TennisFilter: How has the decline of the serve-and-volley game changed tennis?
July 5, 2007 8:48 AM   Subscribe

TennisFilter: How has the decline of the serve-and-volley game changed tennis?

I am a tennis amateur, with a great love of watching tennis but a long and futile history of playing. In watching Wimbledon recently, I started to wonder how the dominance of baseline, power tennis (particularly in mens' tennis) has affected the game.

It seems to me that, perhaps among other differences, there would be a decided increase in breaks of service, given that the distinct advanage a serve-and-volley strategy gives to the server is erased with longer rallies where both players stick to the baseline. Is this the case? Are there other changes that have occured in tennis (particularly, but not exclusively, as a result of this change in strategy) as it is played today in comparison with, say, 10, 20, 50 years ago?

Bonus question: Why does tennis use the odd scoring system (love, 15, 30, 40, deuce, etcetera) instead of perhaps 0,1,2,3,4 or something a bit more intuitive?
posted by jckll to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Tennis Score @ Wikipedia
"The origins of the fifteen, thirty, forty scores are somewhat unclear - one common explanation is that the scoring system was copied from the game sphairistike, which was played by British officers in India during the 19th century. That game's scoring system was based on the different gun calibres of the British naval ships. When firing a salute, the ships first fired their 15-pound guns on the main deck, followed by the 30-pound guns of the middle deck, and finally by the 40-pound lower gun deck.[1]

The scoring system is also sometimes said to have medieval and French roots. A clock face was used on court, with a quarter move of the hand to indicate a score of fifteen, thirty, and forty-five. When the hand moved to sixty, the game was over. Previously, tennis had a scoring system like table tennis or "ping pong". This explanation seems unlikely since Medieval France predates the advent of mechanical clocks, with sundials being the chronometer of choice at the time."
posted by inigo2 at 9:03 AM on July 5, 2007

John McEnroe tackles some of these issues in his book, "You Cannot Be Serious." IIRC, he makes the case that the cause of the decline in the serve-volley game are the powerful lightweight composite racquets that everyone uses today. In the days of wooden racquets, it simply wasn't possible to generate enough power to just crush a forehand past your opponent. To be successful, you had to work the point to create unreturnable angles. It is much easier to create angles at the net, so the serve-volley game was more popular. Now, though angles can still be important, everyone hits the ball so hard that it can be difficult to even approach the net--and when you do get there, passing shots from your opponent are much more difficult to handle. So it doesn't pay to work too hard on serve-volley skills--so no one does.

To encourage more artistry through the strategic use of angles, McEnroe advocates a return to wooden racquets in the professional game. His book--which is mostly about his life--is as interesting and articulate as his tennis announcing. If you can handle the egomania, I highly recommend reading it.
posted by Kwine at 9:18 AM on July 5, 2007

I have also read last week that they have changed the grass used at Wimbledon to make it more resistant to abrasion. As a result, Wimbledon courts are now slower than the hard courts (US Open type), removing all remaining advantage to play serve and volley. Boris Becker was quoted in the article saying he couldn't have won on today's Wimbledon "slow" courts
posted by bru at 9:32 AM on July 5, 2007

Any advantage lost by servers due to the gimping of the serve-and-volley strategy is more than offset by the huge boost to serving itself that the power game brings. Basically, the same high-quality serve that you would have easily volleyed for point back in the day is now an ace or service winner -- same result, same advantage, less running.

Now, rally length -- that's where there's an obvious decline over the years. Power shots shorten rallies because they're winner-or-out types of shots, and everyone can hit them now. I can't even watch men's tennis anymore because I don't find two guys standing around and blasting 130+mph servers at each other very exciting -- the women's game is only a few years away from being every bit as unwatchable.

Tennis without rallies is like (American) football without tackling -- still kinda fun, but somehow lacking its soul.
posted by Pufferish at 12:59 PM on July 5, 2007

The note from the McEnroe book is a telling and worthy comment.

Going hand-in-hand with the racquet design changes is advances in training and nutrition, and coaching specialization.

Players are bigger, stronger and in far, far better shape than players of 20-30 years ago. Compare the Williams' sisters to Chris Evert and Billie Jean King. Moreover, advanced training techniques (e.g. reviewing video) has also allowed players to better perfect aspects of their game.

Serve-and-volley is all about technique and improvisation borne from hours and hours on the court. But if you're stronger, have a better racquet and can perfect a rocket serve by closely monitoring video, you can get better results that way.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:59 PM on July 5, 2007

David Foster Wallace's essay in the NYT addresses some of your question regarding baseline play, and is also a really terrific read.
posted by verysleeping at 1:47 PM on July 5, 2007

You likely already know this, but "love" is derived from french l'oeuf, meaning egg (=zero). Don't know the origin of the rest of the scoring system.
posted by jpdoane at 10:41 PM on July 5, 2007

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