JAK'S MONTHLY ESSAY SERIES: Achieving Your Personal Best
Consider Serve and Volley
There was a time in the game’s long evolution when if you didn’t mostly serve and volley you were not considered to be a serious player. Even in recreational club play, players keenly aspired to doing it. Those days are long gone.
Back then 65” head size wooden rackets were it, with their generally bigger grips, powerless RDC flex ratings (not actually available back then) well below today’s norms, and with those precious gut strings that would unravel if you got them even slightly damp.
Nonetheless, besides tour players, good clubbers at that time also tended to possess “kick” serves, known then as the “American Twist,” popularized in name and technique by former world #1, the American Jack Kramer, also the founder of the professional tour as we know it today. Its advantage was that it moved from left to right, and upward after bouncing, like a lefties would naturally, instead of the usual right to left from righties.
With its high looping trajectory, confusing, counterintuitive bounce action, and with the slower balls and puny sticks of the day, players serving and volleying had plenty of time to get in tight to the net, apply pressure, and readily knock off volleys.
Although still a go to tactic in doubles, especially among the men, serve and volley is utilized sparingly in singles these days on tour for a number of reasons - faster balls, powerful hi-tech rackets, better synthetic strings, slower courts, and greater player fitness.
Still active ATP player Mischa Zverev – 25th in the world not that long ago - is the last of the Mohicans, serving and volleying exclusively, and effectively, on any surface.
Of course, none other than Pete Sampras and Martina Navratolova utilized the tactic to great success in their glory years in the game at an earlier juncture.
Since just about all pro players – including the women who can also bomb in 1st serves at MPH's well over 100 - tend to stay back on serve due to having insufficient time to get in a good volleying position -although slower clay play could represent a more viable opportunity.
Successful returners today can now neutralize S/V effectiveness by sending those big serves back almost as fast as they are delivered, while simultaneously placing those returns right at the onrushing server’s feet, making for a very tough first volley.
In most Clubland doubles circumstances are not quite the same. With lots of 1st serves that wouldn’t register on a radar gun, there is indeed often enough time to then get in a favorable 1st volley position after a well-placed delivery. Of course, conversely, the returner typically also has sufficient time to get a good look at the incoming serve and then, potentially, effectively handcuff the attack on their first strike.
It goes both ways. Who can gain the advantage? The ultimate decider always becomes how does my serve and volley tactic match-up with their return ability? Who has the edge?
Nonetheless, still a nice option to have in your back pocket when used effectively. Interestingly, some returners become rattled at the sight of an opponent coming in behind their serve. Yet others seem to relish an incoming target. Know your opponent.
Serve and volley can also be effective tactic when double’s returners are consistently getting away with weakly floating returns back cross court - ones that are not being actively poached by passive net partners – while under no threat with servers exclusively staying back. Another example of considering serve and volley is when a returner is predictably, and effectively, making sharply angled, un-poachable cross court returns short in the court.
One more is that it can also be utilized periodically as a way of keeping returners less comfortable and off balance – thwarted from getting grooved - who then becomes unsure of the margin to the net that’s required – higher to return deep if the server is staying back, lower to nail their shoelaces if coming in. The returner, faced with some unpredictability, then only has a fleeting moment to commit to which return to direct.
Finally, especially in “friendly” non-league or tournament play, start experimenting with S/V minimally at least once in every service game, especially if the score line is very favorable – best on 1st serve only, that is unless you possess a solid, bending, higher bouncing second spin serve, even if not exactly the aforementioned true kicker.
Continually growing your game to improve and raise your level is always doable. It just takes the commitment to do so.
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