I was at a Wimbledon event in midtown Manhattan yesterday with Monica Seles where we hit tennis balls on a temporary grass court at Rockefeller Center that HSBC Bank installed for people to hit on all week long and get a mini-Wimbledon experience in NYC. Monica and I hit with adults and children for a few hours and all of us, including me and Monica, struggled with the low and unevenly bouncing court. Granted it is a temporary court, not the wonderful courts of the All England Club, but it took me back to a time (not too long ago) when all male players, myself included, felt like we HAD to serve and volley to be successful on the grass not only on first serves but also on SECOND serves. Because the balls skidded so much on the slippery grass we all felt our chances were better off by taking the ball in the air as opposed to letting it bounce and trying to hit groundstrokes off of our shoestrings. The one year I played great at Wimbledon the court played very much like a hard court by the second week because it didn’t rain at all during the fortnight, which dried and hardened the surface and allowed me to stay back and have some success hitting groundstrokes before Pete Sampras took me out in the final in 4 sets. That was a rare year indeed.
As I was thinking about modern grass court tennis this morning I couldn’t help but take a glance at the names of the players who beat me at Wimbledon in my 11 appearances at The Championships. Here is the list in order from 89-99: Seguso, Woodforde, Stich, Olhovsky, Sampras, Forget, Pioline, Stark, Stich, Johansson, Henman. Of those players the only one who I wouldn’t consider to be an all-courter or flat-out serve and volleyer would be Thomas Johansson. Every other one of these players liked to play serve and volley when the conditions allowed for it, which it often did on the fast paced indoor circuit as well as the grass events in those times. I wonder how I would have done against these players on today’s courts. Actually, its a rather moot point as these players would have been forced to play a different style of game to be successful in this era of homogenized surfaces. Note the absence of serve and volley tennis in 2011.
I think it is a shame that a wonderful volleyer like Roger Federer has been pinned to the baseline on grass and no longer has the option to successfully serve and volley at Wimbledon. The contrasting matchup of a serve and volleyer versus a baseliner is a very attractive one. And how great would it be to see Roger vs Rafa in a scenario where Rafa was forced to serve and volley on both 1st and 2nd serves? That is exactly what we saw with Ivan Lendl vs the McEnroe’s, Becker’s and Cash’s of his time where Lendl would skip the French Open in order to dramatically transform his #1 game of baseline domination into a serve and volley game to try to complete his career grand slam. It never happened for Ivan but that is evidence of what a different surface it is today where Rafa doesn’t have to do much different on grass other than slice his serve more frequently. It’s tough to imagine Rafa winning Wimbledon in the 90’s given the surface at that time but I sure would like to see how he would adjust to having to serve and volley all of the time. He’s such a great champion and competitor and that would have been a challenge he would have enjoyed as much as we would enjoy watching it.