Last July, at the grass-court Hall of Fame Championships, in Newport, Rhode Island, I watched Kenneth Carlsen, a towering, blond-ponytailed Dane, approach the net behind a backhand sidespin shot. The ball launched off his racket, spinning furiously at an oblique angle, and bounced low near the baseline. Carlsen's opponent, the compact South African Neville Godwin, could only look on helplessly as the ball skidded past him.
This took me back—it seemed years since I'd seen a sidespin approach shot. When I learned tennis, in the early 1970s, pros and amateurs alike knew that the proper way to get to the net was behind a slice, which produces backspin, causing the ball to bounce low and making a passing shot more difficult. The more advanced technique of sidespin was even better, because the ball would not only stay low but also angle away from the opponent. Today's pros, mostly "power baseliners," tend to approach the net, if at all, behind topspin shots—a strategy considered misguided as recently as twenty years ago. They assume, correctly, that the potency of topspin on a hard or clay court, along with the sheer force exerted by modern players with modern rackets, is likely to set up an easy volley, if it doesn't win the point outright. But on grass, where the ball stays low and topspin is dampened, a slice or a sidespin is still the best way to get to the net. Carlsen relearned this maxim on the next point, when he apparently forgot what the playing surface was and came to the net on a topspin forehand; the ball bounced comfortably up to Godwin, who dispatched it down the line.