I was sitting courtside in Miami last week watching Andy Murray battle Daniil Medvedev. Sitting next to me was Tim Henman.
Our discussion initially focused on Andy’s resurgence and how he is feeling better and better on court. Medvedev won the match 6-4, 6-2, pulling away from Andy after an even start to the match. We also chatted about the ultra-deep return position of Medvedev and other current players who like to stand a loooong way back to return serve.
The obvious counter-attack to that is serve and volley.
Tim (and I) felt confident that players such as himself and Pat Rafter would have a “field day” serving and volleying against current players that stand 5+ metres behind the baseline to return serve. We discussed how effective Rafter would have been hitting a heavy kick serve out wide in the Ad court and having so much time to get to the net before the returner even made contact with the ball.
It turns out Carlos Alcaraz completely vindicated Tim’s strategic sentiments just a few days later.
Alcaraz defeated Casper Ruud 7-5, 6-4 in the Miami final, winning all 11 serve and volley points he played. Ten of the 11 were “Rafter-Esque” heavy serves out wide in the Ad court. He ate Ruud’s lunch with this key strategy, oftentimes finding Ruud 6+ metres behind the baseline trying to counter Alcaraz rushing straight to the net.
Good luck with that!
The Hawk-Eye graphic below shows Ruud’s return location vs. Alcaraz in the final. Yellow dots represent 1st serve return hit points. Blue dots are 2nd serve return hit points.
2022 Miami Final: Casper Ruud Return Hit Points
Ruud made contact with one 1st serve return more than seven metres behind the baseline. It’s almost impossible to win the point from there against a serve-and-volleyer.
Let’s go through the 11 serve and volley points and see exactly how Alcaraz dominated with this “first-strike” strategy.
Serve & Volley 1
Alcaraz serves and volleys for the first time in the match trailing 0-3 in the opening set but leads 30-15 in his service game. Ruud is so far back to return he may as well be in Cuba 🇨🇺🎾. Ruud goes down the line with the passing shot and misses it wide.
Serve & Volley 2
Have a look at where Ruud is standing to return serve. He is almost eight metres behind the baseline trying to win the point against Alcaraz who is already made it into the service box. This is exactly what Henman was talking about. Hitting a passing shot from there is basically a one-in-a-hundred chance.
Ruud goes down the line with the return and Alcaraz softens his hands and hits a super safe forehand volley into the front of the court. An extremely routine volley.
Serve & Volley 3
Ruud is once again about as far back as he can go. He lobs the return and Alcaraz rushes forward to hit a simple forehand volley winner into the open court. It’s crazy to think that standing almost eight metres behind the baseline and LOBBING the return is Ruud’s highest percentage play. It’s not.
Serve & Volley 4
Alcaraz is now serving at 4-5, 40-30. A pretty big point in the context of set one as Ruud is only three points from winning the opening set. Alcaraz goes with the serve and volley again but switches it up for an ace down the T. Nice mix.
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Serve & Volley 5
It’s mind-boggling to think that Ruud has not yet adjusted his return location and moved closer to the baseline to take away Alcaraz’s serve and volley. Alcaraz is trailing 0-15, so goes with the highest percentage tactic he knows – serving and volleying out wide to Ruud’s backhand in the Ad court. Ruud once again goes with a lob return and misses it wide. That’s about the last thing that should happen on such a big point.
Serve & Volley 6
Two points later and Alcaraz is storming straight to the net again. Ruud is not adjusting at all and is lobbing his return again, and missing it really wide cross court. This gives Alcaraz so much confidence that he has a proven pattern of play serving in the Ad court that he can go to in the big moments.
Serve & Volley 7
Two points later and Alcaraz is AT.IT.AGAIN!!! The 18-year-old Spaniard knows this strategy is a lock and serves and volleys ON. BREAK. POINT!!
This is a huge moment in set one. If Ruud wins the point then the first set is going to a tie-break. But there is really no chance Ruud is going to win this point from that extremely deep court position. Once again he is forced to lob the return and once again he misses it wide cross court.
Unthinkable that this could occur on such a big point.
Serve & Volley 8
Alcaraz is on a roll, leading a set and a break 7-5, 3-0, but is facing break point at 30-40. Once again Alcaraz goes with a heavy “Rafter- Esque” first serve out wide and all Ruud has got in response is another LOB. ERROR.
This is really unforgivable from Ruud. He is not yet adjusting to Alcaraz’s marauding serve-and-volley play on significant points. Lobbing returns is not a strategy. Lobbing returns actually signifies the absence of a strategy.
Serve & Volley 9
Finallyyyy Ruud adjusts his court position and stands just behind the baseline to return serve. Alcaraz stays with his proven tactic and serves and volleys again.
The problem for Ruud is that he goes to the lob again after Alcaraz hits a half-volley back behind him. The backhand lob is short and is easily dispatched by Alcaraz.
Serve & Volley 10
Another bad miss from Ruud. He moved way back once again to return serve and sprays this backhand return high and deep over the net-rushing Spaniard and misses it long.
Let’s get one thing straight. Lobbing against a serve-and-volleyer is not “Game Plan A”, or B, C, D, E or F. It’s probably somewhere around X, Y, or Z.
Serve & Volley 11
It’s match point! Alcaraz is 10-0 with serve and volley so he may as well keep crushing the net. Ruud is wayyy back as usual and Alcaraz rushes forward and knocks off the easiest of forehand volleys in the shadow of the net to win his first Masters 1000 title.
- Alcaraz won all 11 serve and volley points he played.
- Ruud only moved forward one time to take the return in a normal location around the baseline against Alcaraz serving & volleying.
- Ruud only put his return back in play four out of 11 points.
Tim Henman was spot-on. When deep returners such as Medvedev and Ruud set up shop as far back as possible to return serve, serve-and-volley is a magnificent option to counter their ultra-deep return location – especially with a kick serve out wide in the Ad court.
This specific tactic gave Alcaraz so much confidence when serving that he had a “go-to” pattern of play in the big moments. If Ruud wins five or six of these points, he might have made Alcaraz less eager to attack straight away in the point. It may have been enough for him to find the critical advantage in the match he needed.
Henman and Rafter would indeed enjoy chopping up all these deep returners in today’s game. If Alcaraz can go 11-0 serving and volleying, just imagine the damage Tim and Pat would do week in and week out on tour in 2022.
It really wouldn’t be fair! 🤣