- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

NEW YORK Taylor Dent can serve bludgeon, really a tennis ball faster than almost anyone else on the planet, often at speeds exceeding 140 mph.
But that's only part of what makes him unique.
It's what Dent likes to do after he serves that really makes him stand out. Head up, feet firing, the 21-year-old American charges the net like an overloaded mining cart, looking to strike a quick, well-placed volley.
"To each his own," said Dent, who lost to Raemon Sluiter in the first round of the U.S. Open. "But that's how I like to win my points."
As a rising serve-and-volley specialist, the 21-year-old Dent is in some pretty rarified company namely, his own. Of the 22 players age 22 and under in the ATP top 100, all but Dent are baseline players.
And that's no fluke.
In the Open men's draw, only a handful of high-profile players most notably Tim Henman and Pete Sampras still practice the net-rushing style that made Sampras a 13-time Grand Slam winner.
Otherwise, serve-and-volley tennis is a dying art in need of a defibrillator, if not a priest.
"There really aren't many guys who do it consistently," ESPN tennis analyst and U.S. Davis Cup coach Patrick McEnroe said. "There are guys who can volley. But serve-and-volleyers, there are very few left."
It wasn't always like this. As recently as a decade ago, serve-and-volley virtuosos like Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg captured Grand Slams with regularity. Pseudo retiree Patrick Rafter won two Opens and advanced to a pair of Wimbledon finals with his kick-serving, full-speed-ahead style.
In today's game, however, Dent and his ilk may as well be stepping from the gull-wing doors of a tricked-out, time-traveling DeLorean, Marty McFly and a frizzy-haired Christopher Lloyd in tow.
Including Sampras and Henman, every last serve-and-volleyer of consequence Max Mirnyi, Greg Rusedski, Wayne Arthurs, Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivanisevic, Dent, Todd Martin to an extent can be tallied on two hands with a finger to spare.
By contrast, the tour's "New Balls" brigade, led by Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and others, is mostly adverse to the style.
Even tall, swift, big-serving players who would do well to serve-and-volley that means you, Marat Safin and Roger Federer use the tactic as a change-of-pace, not as a primary weapon.
"These guys hit the ball so well that I think they possibly could go for one or two shots maybe not serve-and-volley but finish the point at the net," said Arthurs, a first-round loser to Ferrero. "But they don't. I don't know if there's anyone [serve-and-volleying] anymore."
The most telling evidence? This year's Wimbledon final between Hewitt and David Nalbandian, which marked the first time since 1978 that two baseliners met for the All England Club championship on the slick grass of Centre Court.
In a combined 150 opportunities, on the same hallowed turf where net-rushers like Sampras and Becker made their names, neither Hewitt nor Nalbandian attempted to serve-and-volley.
Not even once.
"Unbelievable," Arthurs marveled. "It's just a very dying breed."
The decline of serve-and-volley tennis largely can be blamed on the hard-hitting nature of today's game. Bigger, stronger, better-conditioned athletes are striking the ball with more power than ever before, and high-tech boom sticks allow them to tee off on 110 mph plus serves in a way that wooden rackets never did.
Players also are coached to return serve with extreme prejudice, taking the ball on the rise in the manner popularized by Andre Agassi.
"Guys return so well and pass so well that if you're missing a lot of volleys or not serving well or both, you're going to find the door pretty fast," Dent said.
The courts play a role as well. Mid-1990s hand-wringing over bang-bang monotony in part, an overreaction to Sampras' numbing dominance has led to slower playing surfaces, reducing the margin of error for serve-and-volley rushes.
The Open's DecoTurf II hardcourts are grittier than in seasons past, mostly because a final, finishing coat of paint never was applied. Likewise, Wimbledon's grass courts played slower this summer than ever before.
"Honestly, barring the clay, Wimbledon felt like the slowest court that I played this year," Henman said. "I think we have to be careful that the balance doesn't swing too much the other way, that all the courts become very, very slow and it really limits the style of play.
"You can serve and volley on any surface, but obviously if it's very, very slow, it's going to make it difficult."
Other factors include the tour's influx of Spanish and South American clay-court specialists who treat the net like a barb-wired, land mine-loaded DMZ and a general decline in volleying skill. Most top players would rather take a wild card into the Kandahar Open than play doubles; as such, they're missing a prime opportunity to polish their net games.
Even though the points are short, serve-and-volley tennis is anything but easy on the body. And in a grinding era of excessive travel, too many tournaments and frequent injury, that can't be discounted.
"If you look at it, a serve and volleyer is doing a lot of short sprints, maybe five, six, seven of them every time," Arthurs said. "Over a five-set match, that's pretty demanding. Pat Rafter was probably the fittest guy on the tour when he was at his top. And it took a lot out of him."
Above all, serve-and-volleying has become passe for a simple reason: You can win without it. Henman is the only net rusher in the ATP top 10. Baseline basher Carlos Moya won two clay-court tournaments this summer, then captured a Masters Series title on the hardcourts of Cincinnati.
Hewitt, the world's top-ranked player, demolished the serve-and-volley Sampras in last year's Open final and was the first baseliner to win Wimbledon since Andre Agassi in 1992.
"Put it this way: It's easier to be a good backcourt player than to be a good serve-and-volleyer," McEnroe said. "A backcourt player can serve big and basically tee off from the baseline. But if you want to be a serve-and-volleyer and make a living as a pro, you've got to be good."
Tell that to Dent. A former junior star, Dent didn't adopt a serve-and-volley style until four years ago, when he joined the professional ranks.
Since then, the learning curve has been steep: Dent won only three matches during his first three seasons on tour and didn't capture his first ATP title until this summer, winning a grass-court tournament in Newport.
In his loss to Sluiter, Dent looked like a work-in-progress, blowing a 2-1 lead in sets.
"It's a tough way to play," Dent said. "It takes longer to develop. You have to play a variety of shots, more than a typical baseliner does. I don't know whether it's been a mistake or not, but it's the way I like to play."
With players like Dent fewer and farther between, some in the sport worry that the serve-and-volley style will die out entirely resulting in an era of baseline bashing every bit as boring as bang-bang tennis.
In the quarterfinals of last year's Open, Agassi and Sampras produced one of the most riveting matches in recent memory, a four-tiebreaker, no-service-break classic. Afterward, both players acknowledged that contrasting styles often make for the best tennis.
Arthurs couldn't agree more.
"Guys are running around like mad idiots at the back of the court," he said. "It's gotten a bit static in tennis, with everybody just staying back. A little bit of variety would be good."

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