It was so refreshing to see a real serve and volleyer make his way deep into a Grand Slam as Michael Llodra did before losing his third-round match on Sunday. I regret it, but it's unfortunately an endangered species nowadays. That kind of player is a victim of the way the surfaces have been slowed, as well as the balls. As the young players are identifying themselves with the big stars of their days, they're developping a similar game style. The kids don't want to play this way and this disappoints me. Yannick Noah, Pat Cash, Patrick Rafter and Stefan Edberg's era is gone for good. Under those circumstances, what Michaël Llodra achieved in New York gives me, personally, a huge satisfaction.
In the past decade, the ATP has become a "let's get the game slower" strategy. Though rackets have improved speed, the surfaces and balls dictate more the speed of the game. Wimbledon is surely the best example of the game changing to accomodate slowdowns. Grass, so fast back in the old days, has been slowed again and again with changing of the surface and bringing in larger and heaviest balls. It's all about details here, for sure, but at the end you can see how big the game has been affected.
I'm not trying at all, let this be clear, to undermine Rafael Nadal's victory, but this result would have been way more difficult to achieve in the old conditions. Even indoor surfaces, once such a treat for the big serving guys and for the aggressive players, have suffered the same evolution. Courts are rougher for them and the bounces change some shots, most notably the topspin. There are still differences among courts, mind you. But they have been negated as different tournaments have become cookie cutter with their surfaces in order to get more homogeneity. This decision is harming the diversity of the game and it leads to seeing everybody play the same way. This provides a huge advantage for the big hitters. This slowing down process has pushed to the exit a whole generation of serve and volleyers. The game of those players is mainly driven by the speed and by putting the opponent under pressure so they can't get into a groove.
This type of surface is helping Michaël's game. There are now only a few trying to play aggressively like him and it was a joy to watch him play this week. It must be said that this Grand Slam has always helped the aggressive players. The rebound is lower and the speed is higher than what players can find on other tournaments on tour. Historically, Flushing Meadows has always been the serve and volleyers land. McEnroe won four times, Edberg twice, Becker once, Rafter twice and Sampras five times.
Llodra is the last of the serve and volleyer and his game disturbs others. Nobody is used to play against him and his game style. The opponent is tense because he's put under pressure all the time by Mika coming to the net. So his opponents feel the need to take more risks even when they're not in position to. Mika is attacking them even on second serves and, when the play is on, he waits for the first short ball to rush at the net. When he's facing Tomas Berdych in the first round, it's the Czech who is under pressure and who has the most to lose. So Mika pushes and pushes again and Berdych spreads the unforced errors all over the place.
I'm waiting to see if the French will inspire some young players to serve and volley. Innocence is one of his keys. He doesn't seem to know how much he's accomplishing. Marcos Baghdatis always told me, "don't let me think". Some players need to play freely without thought. Michael is one of them. When he just lets his body act without being disturbed by a wrong thinking, he succeeds. Mika was in that state of mind in New York and let's hope he'll stay in the zone as long as possible.