind anything less than substantial heat. If today’s top players are allowed to remain on balance and given time to set up and hit passing shots, the odds appear to be against even the most proficient volleyers, with the possible exception of matches played on bad grass.
Tennis is constantly evolving as players come up with smart new ideas to give themselves an edge. In its early years it was a game played primarily from the baseline with relatively flat or sliced groundstrokes. In the 1940’s Jack Kramer discovered that the persistent volleyer had the advantage on fast courts against this type of player. Hence the serve and volleyers dominated the game for the next 25 years. To counter the volleyers, players developed topspin groundstrokes. (At the same time, the courts were slowed down and the balls were made heavier, helping the baseliners even more.) By the mid-1970’s, Borg, Connors, Vilas and the rest killed off most of the volleyers, and the game was again dominated by baseliners, many of whom won largely by attrition. (Connors was the exception, an aggressive baseliner with a transition volley, as were Don Budge and Bill Tilden before him.)
The next major development was led by Ivan Lendl, who was an aggressive baseliner. He won by attacking with a big serve and hitting winners off the ground with his forehand. And that has been the basic trend up until today, with most players winning as aggressive baseliners, hitting winners with their groundstrokes.
Of course there have been plenty of exceptions to these trends. John McEnroe and Stephan Edberg were serve and volleyers during the aggressive baseliner phase; Dick Savitt won Wimbledon in 1950 as an aggressive baseliner in the days of the serve and volleyers; and Maurice McLoughlin won by serving and volleying in the early 1900’s, when baseliners ruled. But these people were exceptional in their times, and we are discussing general trends. And the latest general trend appears to be that of the aggressive baseliner who is additionally armed with the transition volley.