The serve-and-volley, back to the past

Jul 12, 2022, 6:00:00 AM | by Steven Oliveira

The serve-and-volley, back to the past
Maxime Cressy
Abandoned during the 2000s, the serve-and-volley seems to have come back in recent months and not only because a new hero - Maxime Cressy, 41st in the world - has made it his trademark.

The calendar is clear: we are in 2022. However, during four hours and four minutes, spectators who were on the Court 3, in Wimbledon, on last 28 June, took a leap into the past as they watched Maxime Cressy play. The 25-year-old American, who defeated Felix Auger-Aliassime, disgusted his opponent by constantly putting pressure on him at the net (134 rallies for 95 points won), thus awakening memories of tennis in the 1990s, culminating in the 2000 Wimbledon final between Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter. Two men who, in the course of their lives, made the serve-and-volley a formidable weapon before it disappeared in favour of the backcourt bombs. This was without counting on Cressy, born in Paris, who immediately wanted to restore the service-volley to its former glory. This has worked out quite well for him, as he reached the last 16 of the last Australian Open after no less than 283 serve-and-volley rallies in his first three rounds, including 123 against John Isner. More than his successes, the greatest joy of the man who told Courts that he wanted to "become No. 1 by practising the serve-and-volley" is that he has brought back to life a style that had been forgotten. This is what he said after defeating Auger-Aliassime at Wimbledon: "I worked so hard and so many hours to get to this point, I had to prove a lot of people wrong, that the serve-volley was not dead. I had to stay resilient with that tactic and that's what I did today - it's all because of that that I was able to win." To the point of emulation? 

At the start, the fall

To measure the evolution of approaches between the tennis played in the 80s and 90s and the one seen since the beginning of the 2010s, one only has to look at the state of the grass on the Centre Court of Wimbledon at the end of the tournament. After Novak Djokovic's win over Nick Kyrgios on Sunday, the back of the court had changed colour, turning brown, while the areas near the net were still green. This is in contrast to the days of McEnroe, Rafter and Becker. Numbers also support the visual impression, as at the 2021 edition of Wimbledon, serve-and-volley accounted for less than 4% of the points played in the men's game, compared to 37% in 2001. There are several reasons for this change. Firstly, there is the evolution of rackets and the appearance of polyester strings used by most players, which favours power and long exchanges. There is also the slowing down of all surfaces. For example, Kyrgios was seen throwing a tantrum in the middle of a match a few days ago: "Why is it so slow? It's grass. Stop watering the grass, stop making it so slow. Why is it so slow? There shouldn't be rallies on grass, stop making it so slow, my god!

It's precisely to see more rallies that all the courts have been slowed down. "When we played indoors at indoor tournaments or at Wimbledon, there were few opposing styles because the surfaces were very fast. That necessarily favoured the offensive players," says Loïc Courteau, who played four French Opens in the 1980s before becoming coach to several French leaders (Mauresmo, Benneteau, Pouille). "We almost only had matches with two exchanges per point and it was uninteresting. Nowadays, you can win Wimbledon with hardly any net point." For example, the Italian Matteo Berrettini, who was a Wimbledon finalist in 2021, did not play a single serve-and-volley in the tournament.

Novak Djokovic, a whistleblower

Few members of the tour have John McEnroe or Patrick Rafter as their idols. This is logical, firstly, because most players were not born when the two men stopped playing. Secondly, because not all of them have developed a tennis culture by swallowing videos on YouTube and have watched Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for inspiration. "Naturally, nowadays, the DNA of players is to hit hard from the baseline, to create points from the baseline, but not to go forward," confirms Loïc Courteau. "The DNA of players 20 or 30 years ago was not to hit hard from the baseline, but to go forward. Tennis has changed." The three big names are not allergic to the serve and volley. Novak Djokovic used this weapon to surprise and upset Daniil Medvedev in the final of the last Paris-Bercy tournament. However, Courteau doesn't really believe that Cressy's dream of becoming world number one is possible: "Players are returning so well nowadays that it's difficult. He can surprise at times but when he faces the best players in the world, who are the best returnees in the world, it will be difficult for him. I think he's going to have a hard time breaking into the top 20 because of the surfaces that are slower."

The WTA as a place to make a comeback? 

In the WTA, the serve-and-volley is not more fashionable, far from it: in 2018, at Wimbledon, it represented less than 1% of shots. Loïc Courteau is nonetheless convinced that a return to grace for the serve-and-volley is more likely among women, and not only because German Tatjana Maria, a great fan, has just made it to the last four in London: "If we had players capable of doing serve-volleys often in indoor or on grass, it would be really annoying for the opponents. The girls are often embarrassed when we play slices or shorten the exchanges. They don't like it at all." Courteau knows what he's talking about, having coached Amélie Mauresmo for six years and having asked her to come to the net more. "She had a predestined game to go forward and she liked it, but she was raised on clay and used to playing from the baseline. She was already going to the net from time to time but she could do it more." 

The 1982 French Open junior finalist is putting his finger on an important point: training, because even if the man who will become Diane Parry's head coach in August intends to ask his future player to play serve-and-volley, he knows that he cannot change the DNA of the player who beat title holder Barbora Krejčíková at the last French Open: "Diane already has her game in place. You don't create a serve-and-volley player today at 20. You can bring her closer to the net, you can make her progress in that area, but you can't tell her in one go: 'You're going to do service-volley'. On the other hand, we can train them from a young age, around 12-13, to bring them much more towards the net so that they develop this game in the youth category, so that they are mature when they arrive on the main circuit." An opinion shared by Maxime Cressy, who told L'Equipe about his training at the Boulouris centre, an FFT centre reserved for French hopefuls: "People were quite happy for me to play serve and volley, but I felt that they weren't 100% convinced either. So it was up to me to convince myself because it was just a style of play that I liked. I had to develop a huge belief in myself. I wasn't really pushed. In the federal environment, people wanted a style that would make you win immediately, within a system where you had to get into the Insep and then the CNE at all costs. It's a system that demands immediate results. So, in such a system, having a 'new' style of play that takes time to set up is not necessarily ideal." Currently ranked 45th in the world, Maxime Cressy has "only" 44 places left to climb to reach his dream and prove that it is still possible to reign over tennis using the serve and volley. In the meantime, he can already be satisfied with giving pleasure to the nostalgic.