Reviving a Lost Art

By Archit Suresh

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Screenshot: Australian Open YouTube Channel
  • Rod Laver
  • John Newcombe
  • John McEnroe
  • Stefan Edberg
  • Boris Becker
  • Pete Sampras

At this point in the list, tennis fans see legends and former champions of the sport, all with multiple slams to their names.

  • Pat Cash
  • Richard Krajicek
  • Patrick Rafter

Okay, perhaps these players weren’t as successful as the aforementioned, but both were great champions with major title wins and hall of fame careers.

  • Tim Henman

Now hang on a minute, Tim Henman was an exceptional player and had plenty of success in his career, but he was unfortunately never able to capture a coveted grand slam trophy. Why is he on this list?

This is where the picture becomes clearer. Looking through this list again, one realizes a common theme. It is more about the tactic than the titles. All these players went on to have extremely successful careers, thanks in large part to a heavy dosage of serve-and-volley tactics. In recent years, evolution in equipment and court surfaces, along with the arrival of the two-handed backhand effectively ended a player’s ability to rush the net after serving with consistent success. Wider, more powerful graphite rackets and slower court surfaces allow the returner more than enough time to send back a serve with interest. It was now the time of the baseline grinders. Picture Andre Agassi planting himself firmly on the baseline, or Rafael Nadal standing so far back behind the court you think he’s practicing social distancing. For all intents and purposes, this list should end here. Serve-and-volley lived a good life and already had its time at the top of the sport. Many would say the game has moved on. Apparently, no one told Maxime Cressy.

It was 2015 when Cressy, a college freshman at UCLA, was unable to crack the singles line-up and was viewed primarily as a doubles specialist. Down at number 12 in the pecking order, Cressy’s odds of making it to the professional tour were slim to none. When asked about Cressy’s time at UCLA, his former teammate Austin Rapp said the following: “I remember that he was working hard like he was going to be playing, which was a good thing. But he was definitely quite a bit behind. He had the right build obviously: 6’7”, very strong, fit. But not a lot of structure to his game at all. He had a pretty big serve, but not a lot of variety. He didn’t know how to hit a kick serve yet. He wasn’t volleying well yet. He really had no returns, so he was kind of just a big guy with not a ton behind it.” Cressy then turned to Head Coach Billy Martin to elevate his game. After spending countless hours working on court, Cressy and Martin had decoded the answer to unlocking his game – serve and volley. “I think Billy deserves the credit for that. When he fully committed to that, thinking he had a 6’7” super lightning-fast, strong, physical guy and you make that shift it was going to be really hard to beat him if he mastered that game style,” Rapp said. 

Eventually, Cressy would go on to reach the No. 1 singles position at the school and turn pro in 2019. After turning pro, he hit some bumps along the road as he adjusted to life on the tour. with some early losses at tournaments. Eventually, the tides began to turn. After getting a first Grand Slam main draw victory in New York against Jozef Kovalik, Cressy got the opportunity to play the then World No. 6, Stefanos Tsitsipas. At the 2021 Australian Open, Cressy would get another main draw first-round win, only to then run into Alexander Zverev. Later that year at the US Open, Cressy got his breakthrough win at a slam after beating Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain by coming back from 2 sets to love down. Unfortunately, Cressy was unable to back it up as he fell to Nikoloz Basilashvili in the following round. However, it really wasn’t until early 2022 that people began to take notice of Cressy and his unorthodox style of play.

At one of the lead-up tournaments in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open, Cressy began to turn heads. After going through qualifying, he’d make a run to the final, with wins over top players like Reilly Opelka and Grigor Dimitrov along the way. His opponent in the final would be none other than 20 time Grand Slam Champion Rafael Nadal. Faced with the task of going up against a legend of the game, Cressy rose to the challenge. Though he eventually lost in two tight sets to Nadal in the final, he felt that he had competed well and could hold his head up high. “He is one of the only guys where even when relative to what he’s doing [now], he wasn’t as good, he still truly believed in himself to be able to get there. A lot of people as they climb the rankings and reach their goals, they have to readjust their goals,” Rapp said. “He always had the goals of being Top 100 and playing Rafa and all these guys at the Grand Slams even when he was not in the singles lineup at UCLA. I think that’s the thing that sets Cressy apart and allowed him to improve so much.”

Cressy pictured with Nadal at the Melbourne Summer Set trophy ceremony Screenshot: TennisTV YouTube Channel

Cressy then followed his week in Melbourne up quite nicely with a strong run at an ATP 250 in Sydney. In Sydney, he reached the quarters after back-to-back wins over Adrian Mannarino and Dušan Lajović, before losing a tight one to British No. 1 Dan Evans in an entertaining match. With a strong start to the year under his belt, the American was ready for yet another good run Down Under at the Australian Open. Boy, did he deliver! After defeating John Isner in a five-set match, in what was known as a battle of the “Servebots”, Cressy grabbed a win over qualifier Tomáš Macháč to get to the third round. Next up was hometown favorite Christopher O’Connell on Court 3, where Cressy served 28 aces to four double faults to come through in 4 sets. This was by far Cressy’s most efficient match of the tournament to reach the second week of a Slam event for the first time. His ability to fill the stat sheet with his service is unparalleled. In his first two matches, he served 32 double faults as a product of his ultra-commitment to coming on both his first and second serve. But Cressy rolls with the punches like a professional boxer to play the game on his own terms. “The mindset is to go for it. Sometimes I have good days, sometimes bad days, and I feel like on the good days it’s very difficult to beat that style of play going for both serves,” he said. Well, “going for it” is the perfect way to describe what Cressy does on the court. He is all in with serve and volley and says his mission is to be the man that can singlehandedly bring it back to the top of the game. His decision to zig while others zag shows the unwavering self-belief he possesses to be able to commit to something the way he does. In fact, Cressy believes that he can push his game all the way. He even thinks that he could one day potentially be World No. 1.

Q: Is that where you see yourself going, top 10?

Cressy: “Yeah, even No. 1, yeah, I’m very confident. My game style can beat anyone, so starting this year I’m very confident. I played Nadal and I really believe that it really put him in an uncomfortable position.”

He will need every bit of that confidence and a little more as he prepares to face the biggest test of his young career. Waiting for him in the Round of 16 is World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, who is now the heavy favorite to win the title. Of course, the Paris-born American remains confident he has what it takes to challenge Medvedev. There is also history that shows Cressy may stand a fair chance. In the 2021 Rolex Paris Masters Final against the Russian, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic decided to switch things up by rushing the net after his serve 22 times over the course of the match. Djokovic felt that he wouldn’t be able to beat Medvedev from the back of the court, so he decided to take it to him. The strategy ultimately paid off as the Serb won the match, and the title as well.

Now, Maxime Cressy is not Novak Djokovic, nor will he try to be. He’ll approach this match the same way he approaches every match. Maybe that’s what more players need to do. I’m not saying I think Cressy will beat the Russian. Medvedev may well prove to be too good from the back of the court for the former UCLA Bruin to make his game work against the best of the best. I’m also not saying that Cressy will reach the heights he thinks he can go. However, I am predicting Cressy to do everything he can to make serve-and-volley a viable tactic again. Who knows? We might one day see many more names added to that list. IF (and that’s a big if) serve-and-volley made a comeback, its success would be due to the man racing around Rhode Island on the front of the Popcorn Tennis website.

  • Maxime Cressy

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