Now that Roger Federer has checked the Laver Cup off his to-do list, he can turn his attention back to a related long-term project when he takes the court at the Shanghai Masters 1000 this week: his effort to revive attacking tennis, including the serve-and-volley tactic.
It’s become a cause close to Federer’s heart, not least because the pursuit of a bolder game with fewer shots per point has been a major driver in Federer’s remarkable success this year.
“I know you can easily get sucked into that [attritional] mode when you don’t want to attack,” Federer said in July during a Wimbledon news conference. Addressing the way the net game has fallen into neglect, he added, “Almost every player I played here would not serve and volley. It’s frightening to me to see that at this level.”
Federer remarked that when he looks at the stats sheets and sees how infrequently his opponents attack the net, he knows that the tactic that enabled Rod Laver to complete two calendar-year Grand Slams is one he won’t have to worry about.
“I wish that we would see more coaches [teaching], more players willing to take chances up at the net,” Federer concluded, “because good things do happen there.”
But bad things happen there, too — especially if you aren’t Roger Federer. Some key features of today’s game are downright hostile to the aggressive game. Slow courts, polyester strings, a developmental diet heavy on hitting punishing groundstrokes and building impregnable defenses all discouraged attacking tennis and brought serve-and-volley to the brink of extinction.
“I don’t know if trickle-down [from Federer] would work in this case,” Leif Shiras, an old-school attacking player as a pro and now an analyst for the Tennis Channel, told ESPN.com. “Players aren’t introduced to net play early enough, they don’t practice it enough, and if they do try it, they don’t necessarily do it correctly. Plus a lot of them think, ‘Roger might be able to do that, but Rafa doesn’t. Novak [Djokovic] doesn’t. I think I’ll stick to the baseline.'”
It’s a good point. While the bulk of Federer’s success can be attributed to his epochal genius, some of it might also owe indirectly to the unexpected struggles that befell those superb defenders Djokovic and Andy Murray. And let’s not forget: The No. 1 player at the moment is the ultimate grinder, Nadal.
Federer might be a pied piper, merrily leading followers to their doom on hard courts and clay.
The scales have been heavily weighted toward baseline, defense-orientated players for a while now, and advances in equipment have been a net gain for them.
“Every point, you have to be ready. You’re either going to get passed, you’re going to miss an easy volley or you’re going to win the point.”
Mischa Zverev on the high-risk nature of serve-and-volley tennis
“An attacker has to defend a certain amount of space when he comes to the net,” Shiras said. “But with today’s strings, a defender can find parts of the court that simply wasn’t available to him before. The cuts on passing shots are big, the angles are sharp and the ball flies by in the shape of an egg from all the spin.”
Some of the players who aren’t just willing to attack but also serve-and-volley are Feliciano Lopez, Sergiy Stakhovsky, Vasek Pospisil, Nicolas Mahut and Dustin Brown. But the figurehead for the group is Mischa Zverev, who’s up to No. 27 in the ATP rankings thanks to his relentless attacking. It was potent enough to enable the 30-year-old German (and older brother of world No. 4 Alexander Zverev) to upset Andy Murray in the fourth-round of the Australian Open earlier this year.
Mischa Zverev, whose career has been hampered by injuries, is wedded to the serve-and-volley style. He will be the first to tell you it’s a challenging relationship.
At Wimbledon, where Zverev lost in the third round this year, he told reporters that a world-class player must play serve-and-volley tennis for 36 months to become comfortable enough to succeed with the tactic at Wimbledon. He also has to grow accustomed to taking some severe beatings between those periodic big wins, because serve-and-volley is the ultimate high-risk/high-reward style.
“Every point,” Zverev said, “you have to be ready. You’re either going to get passed, you’re going to miss an easy volley or you’re going to win the point.” He likened the process to flipping a coin 200 times a day and hoping to win a majority of the tosses.
That’s a significant mental hurdle for any player to clear in this ultra-conservative era, when the emphasis is on consistent play. There’s a hit-or-miss quality to serve-and-volley tennis. Also, nobody enjoys getting caught flat-footed at the net with a passing shot whizzing by. But Mike Estep, who coached that superb attacker Martina Navratilova through much of her career, once told Navratilova that if she wasn’t getting passed 25 times in a match, then she wasn’t coming to net enough.
A variety of factors came together to usher in the present era of defensive play, a full quarter-century of slower hard courts, slower grass, rackets and strings that helped breed baseline heroes. But different forces could help swing the pendulum back the other way.
For starters, when Federer speaks, people listen. Coaches might already be working more offense and net play into their training routines. Also, speeding up the game has become a primary goal of promoters and administrators. Faster courts and faster points equal faster matches for a younger audience more interested in the tweet than the personal essay.
Besides, after the heavy dose of four- and five-hour baseline epics we’ve experienced in recent years, crisp, three- or four-stroke points, leavened now and then with an exciting, lengthy rally, look pretty attractive.
It wouldn’t take much to make conditions more favorable to attacking tennis. But it probably will take more than Federer’s lobbying for it.