Game Insight: Is serve-and-volley gone forever?

Published by Game Insight Group

Stefan Edberg won two titles by serve-volleying at Wimbledon; Getty Images
Game Insight Group crunches the numbers to chart the decline of serve-and-volley and looks at the reasons why it has become a dying art.

Most of us love to take a moment to reflect on the past, to contemplate the good ol’ days if you like.

For tennis fans, in the peak of the northern hemisphere summer, that often means reminiscing about the way the game used to be played. Thinking back to a time when a young Boris Becker launched himself from one side of the service box to the other, or more recently when Pat Rafter attacked the net as enthusiastically in the first game of a match as he did the last.

It’s no surprise that the common denominator fueling much of this romanticism is the serve and volley. It’s the ying of the serve-volleyer to the yang of the baseliner that has defined so many of the game’s great rivalries of style and personality (think Borg v McEnroe, Navratilova v Evert; Becker/Edberg v Lendl, Sampras v Agassi).

So, it’s with that touch of sentimentality in mind that we’ve asked ourselves, where has the serve and volley gone – and why?

In the table below, we’ve counted all of the serve and volleyers (across all court surfaces and not just Wimbledon) among the ATP and WTA top 20 for every 10 years from 1978 (year-end) to 2018 (pre-Wimbledon).

It makes for fascinating reading, reminding us of the pitfalls of rose-coloured glasses!

Year Top 20 serve-volleyers (ATP) Top 20 serve-volleyers (WTA)
1978 6 2
1988 6 2
1998 9 0
2008 0 0
2018 0 0

The first thing that caught us by surprise was that the men’s top 20 in 1978 wasn’t all that laden with serve and volleyers. In fact, it wasn’t until near the turn of the century (1998) when the prominence of this style of game peaked among the top 20.

From that point on though, it’s been all downhill, with the serve and volleyer fast becoming an endangered species.

So what’s happened since 1998 for the game to have recalibrated in this way? Here we land on three reasons:

  1. The surfaces that the pros play have fundamentally changed. Grass, or faster courts, comprise a much smaller portion of the tournament calendar.
    1998: Grass and Carpet = 23% of ATP Tour events
    2017: Grass and Carpet = 12% of ATP Tour events
    1998: Grass and Carpet = 27% of WTA Tour events
    2017: Grass and Carpet = 9% of WTA Tour events
  2. Even the “fast“ courts have become slower. The speed of the Wimbledon courts are an annual focal point, with the popular view being that they play slower than in years gone by. If we consider the number of aces hit per event as a proxy for court speed, this argument would seem to have legs.
  3. Modern racquets and strings allow players to do things with the ball that previously were unimaginable.

So, will it ever come back? It looks like the baseline will remain the place to be for the foreseeable future.

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