Women at this year’s U.S. Open have displayed incredible athleticism and shrewd strategy. We’ve seen blistering serves and masterful groundstrokes in the nearly two weeks of play. But we’ve been missing a powerful, ancient weapon: the serve-and-volley. The tactic is all but extinct from women’s tennis, despite still being incredibly effective.
Through the quarterfinals in Flushing Meadows, on points in which women followed their serve by rushing to the net for a volley, they won a remarkable 76 percent of the time, according to U.S. Open data from IBM. But confoundingly, the strategy was deployed only 84 times — less than 1 percent of all points played.
Serena Williams, for her part, flashed the potential of the serve-and-volley in her semifinal win Thursday over Anastasija Sevastova. Williams came to the net five times immediately after serving, taking four of those points.
After the match, Williams said she usually approaches the net “only to shake hands,” but she wanted to try something different against Sevastova. It was a reminder of just how potent the tactic can be.
The serve-and-volley appears to be used more on the men’s side of late. At this year’s U.S. Open, men served and volleyed 488 times through the quarterfinals, for just less than 3 percent of all points played. Though they couldn’t quite equal the gaudy success rate of the women, they still did very well with the tactic, winning 66 percent of the time. No matter who’s doing it, statistically, the serve-and-volley is an effective way to win points.
Why this play is underutilized has long been a topic of discussion in tennis. Some have chalked up the change in tactics to advanced racquets and strings that improve passing shots, while others have blamed slower courts at Wimbledon and this year’s U.S. Open.1 But there’s no doubt that women have been giving serve-and-volley the cold shoulder.
During the late 1970s and ’80s, Martina Navratilova dominated the sport using an attacking serve-and-volley style with monsterous success, propelling her to 18 Grand Slam Championships. Even in the 1990s, serve-and-volley was still in a heyday in the women’s game. To illustrate, look at Wimbledon. It’s a place where serve-and-volley has historically been a favorite tactic because of the ability of the server to dominate on grass, where the ball bounces are low. Returners must put loft on their shots to ensure they clear the net. That’s a feast for a volleyer.
Wimbledon first released serve-and-volley data in 1997, and it included tournament totals for the first time in 2002. Jana Novotna served and volleyed her way to the final that year, losing to Martina Hingis. For the tournament, Novotna employed the serve-and-volley 339 times, winning 213 of those points. In the final against Hingis, she used it 76 times — almost as often as the entire women’s field through five rounds at this year’s U.S. Open. It’s an astounding drop of a tactic and a big shift in the way women play tennis.
Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam that releases historical data, but we can look at its last 17 tournaments to track the decline of serve-and-volley as a strategy in the women’s game:
Assuming the point does not end on an ace or double-fault, serving players essentially have two choices: serve and move forward or serve and stay at the baseline. Since the 2000s, players who prefer to remain mainly at the baseline have taken over tennis, despite the unshakably consistent success rates for serve-and-volley over the years. But the difference between the strategies has been stark at this year’s U.S. Open: Through the quarterfinals, women have won just 48 percent of points at the baseline — 28 percentage points less than the share of points won on serve-and-volley.
All sports go through trends. As the games change, different approaches fall in and out of vogue. The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl last year on the strength of the RPO — run/pass option — in which backup quarterback Nick Foles had the option of handing off or passing. But the play wasn’t new. The option has been around in college football since the 1960s. But it’s taken a backseat as more teams have gone to pro-style offenses.
This happens all the time in sports: What’s old becomes new again. Tennis is no different. Strategies experience revivals.
Women in tennis have been relegating themselves mostly to the baseline. But perhaps Williams’s use of the serve-and-volley Thursday will spark a new trend.