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What Happens in Beverly Hills. . . 06/28/2007 - 1:00 PM

Mornin, Tribe. Due to the wonders of auto-posting, this entry is going up while I'm somewhere over Kansas, on my way home from Los Angeles. I had a good visit with Pete Sampras at his home in Beverly Hills, which is as tasteful and elegant as was Pete's game. There's not a sign of Pete's career anywhere in the common rooms in the house (and for all I know, none anywhere else, either), which is something I always like in someone who could surround himself with all manner of hagiogaphic fetishes.

But then, many of the trophies Sampras earned at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open have already been shipped to Newport, R.I., and the International Tennis Hall of Fame, into which he will be inducted in a few weeks time. Wimbledon champs, BTW, get replica's of the Championship Plate that are about a quarter the size of the originals (think large pizza vs. "personal" size pizza). Pete had those replicas tastefully displayed in his previous home, and I assume they'll find their way back to his living room at some point.


John Curry, the former All-England Club (Wimbledon) chairman called Pete a few weeks ago and asked if he'd be interested in a wild card for this year's event. Pete didn't have to think twice: He politely declined.

I wasn't tempted at all, although it would be interesting to see if the grass is slower, like everyone says. You know, I think I could still compete there, but the real problem is that there are so few guys in the draw who I've played. I never liked playing guys for the first time. It was always a bit of a struggle.

It took me a little while to figure guys out, so going out there could would be uncomfortable and distracting. I need to know the kind of ball a guy hits to be really effective against him.  I think Roger (Federer) is similar to me that way, and it helps explain why it took him a while to get into a comfort zone. Once he had a few years experience to figure out most of the guys, he saw what they had and knew how to beat them. It makes it a lot easier when you know what kind of stuff your opponent is going to bring. Believe me, that's huge. A lot of tennis is that kind of problem solving. You play a guy once and, win or lose, you know the two or three things you need to do in the future.

Pete has watched a little of Wimbledon, and he misses the place. He says he can sit in his chair, close his eyes, and conjure up the exact feeling he had - the nervous anticipation - walking out on Centre Court to play a final. You may have noticed that a locker room attendant walks onto Centre Court with the players for the final, carrying their bags. Ir's a detail that was always fraught with existential significance for Sampras.

It's like you're just walking out there, like naked, and you think, "Well, this is it. . .'" You don't even have that security of lugging that bag, having something to hold onto. You're just like. . walking out there, to meet fate. It's unnerving, in cool kind of way.

Last year, when serving-and-volleying U.S. player Robert Kendrick pushed Rafael Nadal to the limit, we had a spirited debate here about the viability of the attacking game at today's Wimbledon, against today's baseline players. I think the fact that Nadal subsequently reached the final only made Kendrick's performance more impressive. This was no attacking player beating up on some helpless clay-court expert. An attacker can still win Wimbledon; It's something I believed then, and still believe now. The problem is that nobody is attacking (see Ray Stonada's entry, below). Here are Sampras's thoughts on the subject:

I have a hard time watching how these guys play today. It's just amazing that everyone stays back, and hits with so much spin and everything. When you put spin on the ball on grass, it doesn't really do anything. Well, slice does, but topspin doesn't. I was watching (Igor) Andreev playing (James) Blake and Andreev hits that big topspin backhand and - god - it just sits up there, waiting to be hit. Granted the guy is a clay-court player who isn't real comfortable on grass. Fair enough.But still. . .

The bottom line is that nobody comes with heat, and can back it up. There's no Richard Krajicek around to really attack you and take your time away. That's they key to winning with the serve-and-volley game: Deny the other guy his time. Roger can win without doing it because he has so much game and such good hands.

I think the 1990s may have been the toughest time to win Wimbledon. The grass was fast, the balls were fast, and there were a lot of guys around who could turn it  into a craps-shoot: Stefan (Edberg), Boris (Becker), Goran (Ivanisevic), Krajicek. . . Those guys really made you uncomfortable. By contrast, I always loved seeing guys who wanted to play back against me - players who liked to load up and hit their shots. Andre (Agassi) was different, because he played up in the court and he played pretty flat, so  he was coming to the table with something - an ability not just to keep you from getting in but maybe even push you back. But with other guys who played back, I felt if I could hit one shot and be in there, I'd be in control. And control is what it's all about.

Now you can dismiss all this as a typical "old guy" rant about how much tougher it was in his era, but Pete isn;t that old, and his era is not too long gone - even though the sea change in the nature of the players may suggest it is. It certainly didn't seem to me that Pete had an axe to grind, or that he was trying to blow his own horn or boost his stock; this is a guy who'll admit that Ivanisevic's first serve was superior to his own. This is a guy who has no dog in the fight, just talking about what he sees and how he feels about it. One of the great things about working on this autobiogaphy with Pete has been discovering how much he knows about the game, and how what he knows is so often simple. Smack-your -your-forehead, lightbulb over head, how could I not see that simple.

It can't be the grass,  I just don't believe it. It's bullcrap. You can serve and volley on anything. If you go back and watch the tape, you'll see that when Roger beat me at Wimbledon (2001), ending my streak there, he served and volleyed a lot. And he's not doing that anymore.I asked Paul (Annacone, Sampras's former coach) about why Roger wasn't attacking more, and he said the same thing: "It's because the grass is slower." Bull, I said, I'm not buying that. I'm going to ask Roger myself.

So, when Federer worked out with Sampras for a few days before Indian Wells this year, Pete raised the issue. And Roger explained. It was one of those moments: two dominant champions, talking shop.

And, as we all know, what happens in Beverly Hills, stays in Beverly Hills.

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Posted by Dunlop Maxply 06/29/2007 at 01:18 PM

Perhaps, Christopher, perhaps. Sometimes its easier to be a couple of degrees snarkier than intended. If so, sorry. I've followed TW long enough to actually meet some people in real life, and although good natured debate is fun, I would never try to upset anyone who loves the game enough to post here.

Posted by Pete 06/29/2007 at 01:40 PM

Ptenisnet and others: Yes, Pete bought Roger's explanation - see my new post.

Posted by kbomb 06/29/2007 at 09:01 PM

Dunlop - Enjoy your posts as always, and as a former serve & volleyer who patterned his style of play after Edberg and Rafter (and what often gets forgotten with those two is that they were tremendously agile and gifted athletes and movers, and LONG, which enhanced their ability to react, improvise and pressure at the net -- just TRY getting a lob or passing shot by either), I agree with most if not all of what you wrote.

Players do what they must do to win, at least the ones who compete for Slam titles, and it was maddening to watch so many of Federer's opponents last year just stay on the baseline and take their routine thumping. (Just as it is maddening for Fed fans to watch him basically play the same way in three consecutive French Opens again Rafa... c'mon, change tactics, attack but do SOMETHING different rather than taking more vicious body blows that are going to cost you the match. An unabashed Fed fan I am, but take away the first set in last year's final and that match was a LOT closer than many are willing to see or give Rafa credit for. And, having been a major Borg fan, I lived through those years when he won the French, then amazingly flipped the switch and won Wimbledon -- and if he can do it, Rafa can, too, especially in this era when fewer and fewer accomplished S&V players exist. Heck, are there ANY?!? If, as Pete ponders, Rafa was to knock Roger off this year -- and I don't think that will happen -- it would be interesting to see what Fed might have to come up with to get his game to the next level to meet that challenge. A more aggressive serve & volley game would be the logical progression... not that we may ever see it come to pass.

The comment earlier about "You simply can't be a great net player without great ground strokes" IS false. Both Edberg and Rafter were great net players BEFORE they became more complete, all-around #1 or #2 or #3 perennials. Edberg's chicken-wing forehand needed to be shored up, as did his patience in rallying from the baseline, knowing when to attack (you can't charge forward at all costs on hard courts and hope to beat the Lendls of the world) and developing the "fire in the belly," as his coach Tony Pickard used to say, to really fight and perservere rather than go hang-dog as he did often in his younger days when situations soured. And Rafter just didn't have enough solidity and heft to his groundstrokes to compete with the top guys until he tightened up his defense and began challenging Pete and Andre in the late '90s, no matter how great his net game already was. You can't be a great player serving & volleying unless you have really SOLID groundstrokes, would be the more accurate statement. Edberg had a beautiful backhand but that forehand could eventually be broken down, as Agassi, Courier and others demonstrated, even during Edberg's glory years in the late '80 and early '90s. I remember an entertaining match between a fading Edberg and up-and-coming Rafter, circa early to mid '90s, during the US summer hardcourt season. I think it went a couple of tiebreakers with Edberg prevailing, but damn was it entertaining to watch those two birds of prey just swooping all over the court to win points from all conceivable positions.

On a side note, was there any great player who could lay stink-bombs in matches like Edberg? He was my favorite for many years, but I remember his 1st-round loss to Volkov and a straight-set thumping by Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open, a Lendl trouncing in Scottsdale no hard courts where Edberg had trouble winning games, etc. When he was struggling with his forehand, things could get ugly quick.

P.S. For those who don't know, Dunlop WAS a former ATP Tour player... and I never have problems with his "attitude." He's earned his spurs and has wonderful insights and knowledge about the game, which others should seriously consider. You don't have to agree, but he speaks from experience competing in that vary rarified air of professional tennis, which very few of us can relate to or say for ourselves.

Not wanting to pick a fight here, nor does anyone need to defend you, Dunlop -- just amused, as always, by how much some folks let a basically anonymous blog post get 'em all wound up. That's the main reason I quit posting here after LIVING on this site much of last year. Less stressful and more enjoyable to just scroll through occasionally, read the entertaining and informative posts, ignore the KAD rants and the "Go this player" or "Go that player" stuff, and hopefully take a little something back to inform my viewing of the matches. I really enjoy the posters who seem confident in their views and can back it up with personal experience on the court or through historical analysis or who offer an objective observation that expands beyond the boundary of what one favorite player does or does not do.

Posted by JR 06/29/2007 at 10:06 PM

kbomb is back! Or never went away!

Posted by codepoke 06/30/2007 at 12:22 AM

Dunlop Maxply,

You know you have taught me a lot already, and I listen to every word you say keenly. I hope you understand that it is with the greatest of respect that I question your position on this. (Kbomb's paean was a pleasure to read, but wholly redundant to me.)

Going back to your points about Wayne Arthur. In 1991 and 1997 he appears to have been a doubles-only specialist. True? His first slam appearance seems to have been 1998. I doubt you are saying serve and volley is growing more potent as the years progressed, but certainly you are making hay of the fact that Wayne's rank improved. Well, it looks like his ranking improved because he started playing singles. None too astounding.

My point is not that serve and volley doesn't work, just as yours is not that serve and volley is the answer to all. Your question was whether the cycle is permanent. Is the decline in serve and volley forever?

I think it has to be.

It's not that anything has been taken away from the game, but too much has been added. When Lendl "invented" the high-angle, massive topspin from the baseline, he added something new to the game that will never go away. Again, Lendl added conditioning to the game as an empowering obsession, and it will never go away.

So what do I propose was added that makes serve and volley "obsolete?"

A lot is made of the fact that the old wooden rackets serve just as fast as the new composites. I agree. Some spin and a little speed was added to the serve when the rackets got bigger and meaner, but really not much. A LOT was added to the return game. The server was able to hit with the golf-ball sized sweet spot pretty regularly, but the returner had no such confidence. The massively larger sweet spot and better spin generation of the new equipment helps the returner to a much greater degree than the server. The server is much more the sitting duck than he was in 1975.

Another point. Let me skip Rafter's much quoted statement that the heavily dipping topspin is really hard to volley. At the same time he made a less quoted point that he really could not make much use of the new strings that were making those topspins possible. He didn't feel like he could volley with them.

Of course not!

The same strings that empower the topspinner, cripple the volleyer. The ball responds violently off a heavily spin inducing string because it is also spin receptive. That huge incoming topspin gets hold of the volleyer's strings and forces the volley yards deeper than it would have been otherwise. And a huge backspin hitting new strings forces the ball into the bottom of the net. So the volley specialist is probably forced to used strings with loads of touch but much less spin than the baseliner - putting him at yet another disadvantage. It's just like a ping-pong player who uses the dimpled bat against a heavy spinning foam bat. At least that's what Rafter seemed to think. It makes sense to me.

That would doom the serve and volley specialist to constant tiebreaks, since his return game would suffer with his lack of spin. Or maybe someone like Blake, with a really flat game anyway, could start using spin-deadening string and bring back the serve and volley. :-?

It's a fun chat. Thanks for all the good thoughts.

Posted by temes 06/30/2007 at 07:04 AM

I don't think my statement is false, it's just your opinion, Kbomb. Obviously you think you know everything. I think it's pretty obvious you need great groundstrokes to be a great/successful volleyer in todays game, my opinion. GO SERENA!

Posted by temes 06/30/2007 at 07:10 AM

I find it funny how people keep misunderstanding my statement. It's not great, it's succesful, says one. Other one says, it's not great the word, it's solid. That is just ridiculous. Great means all those thing together, isn't it obvious, plus of course some heft too.

Posted by temes 06/30/2007 at 07:33 AM

Of course you can have great volleys without great groundstrokes. Of course, I wonder why people misinterpret what I say and then keep stating the obvious. But in todays game, you can't be successful aka great aka solid at the net if you don't have great, solid and effective groundstrokes! You get passed mercilessly by players with good baseline games! They are just gonna bulldoze you. To me it's so obvious I can't understand why someone would argue against it! It's like a fact.
I can't say too much about serve-and-volley because I'm not that familiar with it, but I think it's a tactic among tactics and if you do it well you can be successful. But it's also a risky tactic that I believe will lead to less consistent results, and as Federer said, he would not be as successful if he used serve-and-volley. I think definitely it was a more successful tactic in the old days, but do to many factors, technology, surfaces, improved baseliners, it is not a tactic neccesarily worth it. But it might be, especilly on grass. But it is risky. And yet, I think serve and volley is overrated, most of the credit of the point won is due to service, and you can get the point done more effectively and less risky with a following groundstroke. My opinion.

Posted by temes 06/30/2007 at 07:37 AM

And Dunlop was a former pro? That is impressive. I want to know all about his career. Please tell. It's like, WOW! In what years did he play? Did he use serve-and-volley? What was his highest ranking? What was the greatest memory of his career? Dunlop, you were exposed! Now you have to write an article about your career or people will be very unhappy. =D

Posted by temes 06/30/2007 at 07:43 AM

I have a friend who is a pro, or used to be. But his highest ranking was something about 1200, so he wasn't that successful. But he tried his best.

Posted by temes 06/30/2007 at 07:55 AM

Sorry about the numerous posts. I should have placed all of them in one. Just that the overwhelming egomaniac arrogance flow from Kbombs post got me all worked up, and I kept reading it over and over again, getting more annoyed each time. But now it's all good.

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