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Serve and Volley

Serve and volley? Why Not?

A subject close to my own heart and something I love to coach. Read on. . . . this article is predominantly aimed at Women players. . . however the principle applies to all. . .


There are a number of classic “reasons” for the lack of serve and volley in the modern game of tennis.  Opinions and quotes from fans, players, coaches and commentators are many but here is the short list, true or not, in this court of opinion:

“The return is too big” 

“Women’s serves are not big enough and they are too small”
“Racket and string technology makes serve and volley “suicidal”
“Women aren’t agile and quick in forward/back movement”

I have long been a believer that women’s tennis took an ill-advised, one dimensional turn many years ago.  With the onset of topspin, the baseline became the main room in the house for female players.  A successful style was created and copied, commentators and coaches professing that this was the way women should play tennis.  The serve and the classic volley (separately and paired together) were left to die.  We, as coaches, professionals and spokespeople for the game bought into this in a big way.  Consequently, we have unintentionally undermined players’ abilities and undervalued a substantial part of the game in women’s tennis.   Ultimately this detour has placed a negative effect on our teaching and playing cultures beginning at the grassroots level.

THE SERVE

We all know that, generally speaking, women are not physically capable of serving the speed of men.  Nature dictates this by giving men the size, speed and strength advantage. That being said, it does not mean that women cannot develop big serves.  The man’s muscle mass is above the waist and women’s is below the waist.  Women need to be taught to engage the center and lower body more to harness their natural power and to couple this with proper throwing technique. There is no time like the present to begin this project.

The fastest, officially recorded, woman’s serve is 131mph by Sabine Lisicki followed by a list of 12 professional players who have recorded speeds over the minimum 124mph benchmark.  Given these tools, exceptional results are attained by women players.  If they can do this why don’t we have more players banging on the big serve door? It’s all a matter of the player and coach believing that this is possible and going through the rigorous process of forming solid grips and progressions to great technique.  It’s also a matter of time spent, balls hit and willingness to persevere through seemingly impossible territory.  Like anything else there are some players who will take to the challenge more naturally and with open and accepting attitudes.  These players will make a big serve so cool and dominating that everyone will be willing to examine their serve technique.

In the last few years there has been a push to improve women’s serves and it is obvious that strides are being made and a new importance is being placed on the ability to get some cheap points.  Commanding play from the serve can be the future of women’s tennis if we make it a priority.  We’re not even talking about blasting untouched aces like some of the men but setting a tone and a confidence for a match by using varying spin and pinpoint placement with speed.  Not only does that set up the ability to serve and volley but the ability to win easier points from a less good return.

This is what it takes: making the receiver hit returns that are outside of their striking zone.   Then returns become less accurate, less deadly and more vulnerable.  Isn’t keeping the ball out of the strike zone what players attempt to do on the ground game? Why can’t we think the same way about the serve for women?

THE VOLLEY

The serve always gets the blame for the lack of serve and volley for women.  What about the poor old, neglected classic volley, which just so happens to be the second and equally important half of the serve and volley?  The art of the volley has been stripped and robbed by forehand grips, that’s what!  Women players spend so much time on the baseline hitting topspin forehands and 2 handed backhands that the Continental grip is a stranger.  Dangerously true is that this happens daily at grass roots levels.

It’s no wonder that our most creative and versatile female players in history use(d) a one handed backhand. Using a Continental grip for the backhand leads to familiarity of what this grip provides for both the serve and the volley. The Continental grip is essential for a controlled volley. Generally classic volleys are not meant to overpower but to put pressure on the opponent to hit a difficult passing shot and is a necessity for the first or mid-court volley.  Forward movement takes players from one physical place to another by means of hitting the shot and is an integral part of hitting this non-swinging shot.

Female players need to spend time on volley technique and how to make that technique work on the move. If it is true that women are less good at forward movement and struggle with transitioning reflexively, then it really is for lack of doing it.  Reallocate a good chunk of practice time to coming forward, learning an athletic split step and quickening up the transition.  Add a precision first volley to complete building the confidence to use a serve and volley or an approach technique.  Not only will this make serving and volleying more successful but it will enhance approaching on forceful ground shots or returns. It’s time and it takes time.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not advocating that all women players should become serve and volley players, I’m advocating a winning style of play. Use it at specific, strategic times, against specific player types, as a pressure tool, as a bluff.  Just use it.  Remember that when go to the net you will get passed. BUT in the meantime, you will win more points by simply approaching (and not having to volley) than you will by volleying.

In closing, below are facts, dates and numbers from Craig O’Shannessy of Brain Game Tennis.  If you don’t know Craig yet you might want to put that on top of the list of things to do today.  Craig is the lead strategy analyst for ATP and WTA tours and is having a huge impact on today’s teaching and playing strategies.

In an article in the NY Times (2014) Craig says: “An examination of the statistics shows that serving and volleying remains a winning strategy. At the 2012 United States Open, the official tournament statistics broke down points in three categories: baseline, net, and serve-and-volley. The average percentage of baseline points won for men during the tournament was 46.2 percent; for women, it was 47.3 percent. Getting to the net was more successful. Men had a winning percentage of 66 percent when approaching; women were won 65.7 percent. But both men and women had the highest winning percentage when serving and volleying: 68.7 percent for men, 69.2 percent for women.

The numbers were similar at Wimbledon last year, when men won 68.3 percent of their serve-and-volley points and women won 67.8 percent. Still, there were only 190 serve-and-volley points in the women’s tournament, and only 37 of the 128 women in the field served and volleyed at all. But 19 women did not lose a point while serving and volleying.”

Thanks Craig.

That seems pretty clear.  So let me ask again, why NOT?

Credit to WTCA – Womens Tennis Coaching Association