Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Best Shots In Tennis - Part 4

The first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they hear the word ‘volley’ is  – ‘In this day and age? Are you kidding me?’ It’s true that volleying may no longer be as important to tennis as it has been all through the history of the sport. The reason for that is not exactly rocket science – improved racquet and string technology have made it so much easier for the players to swing with abandon that hitting passing shots is pretty much bread-and-butter stuff now. But rest assured, the art of volleying is far from a dead relic. There are still a few players who are, every now and then, brave enough (or foolish enough?) to venture to the net and attempt that incredibly risky business of finishing a point without trying to absolutely pulverize the ball. In part 4 of our series dealing with the best shots in tennis among active players, we look at the best volleyers in the world.

Men – The Contenders: Mardy Fish, Michael Llodra, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Feliciano Lopez, Richard Gasquet

Did we watch the last of the great volleyers pass us by when Pete Sampras announced his retirement from the game? Many who watched the Sampras-Federer classic at Wimbledon back in 2001 were convinced that there was hope still for the net-play aficionados – Federer made so many forays to the net during that match that it was hard to imagine him ever giving up on that attacking, net-rushing style. And yet, here we are, having been witness to a 5-year Federer reign atop the tennis world, and we still can’t seem to hush the legions of traditionalists bemoaning the demise of the serve-and-volley.

There is, however, a fairly obvious flip side to the decline of the volley. Most players these days are so content to stand back at the baseline and repeatedly bash the ball that they seem incapable of finishing off a point without letting it turn into a marathon rally. Sometimes it actually seems as though the players are literally afraid of getting anywhere close to the net – something within them seems to freeze when they are put in a position to hit a volley, which perhaps explains the abundance of stoned putaways that we see on the tour today. Another thing that the volleyers have going for them is that the majority of the ATP players today have little to no experience of playing a net-rusher; the novelty of the task alone is enough to turn any player into a jittery mass of nerves and botched returns of serve.

Michael Llodra, the aging Frenchman, can hit such crisp volleys off the backhand side that after watching a few of them it becomes a little easier to comprehend how a 30-year-old journeyman can upset the 7th-seeded player at a Grand Slam with so little fanfare (I’m talking about Llodra’s victory over Tomas Berdych in this year’s US Open, of course). Mardy Fish, who’s been on something of a late-career surge lately, has always been a first-class volleyer – if anything, his biggest problem in the past seemed to be his inability to get into position to hit more volleys. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stunned the world with his dreamlike volleying against Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Australian Open semis – some of the volleys that he produced during that match actually drew comparisons with John McEnroe. Admittedly, Tsonga has never been as successful with relatively easier putaways  as he is with the much more difficult stab volleys, but he’s still one of the more comfortable players at the net today.

Feliciano Lopez redefined the Spanish player’s game by showing that not all Spaniards were baseline grinders who had an intense dislike of approaching the net. Rafael Nadal has built on Lopez’s success, refining his volleys to such an extent that he can now boast of a net game that can rival that of the best net-rushers in the business – an extraordinary feat for a player who learnt to play tennis on the dust-bowls of Mallorca. Andy Murray and Richard Gasquet both have excellent hands and superb touch at the net, but neither of them comes forward nearly enough to actually make effective use of those rare attributes. That leaves us with the man who, despite all the contradictory analyses (He should come to net more often! He should stay as far away from the net as possible! Why doesn’t he just retire from the game already?), still has the best volleys in the world – Roger Federer. Sure he may not come to the net now as frequently as he did at the start of his career, but when he does press forward, it is accompanied by a singular killer instinct and a cutthroat conviction that are usually enough to throw the opponent off-balance. It helps, of course, that Federer has the most silken, exquisite touch on the tour today – the same touch that has made the world go ga-ga over his ornate brand of tennis.

Winner: Roger Federer

Courtesy: SportsKeeda

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