On Wednesday night, Feliciano Lopez defeated No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal in the second round of the Shanghai Masters Series 1000; it was only the Spaniard’s third win over Nadal in twelve meetings. Lopez took down the fourteen-time Grand Slam champion thanks to variety of tactics that allowed him to keep Nadal off balance and, most importantly, provide himself with opportunities to get to the net.
He sliced and diced, chipped and charged, and served and volleyed.
In the last 10-15 years, there has been an overwhelming shift towards baseline play. The days of Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter serving and volleying their way to Grand Slams victories are long gone. The question today, then, is this: after seeing Lopez successful integrate net-rushing tactics against Nadal, is the stigma associated with serving and volleying in the modern game holding players back?
Ask most players and they’ll tell you the reason they don’t serve and volley or even try to come to the net is because of the quality of the average opponent’s passing shot. The development of string technology and the advancement of biomechanics now allows players to hit balls much harder and with much more spin than they were able to in the past. That players like Novak Djokovic can hit once unimaginable passing shots from out of position or behind the baseline has been made possible because of these factors.
What you won’t often hear about is how the game has changed in terms of player stance. Back when grass courts reigned supreme, the only way to win was by moving forward. As a result, players needed to find the quickest way to get themselves to the net. What they found was that hitting balls in a linear fashion using a neutral stance most efficiently propelled their center of gravity forward.
For those less familiar with stances, a neutral stance essentially involves a player hitting the ball by turning their body sideways, stepping into the shot with their front foot and then unwinding their body towards the net as they make contact. This allowed players to hit shots while directing their body weight toward the net without having to stop their forward momentum.
Because the game has evolved and balls are bouncing higher and with more spin, players are using more extreme grips. In turn, players have begun to turn away from the neutral stance and are instead using an open stance (with the body opened up toward the net), a semi-open stance (body partially opened toward the net), and closed stance (body closed off from the net). These stances direct the center of gravity towards the sidelines as opposed to towards the net, thus preventing players from having a continuous stream of motion towards the net. Attempting to move forward with these stances are much harder.
What can modern day players can do to overcome these factors?
Telling a trained professional to alter their hitting stances is unreasonable. Changing a major component of someone’s game, a component that impacts how they hit every ball, would on be doing them a major disservice. What can be done, however, is to encourage players to practice hitting shorter balls with a neutral stance. This will serve the purpose of getting players to the net faster and with more efficiency.
As far as string technology and biomechanics are concerned, there’s one reality that cannot be ignored. No matter how many good approaches a player hits, the inevitable fact is that, from time to time, an opponent will find a way to thread the needle. This was the case 30 years ago, and it is still true today.
Players can reduce their chances of getting passed by hitting better approach shots. It may seem an explanation is that is too simple, but a lot of players are getting passed because the quality or direction of their approach shots are inadequate. They either fail to hit their approach shots with enough pace or depth, don’t push their opponents close enough to the tramlines, or commit the cardinal sin of approaching cross court.
There’s no denying that getting to the net is much harder than it was when wooden rackets and low cut clothing were in style. But it would be difficult to successfully argue that getting to the net is a totally futile and obsolete strategy. Feliciano Lopez proved as much against Nadal. Others, including Michaël Llodra, Marcel Granollers, Radek Stepanek, Julien Benneteau, and Gilles Muller have also gained a lot of traction on tour by moving forward. It’s also worth noting that nearly all of the players just listed have made significant forays into the doubles arena.
Solving the modern game isn’t easy, but there are answers and sometimes these answers are hidden at the net.