High Volleys on Floaters: A Lost Art – Ask Azarenka and Muguruza

The swing volley began to work its way into professional tennis in the 1980s and grew in frequency for the next two decades until it became almost the norm in the 21st century whenever the opponent hit a floater high in the air, in case he or she would get pushed and stretched to a corner. With the addition of new technology, and fitter players, the use of swing volleys generated winner after winner in both professional tours.

The only problem is that you cannot hit a swing volley on every high floater. Sometimes, the ball is too far, or it’s too risky to make a full swing. It is sometimes enough to simply to block the ball to the open court. When that moment arrives, the arm must remain stiff, and the wrist must go through the minimum amount of recoil possible. Unfortunately for Victoria Azarenka, she did neither of those on her high backhand volley at 2-1 up in the third set against Dominika Cibulkova, when she had an opportunity to break her opponent’s serve at 30-40:

You can see Azarenka’s racket head drop all the way below the wrist level when she strikes the volley, causing the ball to float and allow Cibulkova to chase it down. She simply did not keep her forearm muscles clenched and let her wrist loose. Now, remember that this was not just a point like any other.

I have talked in my last article in depth about momentum shifts early in sets. This point above was precisely that! It led in fact to the most decisive momentum shift of this match. Cibulkova crushed Azarenka in the first set 6-2. Vika began finding depth on her strokes early the second set and took control as the set progressed. She often neutralized Cibulkova’s aggressive baseline shots by making use of all the four corners of the court, keeping her guessing. Vika won the second set 6-3 and when the third set began, it seemed that it was just a matter of time before she took control of the final set. The point above was that moment! Had she made that volley, she would have gone up 3-1 and probably continued to steamroll the way she has done so, since early in the second set. Cibulkova would have had to play catch-up, her only hope of coming back resting on an unlikely let-down by Azarenka. However, Cibulkova held serve, regained her confidence, and zoomed at warp factor nine to the finish line from there on, losing only one more game (6-3).

Let’s fast forward to Serena Williams vs. Garbine Muguruza, to the second game of the final set. Muguruza dominated the first set, Serena recovered, as only she can, to equalize at one set all. In the beginning of the third set, Muguruza held serve after a long game in which she faced break points. It was a big hold, giving Muguruza a chance to sink her teeth back in the match after a disappointing second set. She not only did that, but she climbed to a 15-40 lead on Serena’s serve, looking to go up 2-0 and to take charge again in the third set. Then, this happened:

Again, what you see is Muguruza tilting her wrist back quite far, causing the racket to flip back as she blocks (or not) the ball. Thus the floating ball that should have been an easy put away results in a “floating volley” that sails out. As a result, what should have been a guaranteed early break that would have left Serena frustrated (remember that she was already frowning from not having broken Muguruza in the previous game) and allowed Muguruza to move forward with confidence in the final set, turned into a long game that lasted over ten minutes, ending with Serena holding serve. Serena pumped her fist up screamed when she finally held to equalize at 1-1. She returned to her form of the second set and Muguruza slowly began to fade away, only winning one more game the rest of the set.

This type of shot occurs less and less since the topspin-swing volley has replaced the traditional block volley. However, it does not mean that it should not be practiced specifically. Because it can make your day, or as the cases of Azarenka and Muguruza showed today, it can also break it.

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