There is an element of the game that seems to have gone the way of the dodo bird. I'm thinking, of course, of the serve-and-volley tactic. It wasn't that long ago when nearly every player on the men's professional circuit, and a fair number on the women's side, practiced this dying art with skill and alacrity. Even players who were not tall with a long reach, or who did not have a huge serve, such as Rod Laver, folowed their serves into the forecourt, where they used their anticipatory skills, agility, and "soft hands" to win points quickly, as if with a parry and a thrust.
It made the game seem more "manly" in many respects. Practitioners of the s&v tactic were risk-takers; they were players who preferred to be in control of their own destiny; who would rather look silly stabbing at thin air than let the point turn into a war of attrition.
This philosophy extended beyond the mere s&v, as players looked for any opportunity to shorten the court, and point. Short ball? Good enough for me, I'm going in! Second serve? You bet I'll be chipping and charging! So what happened to have caused these effective tactics to be placed on the endangered list? In a word (no, better make that four), racquets, strings, technique and surface.
The advances in racquet design and technology have had enormous impact on the game, particularly among the professional ranks. The racquet speed that players generate today demands a racquet that not only can withstand off-center hits, but can deliver a solid, accurate placement on them. In the days of the Dunlop Maxply Fort or the Wilson Pro Staff, off-center hits generally resulted in a weak shot or an error. Racquet-head speed could be your friend and your enemy, on the same day. So most players opted for a swing style and speed that allowed them to maintain a high standard of ball control.
Remember, serving speeds have not risen dramatically, at least not when measuring the game's biggest servers, oveer the past three decades. Roscoe Tanner had a big bomb, as did little Colin Dibley, whose serve was clocked in the 140s. But ground strokes, and particularly returns of serve, have gotten dramatically more powerful. But watch clips of a match featuring today's players side-by-side with a match from the 1960s or 1970s, just as racquet technology was beginning to be explored, and you'd think the latter players were in slow motion.
This means that any foray into the net will not yield as deep a penetration into the forecourt as is desired to make a forceful volley. The opponent's reply will simply arrive too soon to get in optimum volleying position. This is one of the reasons the swinging volley has gained in popularity. Hit from the service line or farther back, it can penetrate through the opponent's defensives more quickly than the traditional "punch" or "catch" volley.
String technology has also left an indelible mark on the game, to the detriment of s&v. It has often been said that the Luxilon and other polyester strings, as well as the so-called "blends, in which a natural gut string is mixed with a synthetic is like playing with the banned "spaghetti racquet." Consequently, players are able to apply spins that result in revolutions per minute that were practically unimaginable 30 years ago. The passing shots now dip below the net more quickly and at a shorter distance from the net, making it less likely that a volleyer will get a ball above the netcord to work with.
Advances in stroke technique have also worked against the s&v. Open-stanced forehands and two-handed backhands essentially allow players to face the net to strike the ball, their hips parallel with the net, as they generate power from their back, or anchor, legs--pushing off the ground the way a baseball pitcher usd the mound rubber. This results in tremendous force being applied to the shots. In addition, it allows players to get a better "look" at the net-rusher and to disguise their passing shot. Furthermore, the open stances allow players to get back toward the center of the court, or to "bisect the angle" more rapidky, as the position of their feet and the distribution of their weight are more optimally suited for changing direction and getting a good "jump" on the ball.
It's no accident that plyometric training has been applied to the tennis stroke much more frequently and effectively since the general acceptance and practice of open-stanced stroke production. Explosiveness is built into the open stance approach, and professional players are maximizing this element in today's game, to the harm of the net rusher, who finds it more difficult to gain good positioning at the net, more difficult to "read" opponent's intentions, and more difficult to get to balls which are now hit with amazing power and accuracy.
Finally, court surface changes, from a macro perspective, have made the s&v tactic less effective than it once had been. In 1969, when Rod Laver achieved the Grand Slam for the second and last time in his career--winning the singles titles at each of the four major events, or Slams--three of the four Slams were vied for on grass courts. Today, two of those--the Australian Open and U.S. Open, have switched to hard courts. Despite the lack of solid evidence that the pro tour has abandoned all but hard courts, there is no question that the game's most prized titles have an effect beyond the lure of fame and fortune, and ranking points.
[NOTE: I'm off to catch some Zs. I will return to finish this tomorrow.]