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Nett result? No more net…


So what exactly has happened to the baseliner v volleyer battles that held us so enthralled in Wimbledons past?

It seems that over the last decade or so the intruiging clash of styles that graced our screens for precious few weeks in a year have all but disappeared, and all we are left with is a slightly quicker version of Roland Garros.

The most obvious way of demonstrating this is to compare two images, which we have done so below, and show how seldom now the players are following in their serves in order to put away the desperate, full-stretch return.

In 2002 Tim Henman was quoted as saying - "I remember sitting at a change-over in 2002 in utter frustration and thinking 'What on earth is going on here? I'm on a grass court and it's the slowest court I've played on this year.' "


- Women's final, 1997


- Men's final, 2011

So what has changed? Has it been a deliberate attempt to slow the game down and extend the points? Has it just been a natural progression in tennis, as the players spend the rest of the year on the baseline anyway?

We got hold of former SA professional player and now international commentator Robbie Koenig, and asked for his expert opinion on why the rush to the net is seen as often these days as an Andy Murray smile when he’s struggling.

The first and most-obvious place to start is the surface itself.

“When I spoke to Eddie Seaward (chief groundsman at Wimbledon) two years ago, he said the rye grass that they use these days has a slightly thicker leaf (when viewed under a microscope) than the grass used in earlier years, making this newer grass a little bit more durable.

“With a slighter thicker leaf, it means the grass as a whole is coarser. What this means in tennis terms is that the ball's skidding action is reduced with a coarser grass versus a 'smoother' one. When the skidding action on the surface of the grass is reduced, the ball slows down, and that’s good news for the baseliners!

“Why you may ask - because it allows them (baseliners) more time on the ball to execute a passing shot if they were playing a ‘serve and volleyer’.”

And what of the balls, Robbie? Have they changed in any way and contributed to the absence of any Sampras, Rafter and Edberg types in the modern era?

“Another important factor that has contributed to more baseline tennis on grass is the increase in the size of the balls. In 2001 the ITF advocated a 7-8% increase in the size of tennis balls for faster services, especially grass, where the big servers were dominating (Thanks Ivanisevic and Sampras!).

“Increasing the size of the ball meant more resistance through the air, which again slowed down the ball. This of course was more good news for the baseliners. Why? More time to hit their groundstrokes and a better chance of returning the serve meaningfully!

“Incidentally the weight (must be between 59 and 59.4g) and the covering (the felt) of the ball have stayed identical.”

So, what about technology, something we hear about so much in the game of golf?

“Perhaps the biggest reason for the game changing is the advancement in technology not only with the rackets, but even more so with the strings.

“The rackets these days have a larger sweet spot, and allow the players to generate more racquet-head speed as they are lighter than they were 20 years ago. With string technology (from natural gut to the polyester string) in the polyester variety, players are now able to put so much more spin on the ball. This means they can swing even harder at it, and still keep it in the court, which is great for baseliners!

“It means that even when they are defending, or under pressure from a volleyer, they are still able to be aggressive with their passing shots, as they know, with the strings, they will still have complete control of the ball.

“So, as a matter of course, players start to come to the net less and less as they are getting passed more often...”

And are there other factors on the circuit that may be contributing?

“The slowing down of the hardcourt and indoor surfaces has contributed to the dying art of serve-and-volley as well. These surfaces have been made slower by making the top paint surface (final covering of the court) coarser too, again favouring the baseliner.

“That’s why in this day and age it so tough to make a living as a serve-and-volleyer. They beat opponents by rushing them and forcing opponents into error, but as I've described above, you can see how hard it is to do these days because of 1) the grass 2) the balls 3) the rackets 4) the strings and 5) the court surface.”

So what do you make of all this, Robbie? Has this made Wimbledon more palatable for the general tennis fan, but left the purists feeling a little short changed?

“Many people do enjoy the longer rallies you see the these days on a grass court, but it is hard to beat the great match-ups of the 90s when you had the S&V taking on the baseliner - the contrast of styles made for breathtaking tennis.

“There was something for everyone, as these days tennis can be a little one-dimensional with just about every player being a baseliner of some sort....

“I certainly long for those 'good old days' back!”


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