The Dinosaur Lives

The dinosaur lives: Net play, serve and volley a hit among young female players

By Michael J. Lewis

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y.— It once seemed like the days of serve-and-volley tennis were as dead and useless as wooden rackets, canvas tennis shoes, and arguing about line calls with no recourse.

While Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna rushed to the net and knocked off deft volleys on their first or second shots, today’s players have mostly lived in fear of moving past the service line, unless absolutely forced to.

But behold! Net play is not dead. Just look at the kids in this year’s U.S. Open women’s draw, charging forward willingly and doing it often.

American Taylor Townsend, 23, got the most attention for doing this, with an incredible 106 net points played in her stunning upset of Simona Halep.
But 17-year-old Caty McNally also proved very adept at the net, using her skills to get to the second round and scare the heck out of Serena Williams in a three-setter.
Coco Gauff, all of 15, and Bianca Andreescu, 19, also came forward often. The statistics bear out this quartet’s strategy: Gauff won 74 percent of her net points at the Open, while Andreescu won 61 of 86 net points through four rounds, good for 71 percent.

Townsend, by far the most frequent attacker, won 60 percent of her net points, while Caty McNally grabbed 59 percent of her net points (all stats courtesy of IBM). 

“I've always came to the net. Ever since I started playing tennis, I was always more comfortable at the net than the baseline,” Townsend said. “It's always a fine line, especially as you move up and through the levels, that you have to kind of hone in and have things that you do well.

“But (my success here) I think it was really great confirmation that this style of play works.”

For McNally, too, it’s a strategy she’s employed since she was a kid: her mom, Lynn Nabors-McNally, was an attacking player.

“I think it's the right way to play, especially taking time away from your opponent,” McNally said.  “Not everyone is just going to stay at the baseline and smack balls. That's not who I am. That's not who I'm trying to be. I'm trying to get into the net, end points at the net, take away time from my opponents.” 

Certainly there are valid reasons a majority of today’s pros don’t serve and volley, or attack the net: Opponents’ passing shots are too good, racket technology has greatly improved players’ strength and speed of their shots, and courts universally getting slower have all stymied attempts to play like John McEnroe or Navratilova.

But the new generation like McNally and Andreescu seem willing to go old-school, and tennis is certainly the better for it. Variety being the spice of life, and all that.

“I think it's because the game is evolving more and more, and I guess we like to finish points as quickly as possible,” Andreescu said. “Well, that's one reason for me, at least. I want to win the point as fast as I can.”