Having waxed poetic about the inherent beauty and style of the one-handed backhand in a recent column, I would like to look at some of the other possible changes the game of tennis might benefit from.
If I could wave yet another magic wand over the sport, I would like to see more opportunities for play at the net. Perhaps we could install a rule that says, “After the first two shots from each player in a rally, both players are obligated to come to the net.” That would make the game more interesting, we’d have lots of old fashioned serve and volley. Just put a gun to their heads and make them get their little butts up to net.
For me, this is the purist way of tennis. I grew up at the tail end of the Pancho Gonzalez era, I was in college during the Rod Laver-John Newcombe-Stan Smith round of play, back when everybody came to the net. It was how I learned the game. My father walked me onto our public court at Nibley Park in Glendale, California, with his old wooden Dunlop. “This is what the game is all about,” he told me. He proceeded to teach me the serve. From there it was an easy hop to learn about playing the net. You can’t do one without the other, that was his attitude.
Almost as an afterthought, he taught me the forehand, then the backhand. It was a crucial progression in my learning the game. I developed an overwhelming love and respect for the power of the serve. How could you NOT win, if you had a good serve and you got in quickly to the net. This was the magic formula I thought to win consistently in tennis. I would practice my serve against walls for hours at a time, chipping it, slicing it, driving it. Along with that I hung out at the net a lot, spending hours with people who were happy to try and drive balls right through my navel. It was wonderful. I felt insulted if I had to hit a forehand. My serve would wipe out most girls, and if they actually managed to get a return back, I was ready to gut them at the net. I was a vicious little Serving Monster.
Somewhere along the line, this Swedish kid wandered into the party, and he pretty much stood the game as I knew it on its ear. He was sure easy on the eyes, but things started to change drastically. Topspin became my least favorite tennis word.
Can we go back to those purist days of serve and volley? Should we? Often, when you hear commentators describing matches, they give advice like, “He should be moving in more,” or as McEnroe is fond of saying, “Good things happen when you move towards the net.”
And yet how many players actually take that advice? Not many. But I maintain it is the proper way to play the game. Tennis IS serve and volley. Sorry Rafa.
I was so pleased to hear recently that apparently Roger Federer wants to win at Wimbledon strictly serving and volleying. Shall we hold his feet to the fire on that one? Not that we need to. I suspect Roget is one of those purists too.
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