The sight was a familiar one. A gangly, all-white clad (there is no other option, is there?) player falls on to his back on Wimbledon Centre Court, clutching his head and nearly crying with joy. The difference was that this was not the second Sunday of the Championships fortnight. And of course, the other tiny discrepancy was that the man on the victorious side of the net was not Roger Federer.
On what was without a shadow of a doubt the craziest day in Wimbledon history, two former men’s singles champions and world number ones crashed and burned against opponents outside the top 100. Lleyton Hewitt was the first to go, going down 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-2 against qualifier Dustin Brown, who now represents Germany. And later, in arguably the greatest upset in the tournament’s history, Federer went down 6-7 7-6 7-5 7-6 against 116-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky. For once, the game’s purists would have relished the Swiss master being knocked out despite all of his elegance, style and unbelievably effortless shot-making. For the real winner on the day was not Brown or Stakhovsky, it was that old, forgotten art of serve and volley.
The main (though not only) reason serve and volley has become a dying skill, disregarded by most but doubles exponents, is that the game has had to adapt itself to the requirements of television coverage. This meant that the courts (especially the faster surfaces such as grass) have become a lot slower and the tennis balls have become a lot heavier. While this makes it easier to spot the tennis ball on TV (of course the colour of the balls itself was changed to yellow for this purpose), it has also meant that there is just that extra fraction of a second longer for the opponent to get to and place his returns, effectively ruining the serve and volleyer.
It is difficult to say just how much success the likes of Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe would have had in this day and age. Of course, exceptional talents like them would probably have done what Federer did and that is to adjust their game to live with the baseliners. But playing the serve and volley game, unless you had an exceptional serve like Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic or Richard Krajicek, it would be next to impossible to be a major force today. Still, Brown and Stakhovsky did what most professional players, pundits and fans felt was no longer possible – defeat a premier returner of serve while playing delightful serve and volley.
The unheralded Brown, more famous for his wavy dreadlocks than for his achievements on the courts, set the stage with a great exhibition of entertaining, flamboyant tennis characterized by a giant, loopy approach and deft touches at the net. Granted Hewitt is no longer the force that made him the 2002 champion on Wimbledon’s hallowed courts, but he still returns serve better than most. He also has a famous never-say-die attitude and strong baseline game which should normally have blown Brown away. But in a throwback to the eighties, the world No.189 danced around at the net, executing volleys and half-volleys with admirable precision and panache. Being a constant presence on the doubles scene, with a career high world ranking of 43 only last year, has helped improve his volleying immensely.
The 6’4” lean and mean Ukrainian Stakhovsky then went out on Centre (read Federer’s) Court and upstaged his European compatriot. It would indeed be no surprise if ‘Sergei Stakhovsky’ (in various versions of spelling either name) was the most ‘googled’ phrase on late Wednesday and early Thursday. The manner of the win he recorded against ‘Federer and his ego’ as he said immediately after would ensure that it ranks amongst the all-time great upsets of the Championships, if not the greatest ever.
Even more than the strokes, variations and tactics, it was the unnerving, almost surreal, cool and composed demeanour of the 27-year-old from Kiev that disturbed Federer’s rhythm. He started aggressive, ended aggressive and stayed true to his style of play on the cheap points as well as the high octane ones. Whether on first or second serve, he attacked the net with regularity, picking off one impossible volley and half volley after another. Some of the angles, drops, and defensive shots he managed at the net stunned even Becker and McEnroe who were in the commentator’s box.
Lukas Rosol and Steve Darcis have bested Rafael Nadal early this year and the last, Ivo Karlovic blasted past defending champ Hewitt in round one in 2003, Agassi was bundled out by Thailand’s Paradorn Srichapan in 2002, a teenage Federer himself and George Bastl shocked Sampras in 2001 and 2002, Becker tripped up against Peter Doohan back in 1987, Kevin Curran dismantled McEnroe in 1985 but all of those victories came either when those stars were at the tail end of their careers or after intense battles. Federer may be 31 now but he was still the defending champion here and has time and again made clear that he has enough left in the tank to go a few more years.
Further, he had reached a mind-boggling 36 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals, starting from the 2004 Wimbledon and won 16 of those. On the other hand, Stakhovsky’s previous best at SW19 was a second round showing two years back while he has never progressed past the third round at a Slam. Despite all these odds, despite playing in front of a crowd that has for all purposes made Federer their adopted son and despite never ever having beaten a Top-10 player in his life, the 27-year-old Stakhovsky never once looked like he would crumble. Even after narrowly losing the first set tiebreak, even when Federer started returning serve far better early in the third set and even after losing serve for the first time immediately after going ahead in the fourth, he never once broke down mentally on the big points. That, along with the complete serve and volley package including fine high percentage serving, supreme positioning and delicate, instinctive volleying would in my mind rate this performance higher than all those other upsets.
Serve and volley was back, for however brief a while. To expect either of them to continue this run into the second week or repeat such performances in future Slams would indeed be expecting too much. Make no mistake, Stakhovsky in particular has the potential. The way he played was closer to the standard of his career best 31 ranking than his current slot. He also has four singles titles to his name at ATP 250 level. But almost as if to emphasise just how freaky Wednesday was, early the next day Jesse Levine with his on and off serve and volley game was brushed aside by Juan Martin del Potro on the very same Centre Court. Could either of them win their next round? I would say Stakhovsky and Brown have perhaps a 40% chance against Jurgen Melzer and Adrian Mannarino respectively.