“It’s obviously a much more gruelling sport when you play from the baseline, but I think it’s also because most players are scared to go to the net and there’s many opportunities in every rally to come in, but no one comes in.’’
Those were the words of 24-year-old Maxime Cressy after bowing out to Daniil Medvedev at the 2022 Australian Open in an epic four-set battle.
In that fourth-round match, the American won 89 out of 135 points approaching the net, bringing back the serve and volley tactic on the big stage to frustrate Medvedev.
As technology becomes more advanced and the importance of power comes to the forefront, Cressy’s game style has become rare in the past 10-15 years. Instead, baseline tennis has dominated both the men’s and women’s games.
During that time, there have been arguments raised around whether players slugging it out from the back of the court produce the best entertainment for the neutrals.
Cressy also provided his take on shortening the rallies and adding variety.
“I believe there needs to be a new way of winning for people to start seeing tennis as more exciting and thrilling…The paradox is Medvedev calling my game boring, even though most people actually love to see that style come back.”
He certainly has a valid point. Players of Cressy’s calibre are unlikely to beat the likes of Medvedev and Djokovic over 30-40 shot rallies, so the emphasis is on the opponent to experiment with new strategies and disrupt the rhythm.
Fans will share their own respective opinions about what they find boring and enjoyable, but tennis is played in more ways than one and we should appreciate and embrace the baseline tussles and net approaches.
The latter seems to be slowly creeping its way back into the modern game, and it’s just what the sport needs to win back some of the enthusiasts from the old generation who grew up in that era.
Over the past two weeks at the French Open, there has been more of a willingness to take chances at the net, moving away from a one-dimensional mindset, despite the clay surface taking away some of the power which limits the advantages from competing at the baseline which requires more patience.
Alexander Zverev’s quarter-final against Thomás Martín Etcheverry saw the German come to the net on 57 occasions which were notable given that he’s been known to be more passive from deeper in the court.
For an athlete who is 198cm tall, it makes sense to utilise that strategy more often. Zverev is joined by the likes of Tsitsipas and Auger-Aliassime who possess two of the highest net point percentages won of 14.5 and 12.4 per cent respectively so far this season.
Off the back of claiming the trophy, Djokovic decided to deploy the approach tactic against Carlos Alcaraz which was a breath of fresh air. As a result, it stifled the Spaniard to the point where he was forced to adjust his own game plan accordingly.
Alcaraz and Sinner love to make use of the drop shot, ultimately drawing their opponents to the net whether they are comfortable or not. The future is bright.
Best known for her ability to produce results when it matters most at grand slams, Karolina Muchova’s unexpected road to the final in Paris was helped largely by the Czech’s bravery at the net.
Aryna Sabalenka struggled to find solutions in the semi-final as the world number 2 crashed out in the semis before eventual winner Iga Swiatek was greatly tested due to Muchova covering the spaces with her athleticism.
Also, what’s worth pointing out is Muchova’s experience playing doubles, which is proven to enhance performance at the net. Nowadays, you see more top players from both the ATP and WTA turning their attention more to the doubles, assisting in developing an all-round game.
You can call it boring, but the serve and volley technique, in particular, is effective, especially throughout this current generation where they have mostly been taught one way and one way only.
Cast your mind back to the 2019 US Open, and another American in the form of Taylor Townsend demonstrated the art of net play and serve and volley, implementing it to perfection as she defeated Simona Halep in the second round.
Townsend came forward 64 times in the third set alone, setting the blueprint for others to follow in mixing up game styles in an attempt to rattle the world’s best, as Halep admitted after the match that she “never played with someone coming so often to the net.”
“I knew that I’m not going to beat her from the baseline. I knew that I had to do something to give me an edge,” Townsend said after the victory.
Teenage sensation Coco Gauff, along with the likes of Pegula, Krejčíková, Fernandez, Mertens, and Haddad-Maia have all gathered the message, mainly thanks due to their strong doubles game.
This is not to suggest that baseline tennis is not exciting or that it’s not demonstrated as often. It will continue to dominate the sport for at least the next decade.
There are a few examples of this. 6’5 Chilean Nicolas Jarry was criticised by commentators during his encounter with Casper Ruud last week for not taking advantage of his height and wingspan to approach the net and punish the looping balls he faced at mid-range at a slow pace. Andrey Rublev is another player who doesn’t have a plan B and refuses to take risks at the net.
However, a gradual shift back to the days of tennis played more at the net is becoming increasingly evident as of late.
New eras produce new players, new technologies, and new styles.
Perhaps, a welcome return to the net and more diversity is just what tennis requires to accommodate all parties.