Exploring The Serve-And-Volley Paradigm Shift

James Shaughnessy MSS, CSCS, USPTA Master Professional

In the 1960s, four of the world’s five top-ranked players – Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe – used the serve-and-volley style (SVS) of play. A pure SVS player is one that almost always rushes the net on both the first and second serve and rarely stays back for the return after their serve. The objective is to use the serve to force the highest, easiest return, which the server can then volley to win the point. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Of the nine players to reach the No. 1 ranking from 2000 to 2010, only Pete Sampras was a pure SVS player, and the style effectively died after his retirement. Although SVS is rarely used by top-100 players today, serve-and-volley as a tactical strategy (SVT) continues to be used by the top servers of all time, such as Andy Roddick and Roger Federer.

The ATP World Tour website lists Roddick, Sampras and Federer, respectively, as the top three in career serve rating among No. 1-ranked players. For their careers, Sampras and Federer held serve 89% of the time. Roddick held 90%. Sampras averaged three double faults per match. Roddick and Federer average two.

SCiO 3D Sports at Tucker Tennis Academy conducted a study to determine what could be learned from a quantitative investigation of serve-and-volley as a style and/or tactic, as used by these No. 1-ranked servers. The study’s objective was to determine if and how serve-and-volley might be more effectively deployed in today’s game.

Both the Ariel Performance Analysis System and the SCiO 3D Sports Library were used to analyze the biomechanical differences during live match serve-and-volley points of the SVS player, Sampras, and the SVT players, Federer and Roddick.

Serving statistics show that the minimum average first serve speed required to win a Grand Slam against a No. 1-ranked player is 115 mph. Additionally, the serve must be reasonably disguised, very well-placed and with varied pace. The potential disadvantage of a high average speed is that the opponent often hits the ball off center, inadvertently returning it to the server’s feet. Additionally, if elite returners connect with the ball solidly, they can use the service pace to return the ball quickly, sending it to no man’s land on the serving side, before the server can get through it.

The advantage of the high average serve speed is that it results in more service winners and a high number of weak returns. The combination of speed, disguise, variety and accuracy causes more returns above net level that can be hit hard downward or driven to force a passing shot error. The name of the game for a high SVT win rate is getting returns that are close to the net and above net level.

The data revealed that a server has 1.5 seconds after contact with the ball to reach reasonable volley position if the serve is 115 mph and the return is 50 mph. The calculated times take into consideration the average air density and spins over 2000 rpm.

Sampras executes his serve from a platform stance, with his feet 26 inches apart. His left foot lands 34 inches inside the baseline .167 seconds after making contact on his serve. Consequently, to make it to the service line, Sampras must run 15 feet, 2 inches in 1.33 seconds. Federer’s feet are positioned 25 inches apart in a platform stance. Federer’s left foot lands 7.51 inches inside the baseline at .229 seconds after his serve, requiring he cover 17.38 feet in 1.18 seconds.

Roddick uses a pinpoint stance; his left foot lands 4.94 inches inside the baseline .233 seconds after contacting the serve, requiring he run 17.59 feet in 1.1 seconds.

Servers land with forward speed from the service motion. When hitting the ground, Sampras is moving 4.3 mph, Federer is moving 2.15 mph and Roddick is moving 1.94 mph.

Previous benchmark research on pinpoint and platform stances suggests the platform stance tends to give players more horizontal push to the net. Roddick uses pinpoint stance with feet 15.5 inches, toe to toe. Sampras and Federer use platform stance, their feet 26 and 25 inches apart, toe to toe, respectively. 3D analysis shows Federer pushes predominantly vertically out of a platform stance. Roddick pushes downward, vertically, out of pinpoint stance. Only Sampras pushes laterally from his platform stance, producing a large horizontal force toward the net.

Sampras uses the horizontal technique, making contact with the ball when his center of gravity is at its highest. This minimizes his time in the air, giving him a head start and twice as much forward running speed on landing. Roddick and Federer opt to push downward forcefully, causing their centers of gravity to continue rising after impact (vertical technique). Consequently, Federer and Roddick, both considered all-court style players, are airborne longer, arguably giving them some technical advantages. These advantages tend to result in slightly more consistent serves, but drastically decrease the time to position for volleys.

Here are suggestions on how to use the SVT more effectively in today’s game (right-handed players):

1. When serving to the deuce box, vary heavy, wide, short slices with a heavy kick to the T. 
2. When serving to the ad box, vary heavy slices to the T, with heavy kicks, short to the wide side of the box. 
3. If the receiver is on the baseline, jam the player by aiming a fast flat or fast-mild slice at the hip on the forehand side. Note: pinpoint accuracy is required on this serve.
4. Meet the ball at the peak of your jump with plenty of horizontal leg drive toward the net using the horizontal technique. 
5. When using SVT, hit the ground sprinting and avoid the arabesque position when landing. 
6. The use of SVT in the modern game must be unpredictable and used in combination with varied serve placements, spins and speeds. 
7. Be aware when using SVT on serves over 115 mph that you only have 1.5 seconds or less to reach good volley position.

Here are suggestions for coaches on advising their players when to use SVT:

1. SVT is best used when the opponent stands well behind the baseline to return serve. The receiver’s position gives extra time to the server to travel to good volleying position. 
2. SVT is best employed after serving at least two consecutive fast first serves. 
3. Avoid using SVT when hitting second serves or on game points. 
4. Utilize SVT when the opponent is floating deep returns down the middle.

Using the horizontal technique when employing the SVT may cause an extra double fault but will also produce a higher winning percentage than the vertical technique by getting higher and easier volleys, resulting in more winners and forcing volleys. This data suggests the horizontal technique is superior to the vertical technique when using the SVT.*

Sampras (white) and Federer ( blue) in the platform stance. Roddick (green) uses a pinpoint stance.

Sampras (white) lands while moving forward at 4.3 mpg. Federer (blue) lands at 2.15 mph. Roddick (green) lands at 1.94 mph.