Death of a tennis art: Is this the end for serve and volley?

Story highlights

Former world No. 1 Ivan Lendl says serve and volley is too difficult in modern tennis

Hitting power and new technologies mean players now stay at the baseline

Roger Federer is finding it harder to serve and volley, says Tim Henman

Wimbledon legend Pete Sampras believes the technique is a dying art

CNN  — 

It used to be one of the great sights in tennis – the likes of Boris Becker and John McEnroe flying around the net, executing flawless volleys to follow up precision serves.

But the fearsome hitting power of modern tennis players has destroyed an art once finessed by some of Wimbledon’s greatest champions, according to eight-time grand slam winner Ivan Lendl.

Czech legend Lendl believes the bold playing style – mastered to thrilling effect on grass by legends such as Rod Laver, Stefan Edberg, Martina Navratilova and Pat Rafter – has been outdated by advances in technology and training.

“The reason the guys don’t serve and volley is mainly because of the spin on the ball that is given by the string and also by the strength of the guys and their technique,” Lendl told CNN.

“So to come to the net and be fishing for that ball when the guy takes a full swing and it has 8,000 rpm on that ball … it becomes very, very difficult to volley and put away.”

In the next two weeks, Lendl is chasing the Wimbledon title – the only grand slam that eluded him as a player – as a coach for British number one Andy Murray.

But Lendl, who is now a U.S. citizen, appears unlikely to encourage the Scot to make frequent forays from the baseline.

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“There are only a handful of guys that can do it right now – Roger (Federer) being one of them,” Lendl said.

But even Federer, whose serve-and-volley prowess helped secure six Wimbledon titles, has abandoned the technique.

Tim Henman, a four-time Wimbledon semifinalist and one of the few players of his generation to embrace the serve-and-volley game, thinks Federer has been forced to adapt his style at the London venue.

“He used to (serve and volley), but I think the conditions of the grass have changed so much – the balls are probably heavier, the courts are much, much slower, so there is far less serve and volley,” Henman told CNN.

However, the former British number one maintains that coming to the net can pay off at Wimbledon, adding: “I think you’ve got to really keep attacking on grass, it’s the hardest surface to defend on.”

Lost art

Yet Pete Sampras, the most lethal exponent of serve and volley ever seen at the All England Club, is less optimistic about the future of the technique.

“It’s gone,” he told CNN earlier this year.

“I love watching Roger, Nadal, Djokovic, but it’s sad to see Wimbledon today with everyone staying back,” Sampras said in March.

“I developed the serve and volley game at a young age. I started at 13, 14 – if you’re 20 and don’t serve and volley, it’s too late.”

Sampras concurs with Lendl that the state-of-the-art equipment used by today’s players has hastened the decline of serve-volley.

“Technology might be an issue because with these big Babolat rackets, they don’t need to volley, you just hit the crap out of the ball. Whereas we grew up with the wood racket, so you had to hit it properly,” said the seven-time Wimbledon champion.

“It’d be nice to have someone come up that serves and volleys. It’s definitely a lost art, and it’s unfortunate.”

Sampras would not be the only one saddened if the era of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – so often hailed as a golden one for tennis – also came to be defined by the erosion of one the game’s most exhilarating skills.