I have been increasingly perplexed and frustrated by the current day professional tennis players who refuse to work their way in to the net. As most people know, I have coached players and played my own game with the idea that it is an advantage to be the volleyer and a disadvantage to be the player having to hit passing shots and lobs. I have seen it work in my game and in my students’ games. Why are more professional players not using this strategy?
The game has changed
The equipment, the athleticism of the players, and in general, the speed that things happen on the court, all contribute to why the baseline game is now the dominant strategy. However, the biggest reason for the lack of aggressive net rushing players is that tennis professionals and coaches have not adjusted their methods to help the modern day player succeed when coming to the net.
First, it is extremely difficult to come in to the net after one shot—whether it is a serve or a great first ball—there is little time to recognize and execute the movement and the split-step while advancing towards the net. There often needs to be an additional shot on the way in to the net, and most players are not capable of hitting this ball since very few players practice the extra transition shot mentioned above.
Second, players spend way too much time hitting and practicing groundstrokes, rather than improving their approach shots and refining their volley technique. Most players these days have no idea where to position themselves at the net because their execution on the way in is not consistently sufficient to get their opponent in trouble. They do not know what to cover because the opponent can hit the ball to many different spots and make it tough on the volleyer.
Finally, I don’t think the players are committed, nor do they believe in, the strategy. Roger Federer, arguably the best volleyer on Earth at the moment, is one of the few players still using this strategy (be it on a much more limited basis) successfully and consistently. I had the pleasure of coaching my brother, Paul Annacone, and watched him get passed at the net over and over, yet still manage to win the match. Paul once came in to the net 150-plus times in a three-set match against Stefan Edberg and won the match 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 in the finals of an ATP event in Los Angeles. Part of coming to the net is accepting that you will be passed. If you come in 10 times and they pass you three and you miss one volley, you are still in great shape on six out of 10 of the points.
I am not advocating running in to the net every point. If someone could do it a few times a game and also play the modern day baseline points well, that would give them a big edge against the majority of today’s players. The net play makes the baseline game that much more effective. I believe, and hope, that we will see Federer do even more of what I have just stated in the very near future. His great start to 2017 should give him the confidence to be even more aggressive, and once again, separate himself from the best of the best. That should lead to a resurgence in the net rushing style, and in addition, make me very happy.