After reading Johnny Grooves´excellent list of the top 50 players aof all time, I thought I´d make a small list of some of the best serve and volleyers from the past 30 years. I limited the time frame from 1980 on, simply because while Laver and Rosewall, for example, are definitely among the best of all time, I simply haven´t seen enough of their ( and others of their era) game, to include them. This list is by no means meant to be an absolute truth, and I admit it´s very much my subjective opinion. It is not meant to be based simply on the player´s success, but also on their mastery (or lack of) of the lost art, serve and volley-tennis. So feel free to disagree, hopefully in a constructive way, though!
10. Goran Ivanisevic
I was tempted not to include Ivanisevic at all, since I consider him to be more of a server than a serve and volleyer. One of the best 1st serves ever, but certainly not that great at the net. He came to the net to finish the point, if his serve didn’t get the job done, but if he was forced to play difficult volleys, he was in trouble. Even worse form the back of the court, it was still smart to try his luck at the net. Still, one of the best serves ever, huge 1st serve and his height was definitely a benefit at the net. Weaknesses are obvious, weak groundstrokes, and self-destructive mentality. Classic Goran-outbursts are legendary stuff, and he was prone to some serious choking.
-1 GS ( Wimbledon 2001)
-22 singles titles
-career high ranking no 2 ( 1994)
9 Tim Henman
Classic serve and volleyer, very stylish player , who was at his best on the fast grass of Wimbledon. Very athletic, sharp at the net. Could have benefited from a little more versatility with his serve. It was not bad by any means, but a serve like Sampras´ or Krajicek´s, would have made his life at the net a lot easier. Biggest weakness for Henman was probably his mental side, he was maybe a little too much of a “nice guy”, lacking some of that killer instinct. This combined with the huge expectations from the british public every summer during Wimbledon was maybe a little too much for Tim to handle. Courts were also getting slower towards the end of Tim´s career, he was maybe the last true serve and volleyer, but by the end of his career, it was already getting very, very difficult to be successful that way. Less successful than Ivanisevic by all accounts, but much more of a complete serve and volleyer in my opinion , therefore spot no 9 goes to Tim.
-career high ranking no 4 (2002)
8. Richard Krajicek
A tall dutch , who, much like Ivanisevic, had a booming serve that won him a lot of free points. Unlike Goran though, he was a very able volleyer as well. Despite his height he was very sharp at the net and could volley with the best. For a tall guy he handled the low volleys very well ( at least that´s how I remember). Much like any serve and volleyer of the 90´s, his biggest weaknesses were with his groundstrokes, but his s&v-game was excellent. If he´d played nowadays, his limitations would have been exposed more, but in the 90´s , the era of fast grass and indoor carpets, his game was solid. Interestingly, he was one of Sampras´s most difficult opponents with a 6-4 record, including a win at Wimbledon in 1996 ( 7-5, 7-6, 6-4), which was Sampras´ only defeat there in eight years.
-1 GS ( Wimbledon 1996)
-career high ranking no 4 (1999)
7. Michael Stich
A little like Ivanisevic, I wasn´t quite sure whether to include him or not. Some would probably say he was more of an all-court player than a serve and volleyer. Nevertheless, in the era of fast courts, serve and volley was his style, to a large extent. One of the most fluid, natural service motions ever. He had a seemingly simple motion, and he didn´t use that much his legs to generate power, but his arm produced immense power to his serve. Like so many other serve and volleyers, he was very tall and this caused him some trouble, his movement was a slight weakness. But unlike many other serve and volleyers, he could play from the back as well, as proven by his run to the French open final in 1996, losing to Kafelnikov ( 6-7, 5-7, 6-7). In one the most interesting matches of Stich´s career, he beat Stefan Edberg in the Wimbledon semifinal, without breakind Edberg´s serve even once ( 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6). He then went on to win the whole tournament, beating Becker in the final. With his talent, probably should have won some more.
-1 GS ( Wimbledon 1991 )
-career high ranking 2 ( 1993)
6. Pat Cash
A player of the classic Aussie tradition, Cash was as natural serve and volleyer as they get. I must admit I haven´t seen THAT much footage of his game ( maybe someone else can tell more about it), but from what I have seen, he had a tremendous natural instinct at the net. A seemingly effortless volleyer, he was able to produce some excellent, sharp angles with his volleys, and he covered the net very well. Sadly, his career was plagued by injuries, he probably would have won much more if he´d stayed healthy, but game-wise, he was definitely one of the purest serve and vollyers of the 80s. Stylish headband ( by 80´s standards, at least) combined with the smooth mullet doesn´t weaken his position. Losing two AO finals in five sets must have been bitter for Cash. All in all, a good career that could have been so much better.
-1 GS ( Wimbledon 1987)
-career high ranking 4 ( 1988)
5. Patrick Rafter
Another aussie, and based on his playing style alone , I´d be tempted to place him in the top three on this list, if it wasn´t for his surprisingly few tournament wins. In a way, Rafter was much like Cash, a very, very natural volleyer, and extremely athletic as well. Rafter´s volleys were absolutely superb, his sharpness at the net is matched possibly only by Edberg, he was able to play some remarkable angles from extremely difficult positions, natural instinct combined with superb athleticism was a lethal combination. Rafter´s problem was that while his movement and volleys were superb, his serve wasn’t. He had a nice kick to it, but he didn´t win a lot of straight points with his serve, and was often forced to play volleys from difficult positions. He could pull it off and still win, but ultimately it was tough on his body, he had to work a lot harder than, for example, Sampras, who´s serve was a big weapon. In the long run, this resulted to injuries that ultimately ended his career somewhat early. He had a dream run at the US Open series in 1998, winning Toronto, Cincinnati, Long Island, and US Open, but in total, he won surprisingly few titles, only 11 . A very beautiful, aesthetic game, Rafter is still one of my all-time favorites.
-2 GS ( US Open 1997 & 98)
-career high ranking 1 ( 1999)
4. Boris Becker
Becker took the scene in 1985 like a thunder, winning Wimbledon at the age of 17. He also started something that was only to grow bigger and bigger; He brought some serious power and physicality to a game that had been dominated by shotmakers and “artists”. While Becker relied on his extremely powerful serve, he was more than decent at the net as well. Still, his success as a serve and volley-player was mostly due to his serve, power, and his physical presence at the net, he was an intimidating guy to pass. While he didn´t possess the touch of his nemesis Edberg, he showed glimpses of greatness at the net, particularly while diving for the ball ( especially at the grass of Wimbledon). He went all-in, put himself on the line all the time, physically as well as mentally. Somewhat limited movement, and a very moody player. When Becker was playing well, he could be spectacular, other times he could terrible. Never won a title on clay, which only underlines what his strengths and limitations were. All in all, it was boom boom all the way, a wonderful character.
-6 GS ( AO 1991, 96, Wimbledon 1985, 86, 89, US Open 1989)
-career high ranking 1 ( 1991)
3. Pete Sampras
What can be said about Sampras, that hasn’t already been said…Possible GOAT, 14 GS, etc. Why is he no 3 on this list, instead of no 1? Because as a serve and volleyer, I can´t rank him higher. Sampras´s groundstrokes were much better than McEnroes´s or Edberg´s, but IMO he doesn´t equal those guys as a serve and volleyer. That´s not to say he wasn´t great. He was, no doubt about it. Possibly the best serve ever, 1st serve down the middle was one of the most lethal ever, almost untouchable, and his 2nd serve was not much worse. I don´t know the exact stats, but probably served more aces with his 2nd serve than anyone else. Spectacular volleyer (not to mention the slam dunk-smash) as well, but slightly lacking the touch and instinct of Edberg and McEnroe. Being much more successful than those two was more due to his big advantage in others areas of the game, namely groundstrokes and mental side of the game.
-14 GS ( AO 1994, 97, Wimbledon 1993, 94, 95, 97, 98, 99, 00, US Open 1990, 93, 95, 96, 2002)
-career high ranking 1 ( 1993)
2. Stefan Edberg
If god had invented serve and volley-tennis, quite possibly the man from Västervik would have been what he had in mind. Not a big, fast server, but he produced some wicked kick and placement with it, which was his big advantage. He didn´t win as many points with his serve as Sampras or Ivanisevic, but his serve was perfect for setting him up for nice volleying. His serve was extremely difficult to return with efficiency, and if the opponent´s return was anything less than good, he´d be at the net to finish the point. Sublime footwork, excellent hand-eye coordination, wonderful technique with the volley etc. Especially the backhand-volley was one of the best single shots ever. Edberg´s win at the US Open 1991 ( especially his demolition at the final over Jim Courier) is possibly one the greatest single displays of classic S&V. Losing the FO final to Michael Chang was one of the most bitter losses of his career, that win would have earned him a career Slam. Obvious weakness for Edberg was his forehand, his single-handed backhand on the other hand, was among one of the greatest ever. Pure style and class, on and off the court.
-6 GS ( AO 1985, 87, Wimbledon 1988, 90, US Open 1991, 92)
-career high ranking 1 ( 1990)
Possibly the biggest natural talent ever. McEnroe´s legendary "can opener-serve" was truly one of a kind,and especially since he was a lefty, his serve was extremely difficult for his opponents to read and to respond to. He moved very well, but his biggest strength was without a doubt his net play; His technique was at times very unconventional ( somewhat sloppy look at times, letting his racquet head drop instead of bending his knees on low volleys, weight transfer backwards etc.), but this only highlighted his natural touch. He produced effortless winning volleys from extremely difficult positions with a sleight of hand. You don´t see any tennis coach teaching that kind of technique, it was pure talent and touch all the way. What makes it even more remarkable is that his biggest successes came against some of the best returners ever ( Borg, Connors). Mc Enroe was never one of my personal favorites, but it never ceases to amaze me how someone with such seemingly limited, even clumsy, technique could produce such an excellent touch. He was possibly the greatest talent the game has ever seen. obviously his biggest weaknesses were his groundstrokes, and bad temper, possibly matched only by Ivanisevic. On second thought, not even Ivanisevic…
-7 GS ( Wimbledon 1981, 83, 84, US Open 1979, 1980, 81, 84)
-career high ranking 1 ( 1980)