In the last 20 years, how many top singles tennis players can you name that serve-and-volley? How many of the stars of the game utilize the slice for anything except as an occasional point-reset from the wings of the court? How many of these top players are playing doubles with any regularity?
The answer, unless you’re delusional, is nearly zero. The likes of Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter were the last of the true serve-and-volleyers. Gone are the days when players such as John McEnroe managed to hold the #1 spot in singles for 170 weeks and 270 weeks in doubles, often concurrently.
On the women’s side, Martina Hingis’ retirement from the singles side, almost forced by the sheer slugging percentage of the Williams sisters, marked the last time a women’s player possessed all the shots and was able to win with finesse and cunning.
Tennis, for 20 years now, has been a game of big serving and brutally aggressive baseline rallying. To their credit, the number of professional players with top-shelf fitness has dramatically increased as well, and the overall depth of quality players has increased at every level, from the pros to college players and on down to juniors.
However, looking at many strong junior players coming up today, I can’t help but feel like their games have been left more incomplete than those that came before. Big serve? Check. Powerful dictation with the forehand, inside-out, inside-in? Check. Ability to grind massive baseline rallies? Check.
But beyond these key elements of the game, as it is played currently, there are weaknesses aplenty. How do you hit a western forehand off a low-sliding slice? How do you transition to the net without the ability to hit such a low-sliding ball to keep your opponent from pummeling a passing shot? How do you play doubles at all? These are the questions that come to my mind when I see many of today’s talented but incomplete junior players.
Part of my coaching philosophy is that players should have the full complement of tools to play any style of match. I grew up playing club tennis with men 20-30 years my senior who sliced and diced me into oblivion for a while, but I learned from them and I think there is still much to be learned from that style of play.
I played tons of doubles (and still do), which I find to have helpful crossover with singles play. Doubles teaches you the importance of positioning and balance. Doubles can also help you improve on return-of-serve and target your own serve for maximum effect. It is so rare to see a doubles draw in a junior tournament these days, and when there is one, it’s usually pitifully under-filled.
I played doubles with a promising young player recently, and to my surprise, although he had a massive serve, he didn’t follow it in a single time, even when I suggested it. If you’re a strong doubles player, you know this is full-on blasphemy.
Earlier this summer, I learned from a new player I was coaching that “she wasn’t good at doubles.” I asked her why she thought that and then I asked how much she plays doubles. “I’m not a good volleyer” and “I don’t really play doubles at all” were her answers. How can this be? This girl has aspirations to play college tennis and she is certainly talented enough. What are these players to do when they get the singles junior ranking they need to get into a college program, only to realize that doubles is an important part of tennis at the college level?
Too much emphasis has been put on too few elements of tennis in recent years, and the result is incomplete players with weaknesses that can and will be exploited by those that possess the full arsenal of shots and a more complete knowledge of the game.
Today, we saw Serena Williams lose her shot at a calendar Grand Slam (winning all four majors in a single season). She was beaten by an unranked player with a slice backhand and a thoughtful game-plan. Earlier in the open, Novak Djokovic faced his toughest match of the tournament (so far) in Feliciano Lopez, who used his slice backhand and consistent trips to the net to put Djokovic out of rhythm and take away his fitness edge.
Roger Federer, coached by Stefan Edberg, has been increasingly using serve-and-volley to disrupt the typical baseline slugfests and today, I even saw him chip-and-charge a Wawrinka second-serve, to the bewilderment of his opponent. Wawrinka, left with very little time to set up a shot, dumped the first ball into the lower part of the net.
I believe that tennis has evolved and specialized itself to the point now where, those who still remember older styles of play are becoming so rare that they now hold the element of surprise and an extra card to play.
More dynamic and varied points are a lot more fun to watch and play, anyway. It’s time to follow the lead of some current pros, who have boldly reached back into previous eras to unleash now forgotten strategies and shots to devastating effect. And for the love of McEnroe, let’s get these kids playing doubles again! You gotta be kidding me!!!