Monday, October 12, 2009

Youzhny and Tsonga: Embracing The Art Of The Volley

Greetings tennis nuts,

The absence of Roger Federer and Andy Murray, along with the difficulties of Rafael Nadal and the stunning first round exit of U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, opened up some coveted spots for lower ranked players in the final rounds of Tokyo and Beijing this week.

And when opportunity knocks in the tennis world, it's always fun to see who walks through the door. For some fans this weeks special guest might have been a disappointment for them, but for The Fan Child, it couldn't have been better.

One of my old favorites — he of the hilarious and very endearing post-match racquet salute — Mikhail Youzhny found himself across the net from another of the ATP's more flamboyant stars, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It wasn't the star-studded type of final that has tennis pundits drooling as they prognosticate and pontificate over the Federer's and Nadal's of the world, but there was definitely something refreshing about the vision of these two remarkably athletic and ingratiatingly charismatic foes readying themselves for the Tokyo ATP 500 final.

Neither Youzhny or Tsonga was able to make a big splash during the Slam season, and there are good reasons for that. One word that comes to mind is consistency. For Youzhny there are a few more words — patience is most definitely one of them. Temper is another.

But in spite of Youzhny's shortcomings, his old-school tactics, variety, classic arm action and high toss on the serve, sweet one-hander with a dreamy finish, tasty volleying ability, and the willingness to attack the net remind me of the days when men were men on the ATP tour.

Yes, there was a time in tennis when players regularly sprinted up to the net, showed their teeth to their opponent, and prepared to use their athleticism and their finely honed volleying skills to win them crucial points.  It hearkens back to a time when the willingness to gamble was instilled in almost every players tennis DNA.  It was a kamikaze style of tennis that lent itself to lunging, stabbing, and diving.  Breathtaking points the very often ended with a player laying on the court in either agony or ecstasy.  

Today, as we all know, this unnecessarily reckless form of tennis has has evolved into shock and awe baseline bashing.  It is the new status quo across both the men's and women's games. The volley, once the bread and butter of every tennis players game, is now the shot of old-timers who don't have the firepower to make a living from the gun mount behind the baseline.  

But have we gone too far in that direction? Will there ever a bread and butter (or even ham and eggs?) net rusher at the top of the ATP rankings again? Or am I just spending an afternoon lamenting over an era whose sun has set and is never to rise again?

Lo and behold, after watching so many gorgeously constructed points between Tsonga and Youzhny, my hopes for the resurgence of the volley have been revived. While baseline bashing has clearly become a reliable and effective way to control a tennis match, Youzhny's and Tsonga's willingness to charge the net has reminded me, once again, that the volley will never die. 

Rejoice, tennis fans!  Sure, the pace of today's game has more than likely removed the volley from prominence forever. Sure, the volleys role in the arsenal of the top players may end up to be more of a secondary "change it up" -type role. But to think that the volley is dead, or to coach a tennis prodigy (as it seems that many coaches are doing these days) without emphasizing it's role not only as a way to attack an opponent but also to confuse and frustrate them is ignorant and downright disrespectful to the sport.

As I watched Tsonga and Youzhny make numerous sojourns to the net, I couldn't help but think that being able to volley effectively, and therefore being able to abandon your baseline game when it has become painfully out of whack, can sometimes be the best thing for a baseline basher. Perhaps Soderling, Cilic, and Del Potro should take note and continue to let their approach shots and volleys emerge as bona fide weapons rather than as show pieces that they only take out in matches that have already been decided at the baseline.

As incredible as the baseline bashing has become in today's sport — players are more athletic and more powerful than ever before — there is always a time, especially during a long match, where it must get monotonous for even the most one-dimensional player to be relegated, effectively caged, behind the baseline. Even the best of players get bored and go cold out there, from Mr. Federer on down. At these times I think the volley can help to refresh the palette, and give the beleaguered player an effective distraction that will help him or her break out of the funk.

As mentioned earlier, there are reasons why serve and volley, and volleys in general are not used as much in modern tennis.  First of all, with players hitting 100 m.p.h ground strokes and technology-aided topspin (think light racquets and Luxilon), we're not talking about picking a lazily-sliced ball out of the air anymore.  Players today have to watch for lasers that have been painted with wicked spin that move like fuzzy yellow comets across the net.  Try volleying something off Fernando Gonzalez's racquet when you have some free time, and you'll see what I mean.  

But even as those reasons make a case for less volleying, there is nothing in the sport that could ever justify the current lack of net play on tour.  While at the U.S. Open I watched full matches where neither play ever attempted to get to the net.  Several of them!  Not only is it not entertaining, it just isn't right.  

The volley.  You can neglect it, sure, but you're never going to kill it.  Youzhny and Tsonga are living proof of that.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Leave your two cents here!