Maxime Cressy, flag bearer of a dying art – SportsMediaz


‘I played the game the way it ought to be played’ – Martina Navratilova, who served and volleyed to 59 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles.

Oliver Campbell would have relished watching Maxime Cressy serve and volley. Campbell, an American star who won three U.S. singles titles (1890–1892) and two U.S. doubles titles (in 1888, 1891 and 1892), once said, “I ran to the net behind every service until the day I retired.”

Maurice McLoughlin followed suit in the early 1900s. Nicknamed “The California Comet,” he streaked to the net behind dynamic serves and captivated crowds with spectacular volleys and smashes. More Californian champions emulated McLoughlin and capitalised on fast hard courts in the Golden State and on slick, low-bouncing grass at three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. The most famous were Ellsworth Vines, Alice Marble, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Billie Jean King, and Pete Sampras.

Two more Americans were proponents of the art. Althea Gibson, the first Black tennis champion, served and volleyed in the 1950s, and John McEnroe, another superb athlete, did it with panache and controversy in the 1980s. Foreign champions Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Margaret Court, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg also showcased their adventurous but highly skilful serve and volley style.

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Yet, in the early 2000s, serving and volleying suddenly plummeted in popularity and success. Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter served and volleyed on every first and second serve in the 2001 Wimbledon final. Shockingly, in the 2002 final, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian never went to the net behind their serves in a yawn-inspiring battle of cautious baseliners.

The legendary Roger Federer also switched tactics during this transitional period. At the 2001 Wimbledon, Federer served and volleyed 100 percent of the time on his first serve and more than 50 percent of the time on his second serve when he upset seven-time champion Sampras. But the Swiss maestro served and volleyed only five times during his victory over Rafael Nadal in the 2006 Wimbledon final. As Bob Dylan wrote, “… the times, they are a-changin’.”

The reasons for the rapid decline of serving and volleying are many and diverse. In 2002, Wimbledon changed from a 70/30 combination of rye grass and creeping red fescue grass to 100 percent perennial grass, thus slowing the once-fast and unpredictable surface. Three-time titlist Becker once admitted, “I could have never won a single Wimbledon on such ‘slow’ surfaces.”

Taller, faster, and better-positioned athletes can reach and neutralise more big serves than ever. Lightweight composite rackets generate more power and polyester strings more topspin than ever. Lastly, superb two-handed backhands, most notably struck by Novak Djokovic, often defuse explosive serves and produce excellent passing shots off sharp volleys. The odds have become more even, and very few risk serving and volleying now.

Campbell, the pioneer of non-stop serving and volleying, could not have foreseen — and would have been aghast at — the near-extinction of this highly athletic and entertaining playing style. Now, the 6’6” Cressy, who has surged to a career-high No. 33, has made it his mission to ensure the serve and volley doesn’t die — at least during his career

.Although Maxime was born and raised in Paris, France, where slow red clay is the surface du jour, he adored the powerful, precision serving of Sampras along with the adroit, elegant volleying of Rafter and strived to emulate their serve-and-volley games.

In this candid interview, the 25-year-old American tells how he defied the odds and sceptics to emerge this year as a potential successor to his boyhood idols.

Q. You suffered major setbacks early in your tennis career. Why did the French tennis federation drop you from its elite junior program? And how did you react to its decision?

A. I was 16 years old when they decided to let me go because my tournament results weren’t good enough, even though I had ambition and a vision. They didn’t believe in my serve and volley potential, and they didn’t believe my game style would be efficient and strong enough to get me to the pro level. Their decision made me stronger and even more determined to prove them wrong and show them I had huge potential.

Please tell me about your tennis rivalry with your brothers Jonathan and Mathieu and what that revealed about your competitive nature at an early age.

I definitely attribute my competitive energy and work ethic to being with my brothers on a daily basis. My brothers, who were seven and 10 years older, were really into tennis. I followed them around at tournaments, and I observed their competitiveness. I wanted to be a tennis player like them, but I wanted to be better than them. So my rivalry with my brothers helped instill my competitiveness and passion for tennis. We would train for hours on the courts, and thankfully, they always accepted my requests to play one or two more hours.

You couldn’t make the singles starting line-up in your first year at UCLA. What were you and your game lacking then? Did you then wonder if you’d ever succeed as a tennis player?

I had many doubts when I wasn’t in the singles starting line-up. But I was focusing then more on doubles. I had the game to be in the singles line-up, but I didn’t have the mentality and the confidence. And my results as a junior were not good enough to prove I was worthy enough to be a starter. At that time, I wasn’t thinking about going on the professional tour.

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As a senior, you then starred at UCLA, posting a 26-0 doubles record, winning the 2019 NCAA doubles title with Keegan Smith, and ending your career as the No. 1 doubles player and No. 17 singles player in the nation. In what ways did American college tennis help you develop as a player and a person?

College tennis definitely enabled me to learn how to multi-task and succeed in my studies and my tennis. It enabled me to have more of a balance between the tennis side and the other areas of my life. It helped me mature in general. I had to focus more on being a student and getting good grades than being an athlete. Tennis came second, especially in the beginning.

Speed and power: Scorching two-handed backhand strokes such as the one deployed by Novak Djokovic can defuse explosive serves and produce excellent passing shots off of sharp volleys. It’s another reason why very few risk serve and volleying now.

Speed and power: Scorching two-handed backhand strokes such as the one deployed by Novak Djokovic can defuse explosive serves and produce excellent passing shots off of sharp volleys. It’s another reason why very few risk serve and volleying now.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

What areas as a player really improved during your four years at UCLA?

The main area was my confidence and my belief in my ability to be a top player on the professional tour. During my sophomore, junior, and senior years, I started to have more and more professional aspirations. I competed in the Futures (tournaments) and gained that fire to become a top professional.

At the 2021 US Open, you survived four match points to upset Pablo Carreño Busta, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7) and reach the third round. What do you remember most about that match? And why was it an important stepping stone in your pro career?

What I remember most is the energetic shift I had when I was down two sets to love. I really felt that I had nothing to lose (then), and I started to focus on what I could control, which was my serve. I just completely turned around the match, and my opponent felt a lot more pressure because I was extremely sharp on my service games. So the most memorable moments were that turnaround and also the four match points that I saved.

The win gave me extra confidence I could beat these top 10 players. That win alone didn’t make the biggest difference (in my career), but it helped my confidence, for sure.

Ranked an unimposing No. 112, you started 2022 with a bang at a 250 event in Melbourne. You qualified and then upset No. 26 Reilly Opelka and No. 28 Grigor Dimitrov to reach the final, where Rafael Nadal defeated you 7-6 (6), 6-3. What did you learn from this tournament?

I learned I could compete with the best players in the world. The match against Nadal gave me a lot of inner strength to believe I have the level to potentially beat the top players in the world. They are very tough. That tournament really did change my life.

In terms of technique or tactics, was there anything that happened in those three matches that, substantively, gave you a reason to have more confidence?

No, the key was that my routines were enough to be able to beat these players. I didn’t need to change any of my routines then and won’t have to for the entire season to come.

Entertainers: Goran Ivanisevic (left) and Pat Rafter at the conclusion of the men’s singles final of Wimbledon in 2001. The two players served and volleyed on every first and second serve in the 2001 Wimbledon final. In contrast, in the 2002 final, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian never went to the net behind their serves.

Entertainers: Goran Ivanisevic (left) and Pat Rafter at the conclusion of the men’s singles final of Wimbledon in 2001. The two players served and volleyed on every first and second serve in the 2001 Wimbledon final. In contrast, in the 2002 final, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian never went to the net behind their serves.
| Photo Credit: AFP

After Daniil Medvedev defeated you 6-2, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 in the 2022 Australian Open fourth round, he called your game “boring.” You retorted, “There needs to be a new way of winning for people to start seeing tennis as more exciting and thrilling.” Would you please explain what you meant?

I meant that tennis needs to have some variety, and it’s mainly dominated by baseline play. Playing that serve-and-volley game can add that variety to today’s game and bring a lot more excitement for fans when they see something different from what they’re used to for the past 10-20 years. Also, older fans who watched tennis when serve-volley was common would really see that game style being reborn. My main goal is to develop that game style to such a high level that people start to believe it’s a very efficient game style, even in today’s game, regardless of all the excuses I’ve been told.

Which champions inspired you to serve and volley?

Pete Sampras and Pat Rafter mainly, and Richard Krajicek as well.