Agassi-Rafter semi pits baseline power vs. serve-and-volley
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Pat Rafter belongs to that increasingly rare species in men's tennis -- a serve-and-volleyer.
"The guy serves and volleys every time," said Andre Agassi, the defending Australian Open Champion and a baseline prowler. "You know he's going to do it and he still is an athlete enough to pull it off."
The two put their contrasting styles on display Thursday night in the semifinals. In the other semifinal will be two Frenchmen -- Arnaud Clement and Sebastien Grosjean. The last Frenchman to play in the Australian Open final was Jean Borotra won in 1928.
In the quarterfinals Wednesday, Grosjean beat Carlos Moya and Clement downed Kafelnikov.
"We know each other's game so well, there'll be no tactics, maybe just a lot of bluff," Clement said. "But if he played as well as he did against Moya, he's the guy going into the final."
A generation ago, the serve-and-volley game was the textbook way to win. Rod Laver, Stan Smith and others followed the classic formula of serving and scampering to the net for the volley putaway. Nowadays, many top players -- with the notable exception of Pete Sampras, a winner of 13 Grand Slam titles -- tend to stay back.
It helped long ago, of course, that Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open were played on grass -- a fast, skidding surface suited to net rushers. The clay courts at the French Open have always been a baseliner's delight.
The U.S. Open gave up on grass in 1974 and switched to hard courts, and the Australian followed suit in 1988. Now there are only five men's grass court tournaments: Wimbledon, Queens and Nottingham in Britain, Halle in Germany and Newport in Rhode Island.
"I guess the loss of grass around the world doesn't help," Rafter said. "My heroes were Pat Cash and [Stefan] Edberg growing up, and [Boris] Becker, and I loved the way they played. [John] McEnroe coming to the net. That's the way I wanted to play."
Today, on slower courts, baseliners can flummox serve-and-volleyers with laser-sharp returns. Agassi, winner of six Grand Slams, sets the standard.
Todd Martin, who lost to Agassi in the quarterfinals in Melbourne, said players today can win from the backcourt because they are better athletes.
"More and more, we have guys who hit the ball just remarkably well. A lot of that has to do with their movement," said Martin, who regrets the decline of the classic serve-and-volley.
"But maybe, you know, some of the guys who hit the ball so well from the backcourt will develop into people who can approach the net and do a little bit more in the frontcourt," he said.
Rafter is not entirely alone. Greg Rusedski, Tim Henman, and to some extent Mark Philippoussis, are also prominent serve-and-volleyers.
But five of the eight quarterfinalists in Melbourne were baseliners -- Agassi, Grosjean, Clement, Kafelnikov and Hrbaty.
Spain won the Davis Cup last year, and a joke in tennis circles holds that Spanish players go to net only to shake hands at the end of a match.
Marat Safin, the No. 2 seed who was knocked out by Hrbaty in the fourth round, is a big server who also stays back. He trained as a teen-ager in Spain.
Role models like Agassi often influence styles of play. So the serve-and-volleyer could have his day again.
"Who's to say a great serve-and-volleyer won't come along in the near future and start winning everything?" said Graeme Agars, a vice president of the ATP. "That will inspire coaches to start teaching the same way."