Barreling In Taylor Dent has moved up in the men's rankings the old-fashioned way: playing serve-and-volley

November 24, 2003

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 there 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."

COLOR PHOTO: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (DENT THROWBACK With a rocket serve, great hands and hulking athleticism, Dent, 22, is suited to the game that his father played. COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Sampras

Net Effect

Senior writer S. L. Price picks the five best serve-and-volley
players of the last 25 years. They are ranked in order of Grand
Slam singles titles won.

PLAYER GRAND SLAM TITLES

Martina Navratilova 18
Pete Sampras 14
John McEnroe 7
Boris Becker 6
Stefan Edberg 6

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)