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Ups and Downs in Big-Time Tennis
By Eliot Berry
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1996 Eliot Berry
All rights reserved.
SERVE AND VOLLEY
A roar went up from the crowd. I can't remember whom I was watching on the U.S. Open stadium court at the time. I think Steffi Graf was dissecting a young woman's game in a first-round match. Suddenly there came another, even sharper noise from the nearby grandstand court, and the power and potential joy in that sound pulled me from my seat. I hurried across the walkway and slid into the press seats of the smaller, more intimate court. When I arrived, the two players were seated. The cause of the stir was not immediately clear.
I recognized one player immediately. Alexander Volkov was slumped low in a director's chair on one side of the net. Volkov's upper torso and hips were trim and his legs seemed to stretch halfway across the court. Everything about the Russian was left-handed, from the part in his short brush of light brown hair to the way he sat slumped low in the changeover chair. The twenty-seven-year-old tenth seed rose with a confident half smile and strode across the American hard court, smooth as a stretch of fresh tarmac. Volkov moved with short, almost disdainfully light steps and a tall but cocky lean. Volkov had wins over Stefan Edberg in a deep heat at the 1990 U.S. Open and over Pete Sampras five months earlier in 1993 at Indian Wells: Confident in his ability to win big matches, Alexander Volkov, about to return service, turned to face Stark and lightly, like a swordsman, tapped the top of his racket head to the ground.
The cause of the roar I had heard was now clear. The red-and-black numerals used to keep score had been flipped over. The American had broken Volkov's serve and led 2–1.
I did not know that much about Jonathan Stark. Twenty-two years old, a professional for only two years, Stark had broad shoulders, thinner legs, and blond all-American good looks made appealing by the slightly haunted look of determination about his eyes. He was tall, strong, and fresh as the springtime in his hometown of Medford, Oregon. And yet that look about his eyes, as he briefly weighed the two balls in his hand and picked the less fluffy one to serve first, suggested to me that Stark cared deeply about his task but had not yet realized his dreams.
Jonathan Stark was ranked fifty-second in the world; Alexander Volkov was fourteenth; and I was in second heaven. There was more than money on the line in this match — it was career. Volkov had been one of the top twenty-five ranked players in the world for four years in a row, and he looked like a seasoned pro, completely comfortable in his surroundings. Stark, wearing a red hairband and white shirt with purple about the shoulders, still seemed like the college star he had been at Stanford for two years after winning the 1989 U.S. Open junior title. His ranking had gone from 1,007 to 283 to 85. Now number 52 in the world, Stark's star was rising, albeit more slowly than those of his contemporaries Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
Stark looked across the net as the Russian bent over at his narrow waist in an easy, swaying serve returner's position. When Volkov was ready, Stark served a 119-mile-perhour ace up the middle. He then delivered a 102-mph ace off the side of the court, fooling Volkov both with the ball's direction and the severity of its kick. Stark's second ball had the juice, and nearly the deception, of a John McEnroe second serve. At 40–love, Stark skidded a first serve off the corner of the service box with enough power on it to spin around the ducking lineperson's chair. Volkov had touched Stark's serve only once. Now down 3–1, the Russian smiled as if he had bitten a slice of lemon in a glass of vodka. Jonathan Stark had come to play.
I have always had a soft spot for serve-and-volley players. I greatly admire in others skills I do not possess myself. As a boy watching at Forest Hills, I got my biggest thrills from Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Chuck McKinley, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe — the serve-and-volleyers. But when I tried to imitate them at Kalamazoo, I couldn't transform my Eastern clay-court game into that of other juniors such as Jeff Borowiak, Erik van Dillen, and Dick Stockton, who were then at the top of the juniors.
Stark, not Volkov, was the natural serve-and-volleyer, and that's why he caught my eye.
It takes a certain combination of bravery and athletic ability to serve-volley. Like Laver, John McEnroe had the instinct and did it beautifully. Ivan Lendl could not. Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Edberg, and Boris Becker were naturals. Bobby Riggs could do it but worked the baseline more naturally, as does Andre Agassi. Sampras does it, but Courier can't. I always admired Chris Evert because she had great heart and wonderful control from deep in the court. But I loved watching Margaret Smith, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and my own personal favorite, Maria Bueno, because they put themselves in harm's way at the net. Serve-and-volley tennis was an instinct perfected into an art form, but the new rackets, which sent the balls back so much harder than the wooden rackets ever could, were putting enormous pressure on the server. Young players like Stark and Sampras still loved the prospect of taking the risk anyway — the way Edberg had so effortlessly for so many years — but they were the modern exceptions.
Andre Agassi, of course, was something else. Agassi's style represented as dramatic a change in the way men's tennis was played as Suzanne Lenglen's acrobatic style had been seventy years before in women's tennis. But Agassi was an innovator, an explosion, a whirling dervish reflex man, a ball basher. Not tall enough to serve down into the court, Agassi slugged it out with the short turns of a boxer with a great hook, the knock-out punch his father, a boxer himself, never had. The speed and the angle of Andre's blows were unusual.
Stark, who smiled as brightly and as easily as Agassi did, was more like Sampras in playing style, for he had the tremendous downward torque a tall man gets, especially serving with the new rackets. But Stark was also a product of his era. Like Agassi, he had a two-handed backhand he liked to rip.
In this match, Stark was making Volkov look like last year's model. But it was touch, not just power, that I loved to find in a new player, and Stark had that, too. He rode a Volkov second serve up to net behind a solid two-handed backhand return of serve, and when Volkov, who has great hands, volleyed back at him, Stark, sensing that Volkov was leaning too far forward, played a lob volley up over the six-foot-two-inch Volkov's head for a winner. The reflexes and creativity of that lob volley made me roar with the crowd. Stark had broken Volkov again.
Stark, up 4–1, was ready to serve again. But Volkov, settling his ruffled, Kaliningrad persona into a comfortable returning position, let the younger player wait just a fraction of a second beyond the time that it was comfortable to have to wait to serve.
Stark bounced the ball, and there was another roar. It happened that fast: the perfect, forward toss, legs thrusting upward, and the outward flash of the racket head like a tomahawk up into the neon lights and night sky. Ace.
Once lucky, twice good, they say. But this was Stark's sixth ace in three service games. The kid was major league. He had a weapon. Stark's service motion was free, like a bending willow. The sound of the ball leaving his racket was almost silent, and the ball gathered speed and weight through the air like a Nolan Ryan fastball. Each time the ball exploded off the hard court there was a thud against the canvas backstop.
But Volkov was not a fluke. He was a proven maestro. The Russian's determination, bordering on arrogance, was both elegant and distinctly theatrical. Each time the young American's serve blew by him, Volkov merely dropped his racket hand as if, just for that moment, his racket had felt too heavy to swing. In fact, Volkov had been frozen twice, aced wide off the deuce court, then aced up the middle where his lefty backhand might have been. Volkov's deadpan expression, a mixture of feigned boredom and acceptance, was worth the price of admission. It was unyielding. Down 5–1, Volkov's cool disdain began to melt. Stark broke his serve again, with two fully ripped backhand passing shots. Stark played with such tenacity that a look of consternation appeared on the face of his higher-ranking opponent. The Russian's eyebrows arched. He stopped suddenly and glared across the net, but Stark had turned his back. A gorgeous display of power tennis followed. Stark was incredible. The balls Volkov did return, Stark invariably put away with solid volleys. The five-thousand-plus spectators roared in approval and happy disbelief. The scoreboard clock showed that the first set had taken exactly twenty minutes for Stark to win 6–1.
Bobby Riggs, clad in long white pants and a bright yellow V-neck sweater, came in to watch. The 1939 Wimbledon singles champion settled into the first-row box of a friend and looked back at the crowd, basking in the warmth of recognition.
After Riggs, a great comeback artist, sat down, Volkov's play picked up. His hand suddenly seemed to move so effortlessly through the ball that Stark began to look slightly mechanical, as if so attached to his two-handed backhand he could not pry it loose from his hip. Volkov got hot like a Russian sailor on ship leave. He was everywhere and incredibly smooth.
Between games I walked down to the box where Bobby Riggs sat directly behind the court and eavesdropped, pretending to look for a friend nearby. I slipped in behind Riggs and stayed for three games. Known for his wild bets on and off the courts — playing for money, with chairs placed all over his side of the court, or with two dogs on leashes, or while wearing flippers — in real competition, he was rather conservative in style. Essentially Riggs was a salesman. He showed you a situation you didn't really want to buy, but nine times out of ten you wound up buying it, going for it when you really wanted no part of it until, too late, you realized you had been had. And there was Riggs on the other side of the net, smiling at your miss like a door-to-door salesman eager to sell you another one. Bobby Riggs sold bad situations on court, and almost all his contemporaries had bought them. There was something of Riggs in Volkov.
Volkov knew how to hold the ball on his racket incredibly late, and once Stark committed his body, Volkov would change the angle of his hand and put it behind Stark, like taking candy from a baby. Riggs loved it, and he spoke with his hands, miming the last-second turn of the hand with which Volkov fooled Stark again and again, both on his serve and off the ground. Volkov's service motion was leisurely, mesmerizing, and very difficult to read.
"I like his motion," Riggs, the aging cherub, said to his neighbor. "If you try to read his body, he's got you going the wrong way."
I grinned. Bobby Riggs liked the Russian's deception. Tennis was an international game. And still, Stark stayed with Volkov step for step, and when the young West Coast star aced Volkov at 118 mph, Bobby Riggs broke into another kind of grin that seemed to say, "I used to prefer oil to a hammer but, you know, [Don] Budge and Jack Kramer both had hammers."
At 3–4, serving at ad-out, Stark aced Volkov off the side of the line, and the ball was called wide by the ducking linesman. The crowd booed — and with good reason. Stark stood at midcourt for half a second, pondering what to say. He said nothing and went back to serve. Incredibly, Stark recocked his serve and aced Volkov with the second ball up the middle with a spinning twist that leaped off the line. Another lineman's arm extended, and Stark's second serve was called out. I had never seen a second true ace in the same point reversed into a double fault. It was terrible line calling. Game Volkov. Jimmy Connors would have sworn, or worse. The Russian, smiling lightly, was up 5–3 instead of being back at 4–3, deuce. Stark started to yell at the chair umpire but turned his back and waved instead in disgust as the crowd continued to boo. Stark kept his cool, but Volkov had just gotten even in a flash, 6–3. Bobby Riggs crossed his legs, put his chin on one hand, and leaned forward without talking.
The sight of Riggs in deep concentration reminded me of what another great competitor from his generation, Pancho Segura, had said about tennis: "People don't get it. They think tennis is a rich man's game. ... [But] you get out on the court, and it doesn't matter who your Dad is or how much money you have or whether you went to Harvard. [On court] it's you and me, baby, right here, right now."
Volkov was as hard to read as an exotic speckled fish. He hit the ball flat or slightly undercut on about 60 percent of his shots, and they skidded on the green grandstand court — except when he rolled them over, delivering them like a crepe. The Russian was not naturally fast, but his game had been adapted perfectly to compensate for his shortcomings. Volkov's hand-eye coordination was so extraordinary that instead of being forced to volley up because he was a foot late getting to the net, he would willingly commit the cardinal sin of first volleys. Oddly, the Russian liked getting caught in no man's land. Halfway up to net, Volkov let the ball bounce and played the ball with a half volley so gentle that, no matter the speed of the ball coming in, Volkov seemed to wipe over the top of it, changing its direction at the last moment.
Stark's strength was more linear and purely American. He came right at Volkov, and the smooth Russian found the consistent pressure distasteful. By reputation sunny and outgoing off the court, Stark did have a touch of Edberg in him: He was aggressive without appearing to be so. Stark's volleys were crisp, deep, and brave. Volkov, cooler and less direct than the American, could not have been more different in style and personality, and yet their games fit together like pieces in a puzzle. No one in the packed crowd thought of leaving then, and others, hearing reports of the battle, hurried over to the court to try to get in.
Volkov, down 3–1 in the third set, broke Stark's serve, and the American got another very tough call on a first serve at 3–all. Stark's anger boiled ferociously for just the moment it takes to stop the whistling of a kettle. The more experienced Volkov used the moment like a salve and broke the young American disdainfully. "Go, Jonathan!" a voice in the New York crowd shouted. Volkov smiled strangely. At 5–4, 15–all, Volkov, a "pro's pro," served an ace off Stark's forehand side. Volkov held his serve. Largely outplayed, Volkov was up two sets to one.
I looked over at Stark. He had the talent, but did he have the heart? Did he have the joy, the cleverness, the fight inside himself to come roaring back against a player as smooth as a pickpocket? There was much I liked about Stark. He was not likely to surpass Sampras or Agassi, but he could make a real mark for himself. Even when he was down, Stark kept attacking. He pushed himself and thumped the ball fearlessly. He wanted it — and that's what I love in a player.
The fourth set was a thing of beauty. The points were very short when Stark hit a volley and long when Volkov had control of the point. Each rally was a microcosm of the larger battle. The wills of the angular Russian and the broad-shouldered American were fully engaged. It might have hurt physically, but they were so fit and so deep into the effort that they felt themselves buoyed, as if in a dream.
At 2–all in the fourth set, down two sets to one, Jonathan Stark came alive. He ripped a flat forehand winner from the baseline; then, on a serve and volley, he hit a delicate drop shot with his third volley. Volkov raced up and got it, shoveling the ball right at Stark's chest, but Stark, anticipating the move, got out of the way and drilled the ball down into the empty green court as the sometimes fickle crowd stood as one and cheered. The American boy could play.
Volkov made no faces. He was so outwardly calm and nonchalant he was like a Russian cowboy, cool, disturbed, yet as seemingly disinterested as the actor, Steve McQueen in Le Mans. Like all great and near-great players, Volkov had the innate ability to absorb his opponent. It was a kind of vampirism; while seeming to accept whatever his opponent was dishing out, he was quietly waiting for the opportunity to strike at weakness. The Russian was good at sleight of hand. Suddenly Volkov would steal a point with a flat second serve or a drop shot from a sitting forehand when he hadn't played one all match. Volkov's reflexes were as amazing as Stark's power. When Stark hit a lob volley over Volkov's right side, Volkov, his back to the net, flicked a high backhand overhead while nearly horizontal in the air. The shot surprised Stark, but he struck the return down hard into the opposite service corner, only to see Volkov's long arm reach out and bunt it up Stark's line for a winner. They were like two perfectly matched prizefighters.
Excerpted from Topspin by Eliot Berry. Copyright © 1996 Eliot Berry. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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