Tennis was traditionally played on fast court surfaces like grass. As a result, having a good serve was very important for most players, as this would give them an excellent opportunity to take the initiative early in the point. If they managed to force a weaker or less controlled return, they would benefit from moving to the net and playing a volley, as this would reduce the amount of time their opponent had to recover their position and play their next shot.
Given the benefits of such an approach, it is no surprise that until the 1980s many players routinely adopted a ‘serve and volley’ style, in which they would rapidly move to the net after serving with the aim of hitting the third ball of the rally as a volley.
In this article I will talk about the pros and cons of serve and volley tennis, both in the modern game and historically, by answering some of the most commonly asked questions.
What Is A Serve And Volley In Tennis?
As explained above, a serve and volley takes place when a player moves to the net after serving and hits their next shot as a volley (in other words without allowing the opponent’s return to bounce).
Why Do Tennis Players No Longer Serve And Volley?
This is an impression which casual observers might get, but it is actually not true. There are still several determined serve-volleyers in modern professional tennis, as well as others who like to use the tactic occasionally.
It is fair to say, however, that since the 1980s the proportion of players choosing to serve and volley has reduced massively. The main reason for this has been the advent of the modern graphite-composite rackets. These are lighter and more powerful than the wooden rackets which were previously used, and can be made with larger heads and tighter string tensions to enhance control.
Modern racket technology therefore gives players the opportunity to hit with greater power, spin and control, meaning that they are often able to make returns of serve which are very difficult to volley. Unless a player has a very good serve, or is very athletic at the net, serving and volleying no longer seems like a high percentage option.
Another factor in the decline of serving and volleying has been the evolution of court surfaces and tennis balls. An increasing number of tournaments are played on acrylic courts, the pace of which can be determined by the choice of base and coating. These all offer a consistent, fairly high bounce, which allows returners time to attack many serves.
Grass court events, where the bounce is lower and less predictable are now quite rare. Even at Wimbledon, where the grass is a key part of the tournament’s identity, the courts and balls have both been made slower in order to encourage longer rallies. This inevitably makes it more difficult to serve and volley successfully.
Who Is The Best Serve And Volley Player?
Historically, there have been many great serve-volleyers. In the men’s game, many rate John McEnroe among the best. He had an unorthodox style, featuring a left-handed sliced serve and amazing feel on the volley.
Stefan Edberg was another player who had great success partly on the basis of his excellent volleys. Edberg did not have anything more than a solid kick serve, but he could win point after point with his athleticism and net play.
Pete Sampras was also happy to serve and volley, but the quality of his serve, which was often unreturnable, was really the key to his success.
In women’s tennis, Martina Navratilova enjoyed many years of success with her primarily serve-volley style, supported by her excellent physical conditioning. A little earlier, Billie Jean King, although small in stature and not possessed of a hugely intimidating serve, made great use of her excellent volleying skills.
Given the success enjoyed by the great serve-volleyers of the past, it is no surprise that some players of the present and recent past have been keen to adopt this style. Although he has probably reached the end of his career now, the giant Croatian Ivo Karlović has been entertaining spectators on the ATP Tour for over 20 years.
Karlovic had possibly the best serve tennis has ever seen, and he was able to follow it up with competent volleys and a strong overhead. The rest of his game was never of the same standard, but he enjoyed a great career almost entirely based on serving and volleying.
In general, players who serve and volley in the modern game tend to be on the taller side, with good serves but perhaps lacking power or mobility from the baseline.
Other examples of players who generally favour this style include the dashing Feliciano López and the charismatic Dustin Brown. The popularity of these two players actually emphasises an important point: in modern tennis, most players play mainly from the back of the court, so when an athletic player like Lopez or Brown plays in a different style audiences tend to love them.
The great Roger Federer is also regarded as a fine serve-volleyer, as he has a serve which is difficult to read and excellent volleying skills, but he does generally only use the tactic as a variation.
Townsend is a player with great natural ability who has never seemed keen on grinding out matches from the baseline. Hsieh does not possess a particularly strong serve, but she is rangy and highly skilled at the net so she is able to intermittently serve and volley.
Serve And Volley vs Baseline
If you are a young player starting out, with dreams of becoming a professional, you will need to decide on your favoured playing style. Most coaches will teach you to be solid from the baseline and encourage you to build from there.
Nonetheless, if you are athletic and have a good serve, do keep an open mind about serving and volleying. It can sometimes be beneficial to use a style which differs from that adopted by the majority.
Cressy Serve And Volley
One player I omitted from the section above was the new serving and volleying star of the tour, French-American Maxime Cresssy.
Cressy was born in 1997 and stands 6 feet 6 inches tall. He says that he began serving and volleying when he was 14, and nobody has been able to persuade him to stop! The highlight of his career at the time of writing has been his run to the last 16 of the 2022 Australian Open, where he eventually lost in four tight sets to eventual finalist Daniil Medvedev.
Medvedev was so unsettled by Cressy’s net-rushing style that he began aiming comments like ‘lucky’ and ‘so boring’ at his opponent in an attempt to break his concentration and rhythm.
This illustrates the benefit of a serve and volley approach: when done well it prevents others from playing the way they want to and can be unsettling for them. Cressy is 100% committed to continuing to serve and volley, so it will be interesting to see how far it can take him.
Serve And Volley In Doubles
At professional level it is still common, at least in the men’s game, to serve and volley in doubles. The prime reason for this is the fact that if your team are both at the net, you are generally in charge of the point.
When you serve, your partner will already be close to the net, ready to volley anything within his/her range. If you move forward to join them, you present a wall which your opponents have to find a way over or around. This puts them under pressure, and increases the likelihood that they will miss. This idea works at all levels provided that you have a reasonably accurate and varied serve, allied with solid volleying technique.
Tennis Serve and Volley Summary
Key points about serving and volleying in tennis:
- Serving and volleying was the main playing style until the 1980s
- The move to graphite rackets and slower courts has discouraged serving and volleying in recent years
- Great players like McEnroe, Edberg and Navratilova relied on serving and volleying.
- Today there are still some dedicated serve and volleyers such as Maxime Cressy.
- Serving and volleying can intimidate and unsettle your opponent.
- Moving to the net after serving is still common in men’s doubles.
Do you like to serve and volley? Do you have any stories about the way it upsets your opponents? Let us know via the comments section.