Tennis: Wimbledon '93: Agassi profits from his rate of return: The showman's triumph last year showed a baseliner can beat the serve-and-volleyers on grass. John Roberts explains how he did it

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The Independent Online
NOBODY was more astonished to see Andre Agassi absorb the serving power of Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic to win the Wimbledon title than their manager, Ion Tiriac. 'Agassi,' the Romanian said, 'should be hired by NASA, or some other space agency, because he has changed the laws of ballistics.'

Confining the implication of Agassi's triumph to the oblong of the tennis court, the perky American demonstrated that it was possible to break the law of diminishing returns.

A year ago, tennis was preoccupied with the the speed of the game and the domination of the serve, particularly on the faster surfaces. Players whose success is based predominantly on groundstrokes seemed in danger of becoming cannon fodder on Wimbledon's lawns. Advanced racket technology in the hands of huge servers had made rallying virtually obsolete.

Baseliners seemed an endangered species. Jimmy Connors, who ranks among the greatest returners of serve, had outstayed John McEnroe in five sets in 1982, but could muster only four games against the dazzling New Yorker two years later. The five phenomenal years of Bjorn Borg were, in Tiriac's opinion, 'an accident, and can be torn from the history books'.

The tall, whipcord Ivanisevic became the catalyst of a seminar on the power game organised by the ATP Tour after devastating opponents with 105 aces in five matches on an indoor carpet in Stuttgart. Jim Courier and Stefan Edberg, the top two players in the world at the time, were among his victims.

Ivanisevic's left arm delivered 206 aces in his seven matches at Wimbledon, 37 of them against Agassi in the final. Yet Agassi was still there, on level terms, and it was the Croat who was lured into making the decisive error, pushing a backhand volley into the net. Agassi was mentally prepared to accept that a lot of the serves he faced would be unplayable and he had the patience and confidence to pounce on the rare opportunities.

Stefan Edberg, Becker and Michael Stich have proved that they can return as well as serve and volley. Pete Sampras, the world No 1, who lost to Ivanisevic in the semi-finals last year, has one of the smoothest and most effective serves in the game, as he demonstrated in winning the United States Open title in 1990, but he has experienced difficulty coping with the capricious bounces when returning serve on grass. The same applies to Richard Krajicek and Marc Rosset, two other big servers.

'The thing that makes my service return a weapon for me is how early I take it,' Agassi said, 'and that's advice for anybody. I take the ball so early that I can miss my target by three or four feet and still win the point. But you have got to be able to have quick racket preparation and be able to fire without having to take a big backswing. If you can pick up the ball quick, and release your shot quick, you have the potential for a good return.'

Agassi's coach, Nick Bollettieri, is renowned for producing counter-punchers. 'Return of serve? You mean the attacking return of serve,' he said. 'That's what it's about. When Andre was four and five years old, his father Mike liked standing behind him saying, 'Go for it, son] Hit it] Hit it, son] Harder] Harder] Harder]'. That's why Andre's return is a weapon.

'At Wimbledon, he met and overcame the onslaught of some of the game's greatest serving powers, Becker, McEnroe and Ivanisevic. Why? Andre took the serve early and on the rise. This forced the server to have to make his volley sooner than had Andre stayed back farther in the court. It also allowed Andre to meet a wide service more inside the court without being pulled perilously wide.

'Andre took a high bouncing serve early and played it back down into the feet of the approaching server, forcing them to volley up and negating their ability to make a winner on the first volley. It is my opinion that the two hands (that Agassi uses for his backhand) allowed Andre to more easily come over the high ball and drive it downward.

'Too often, it is extremely difficult for a one-handed backhand player - although not impossible, as witnessed by Lendl - to have the strength and control to do this, and they are forced to slice. If the slice stays low, they are in good shape. If it floats at all, they are in trouble, both in terms of the time in which the shot reaches the server and in the server's ability to hit down on the first volley.'

The manner of Agassi's success was noted by a fellow American baseliner. Jim Courier arrived at Wimbledon a year ago as the holder of both the Australian and French titles and was also the world No 1. He was eliminated in the third round by the Russian Andrei Olhovskiy, ranked No 193.

'Andre's returns are really the best in the game when he's on, and that's a big advantage on grass,' Courier said. 'His serve is definitely not the biggest in the game. I think his going back and just playing his style and being successful showed me that I had been trying to adjust and become a serve and volleyer on the grass. This year I think I'm just going to try and play more my style, and we'll see what happens. I think you'll see me staying back a lot more than I did last year.'

Was Agassi's success an aberration? John Barrett, the BBC commentator and former British Davis Cup captain, thinks not. 'He may never do it again, but it wasn't a fluke,' Barrett said. 'The quality of his returning of serve and passing when he beat, in succession, Becker, McEnroe and Ivanisevic, three men who can serve, two of whom are supreme volleyers, and all of whom can play on grass, certainly wasn't a fluke.

'He had a golden second week. His returning of serve was the best I have ever seen. He couldn't have done it with the old rackets, though. It's party a technical thing as well.

'Rosewall was one of the great returners of serve, as was Borg, and certainly Connors. I think Connors, with his metal racket, was the first guy who showed what could be done when he destroyed Rosewall twice in 1974, at Wimbledon and then again, worse, at the US Open, the last year of grass at Forest Hills. The trouble with that particular racket was that no one could use it, except Connors and Ann Jones, who won Wimbledon with it. It was so difficult to control the ball off the face.

'Borg was totally different. He was all top-spin. The problem he set, particularly for the serve-volleyers who tried to come in behind their serve, was this heavy topspin, making the ball dip all the time. With Agassi, it's all timing. He's hitting across the path of the ball, he's not hitting flat shots.

'With Connors and Rosewall, there was nothing much to go wrong, because they were hitting through the same path of the ball as the ball was coming to them, and returning it in the same plane.

'With Agassi and Borg, who hit across the path of the ball, their timing has to be absolutely right, because the moment when the shot either becomes effective or not is split-second. Unless it's right, the ball can go anywhere. They do mis-hit. Borg used to mis-hit the ball into the stands occasionally.

'To me, one of the great factors of Agassi's victory was the quality of Wimbledon's courts, which were much harder than they had been in previous recent years. Because the ball was bouncing to waist height from day one, Agassi was able to do what he did. If he'd had to dig the balls out on those early days, as Lendl had to for so many years, he would have been much more vulnerable.'

Barrett expects normal service to resume over the next fortnight. 'I don't think it changed anything,' he said. 'What happened was that everybody else succumbed to the heavy blows of Ivanisevic; all but Agassi.'

On every practice court, the world's leading players are trying to perfect the parry in the hope it will save them from being blitzed from a great height.