The older fans come up to him all the time, win or lose, but especially when Taylor Dent loses. Don't get discouraged, they tell him, and please don't stop—it's good to see someone playing the beautiful game again. They needn't worry: Dent is committed to the path that purists love and realists can't understand. "I'm coming in," he says of charging the net. "I've got a great second serve, and it's tough for guys to return it. So I'm coming in on everything."
In recent years pro tennis has tried everything from rock music between sets to relaxing the dress code to allow tank tops to jazz up the game, but Dent's move may be the most radical. Last summer he decided to play serve-and-volley—no matter the situation, surface or opponent—at a time when almost no one at the highest reaches of tennis dares to. Tim Henman attacks far less than he used to, and though Roger Federer can serve and volley at will, he's happy to plant himself on the baseline like most everyone else. For pure serve-and-volley a fan has two options. " Max Mirnyi [ranked 23rd] and me," Dent says. "That's it."
Pity. While it's generally conceded that a great serve-and-volleyer will beat a great baseliner, most observers also agree that high-tech rackets, slower surfaces and a resistance by kids to taking their early lumps has marginalized tennis's most sublime style. "Look, if you're a serve-and-volleyer, you're going to get passed, you're going to get lobbed, you have to take your punishment," says Dent's father, Phil, who was a finalist in the 1974 Australian Open. (The two are the only father-son combination to win ATP tournaments in the Open era.) "Most people can't stand that. When you come to the net, you're like a boxer, you put your chin out and sometimes you get hit."
Lately, though, Taylor has been the one doing the punching. In October the 22-year-old American won back-to-back titles for the first time in his career, beating No. 2 Juan Carlos Ferrero in the Bangkok final, then running through a strong field in Moscow before defeating No. 39 Sargis Sargsian in that final. Having beaten Andy Roddick, the new No. 1, in the Memphis final last February, and surging to the highest ranking of his career (29th), the 6'2", 190-pound Dent knows he can play with anyone. He has hired a full-time trainer, dropped 15 pounds and found his key to cracking the Top 10: Charge!
Serve-and-volley, after all, is perfectly suited to his talents. Possessing a titanic serve—he hit a 144-mph laser during an epic five-setter against Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon in 2001—great hands and hulking athleticism, Dent has proved himself a premier net rusher since turning pro five years ago. But, despite being coached by his dad until he was 17, Dent never played serve-and-volley as a junior. Up until this year's grass-court season, he would practice baseline tactics, stay back often on second serves and give up attacking if it wasn't working.
Then, in July, after having run through three other coaches, Dent went back to his dad. Phil told Taylor it was time to be the player he was meant to be. The week before the U.S. Open, the two practiced together and Taylor focused on serve-and-volley exclusively. He also took his serve down a notch. "Before, I'd go up mere and every serve would be, 'Here comes Big Daddy,' " he says. "But now I realize it's not how fast you hit it—but where."
The Open was a revelation. With virtually no hard-court preparation, Dent bulled into the fourth round with a win over No. 29 Fernando Gonzalez and led Andre Agassi a set and a break before a hamstring injury forced him to retire after the third set. "I've made my decision," Dent says. "It's too late to go back now."
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