Thrilling. Epic. Extraordinary. Jaw-Dropping. Marathon Classic. For all the adjectives lavished on the Australian Open Final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, it escaped unnoticed that net play continues to be relegated to novelty status in men’s tennis.
Forays to the net have become increasingly rare in an era where serve-volley should be put on the ICUN’s list of endangered species. Of the four semi-finalists, Andy Murray and Roger Federer could be described as competent volleyers, but neither man enjoyed much success at the net in their respective semi-final. Federer suffered from his usual paralysis against Nadal and his awful choices of net approach precluded any sort of success there. Murray fared slightly better but largely was engaged in a colossal baseline match in which net approaches featured strictly as a means of mixing up play. David Nalbandian has shown in past meetings against Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal that there is a formula for coming to the net against the prototypical modern baseliner who has the deadly combination of vicious passing shots and tireless movement around the court. First of all, Murray and Nadal both have great forehand passing shots which are arguably even more potent when they are on the run, meaning there is little safety in approaching to this side even when it seems they are dead and buried.
You might enjoy some success serve and volleying against Nadal, who stands way back for the return, but the Spaniard is capable of roasting you on the pass even from six or seven metres outside the court so it is not a regular play. Forget about frequent serve and volleys against Murray or Djokovic, both of whom have built their games around the return and their quick reactions. The backhand has proven more fruitful for net approaches – while both Nadal and Murray possess versatile two handed backhands which are formidable weapons for passing at the net, Nalbandian was able to spot a chink in the armour – when both men are stretched far to their backhand side, they tend to make frequent use of the floated backhand slice in order to give them time to retain court position after they have been dragged out wide. It is here that Nalbandian in past meetings has taken advantage by sneaking into the net and putting away what is generally a quite comfortable volley.
This does not equate to a renaissance of net play – instead, is just a singular, specific net play which has been fruitful against top players, whereas in the past just chipping the return back and surging to the net was a viable play. Furthermore, to execute it requires four things of the player in question, the combination of which is very much a rarity on today’s tour.
- The control and power of groundstrokes necessary to move the opponent around before striking hard to the backhand side and sneaking in.
- An acceptance that this tactic can only be used sparingly, and even then that a spectacular passing shot might be coming your way.
- Sound volleying technique is necessary if the ball is dipping below net height, although if the reply is a slice it will not be dipping violently. Due to the deep court positioning of many baseliners today, the drop volley has become increasingly popular and effective. Where many players fall down here is that even if a great volley is hit, the opponent may still get there so good net positioning and reactions are necessary for the second volley.
- Most importantly, the tactical knowledge to envisage this plan and the clarity of mind to execute it.