So yesterday, after looking at the draw for this year’s edition of Wimbledon, I discovered much to my chagrin, that I had nothing to write about. I’m slowly learning about the little and big implications that come with being a sports writer – blogger if you will. The sport, more than anything, feeds you the content rather than the other way around. You could say the draws being made was new content to write on, but I beg to differ. There’s not really much to talk about… yet. Maybe that’s what comes with one player being so overwhelmingly dominant, the way Djokovic has been. I’d pencil him in as the de-facto winner. For the last twelve months, he’s been that good and everyone else has been well… not as good.
So with nothing better to do, I decided to go on a trip down memory lane. I backtracked sixteen years and found in the YouTube archives, highlights of the 2000 Wimbledon final, between Pete Sampras and one of his bitter rivals, Pat Rafter. You can check out the highlights of the first set of that match, by following the link below.
As I watched the match, I mulled on the subject of Serve and Volley – a dying art of the game. I wonder if we should change the “dying” to ‘dead’. We’ll get back to that, later. A lot of people talk about the clamor for more ‘interesting’ tennis as the catalyst for the slowing down of the courts that took place not long after this match. That reduction in court speed along with other factors I won’t focus on in this article, was as they say, the fatal blow that sent S & V on its downward spiral. A new kind of tennis was ushered in at the 2002 Wimbledon games. The age of baseline tennis had finally arrived.
However, I digress. Coming back to the art of Serve and Volley, I cannot describe to you the overwhelming sense of nostalgia I experienced, watching this match. The first thing that jumped out to me was the location of the foot beaten grass. By the time the final rolls around these days, the grass near the baseline is reminiscent of a parched desert area. In the highlights, you’ll see that back then the fore-court was also weathered and while the baseline looks like it has taken some beating, it is not nearly as bad as it will look in two weeks from today. Rafter is serving now and he goes for the fast one down the T. It isn’t the most powerful serve out there, but it is well placed and comes with a decent amount of pace. By the time Sampras looks up from his return, Rafter has carved out a marble of a backhand cross court volley that he can do little about. In that moment, I can see why the grass thrived under this brand of tennis. Rafter’s footwork is lithe and watching him approach the net, I get a sense that he is barely brushing the blade tips of the grass. Now there is a player who should have won this tournament. Sampras is well known for his movement on the turf and his cat like steps to the net are equally breathtaking to behold.
From both men, the genius at net is lightning – blink and you miss it – fast. You do not get to appreciate the thought and execution that has led up to the final volley, until after the exchange of furious shots is completed. The volleys themselves are natural wonders, weaving with dexterity, a combination of conscious purpose and instinctive reflex to create a rather resounding display of attacking tennis at its most glorious. As equally compelling are the passing shots the two combatants produce. They rifle through their backhands with conviction and the topspin impacted is furious and dipping… always dipping. There is a sense of urgency to the serve and volley style of play, and very little room for prolonged decision making. The serve forms the anchor for the rest of the game, much like it still does today. However there is a glaring difference. While most of today’s players use the serve as a bludgeoning weapon, these guys – even Sampras with his vaunted serve – use it as a rapier. The aim is to either end the point or set up the next shot, with a interlace of placement and power. Still watching, I felt like going to a local tennis club and showing this clip to young up and comers when they are ready to learn the serve.
How could anyone call this, boring?
But ‘boring’ is a subjective word both to the keen tennis observer and as influenced by the participants of the game. I do admit that there were tennis matches back then that could make the eyes bleed. I never particularly enjoyed watching a Krajicek match, for instance and the 1994 Wimbledon final between Sampras and Ivanisevic, was a cataclysmic dud. Just the same, I wouldn’t want to see a final between a David Ferrer and Bautista-Agut. I suppose what I’m trying to say is, tennis is a symphony created by two participants, the rackets being their instruments. The music only gets as good as the instrumentalists play it. The big difference is, you never know the composition before hand or if you’ll have a crescendo or not.
The volleys themselves are natural wonders, weaving with dexterity, a combination of conscious purpose and instinctive reflex to create a rather resounding display of attacking tennis at its most glorious.
SW19 starts in twenty four hours. A lot has happened since that 2000 Wimbledon final – and for me, the last exhibition of combined Serve and Volley genius at a grand slam event. Sampras and Rafter retired, succumbing to father time as they all do. Federer rose and proceeded to put together a zoned run that has landed him in pole position for that elusive G.O.A.T title, and now Djokovic, a baseline player as pure as Rafter was a Serve and Volley player, will be going for his third straight Wimbledon title. However, Federer while winning primarily from the baseline, employed the use of an all court game predicated on all court attacking tennis with a propensity to finish at net, as often as possible. I believe he ushered in a slightly different version of the new era. We’ll call it Approach and Volley (A &V) – predicated on hitting a strong approach shot, teasing out the weak reply and moving in for the easy put away. Djokovic might not be as offensive as Federer, but under the tutelage of Boris Becker he has discovered, much to his benefit, that there is great advantage in learning the secrets of the S & V art.
So let’s get back to that suggestion I asked earlier. Should we substitute “dying” with ‘dead’? Maybe we should try the word ‘evolving’.
There’s that word again.