World

With a Throwback Style, He’s Charging Forward

WIMBLEDON, England — “My butt is killing me.”

That was Maxime Cressy, a little more than an hour after his four hour, 10 minute marathon win over Felix Auger-Aliassime on Tuesday in the fading light of the No. 3 Court, the steeple of St. Mary’s Church in sight just above the tree line. The little-known Cressy, a 25-year-old American who was born and raised in France, only recently cracked the top 50, but he has already achieved something no player ever will, and few aspire to, because, well, as Cressy said, it’s rather painful, and maybe not so smart.

To watch Cressy play and win a match on the Wimbledon grass is to take a journey back in time, to the glory years of serve-and-volley tennis, to the days of John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras.

It was a time before professional tennis became much more uniform and far friendlier to camping out on the baseline and blasting groundstrokes. Before ever-lighter and more powerful rackets and next-generation polyester strings made passing shots on the run from the deepest corners possible with a wrist-flick. It all turned rushing the net on too many points into a foolish, anachronistic mission, like stuffing 30 wooden rackets in the bag before taking the court.

“They don’t really know how to volley that well, so they don’t want to come in even when invited,” Navratilova said this week of the modern generation of players.

Even Reilly Opelka, who is nearly 7 feet tall and possesses one of the deadliest serves in the game, won’t consider it, despite having the wingspan of an Andean condor. Too tough to move, he explained, especially on soft grass, and especially for anyone who takes big strides like he does.

Maria Sakkari is one of the most aggressive players in the game. But she has long been somewhat allergic to the net, so much so that her coach, Tom Hill, has set a goal for her to go to the net 20 times in a match, though not by serving and volleying, which she rarely practices.

“Whether I can do it or not, that’s the goal,” she said.

She got there 10 times on Tuesday in her straight-set opening-round win over Zoe Hives of Australia.

Carlos Alcaraz is still trying to figure out how to play on grass even though he is the game’s hottest rising star and one of the fastest players. He possesses some deft touch at the net, too.

He tried a bit of serve-and-volley early in his opening match against Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany. It was one of the main things he wanted to do in the match.

“I lost every time,” he said. “I didn’t want to try again.”

And yet, amid all this net-play pessimism, there is Cressy, all 6-foot-6 of him, plus the mop of dirty blond curls that gives him an extra inch or two. He comes in behind his first serve, his second serve and on his opponent’s serve, whenever he senses a chance. He comes in after every shortish ball he sees and even after his opponent passes him on three consecutive points. He believes in serve-and-volley with the fervor of a cult member, even if it is a cult of one.

“This style can take me to the top,” he said after a first-round loss at the French Open, and when he says “the top,” he means the No. 1 ranking. After all, that loss was on clay, which has long been kryptonite to serve-and-volleyers.

Cressy has been battling conventional wisdom for a decade, trying to master the serve-and-volley since he was a promising junior player in France. France’s tennis federation basically told him to cut it out, as though he were goofing off during practice. If that was the way he was going to play, they didn’t want much to do with him. Cressy would not budge.

“I loved it,” he said Tuesday night after knocking off Auger-Aliassime, the sixth-seeded Canadian and a fashionable dark-horse at Wimbledon, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (9), 7-6 (5). He will play another American, Jack Sock, in the second round on Thursday. “If it is something I love, I might as well do it and make it as efficient as possible.”

Cressy trained at an academy during his last year in high school and was recruited to play at U.C.L.A., where coaches saw some potential for him in doubles. They were correct, and he became a collegiate doubles champion in 2019.

But Cressy never stopped believing in the idea that his sport was ignoring a style that could be incredibly efficient for a singles player with a big serve, an ability to move, unflappable confidence and a willingness to sprint, scurry, bend, crouch, squat and stretch for balls before they land. Hence the sore rear end after Tuesday’s match.

Lately, something has clicked. In December, Cressy was ranked 112th. He played into the final 16 at the Australian Open in January, had a rough patch in the late winter and early spring, then got on a roll that has sent him up to No. 45, one of the fastest rises in the sport this year.

The elevation has come after years of studying film of Sampras and McEnroe and all the other great net hounds. His three years as a professional have been a process of trial and error, especially trying to figure out how to best use his cannon-like serve. At some point, he’s not sure when, there was an epiphany — the most effective and reliable serve was not the perfectly placed, overpowering 140-mile-an-hour ace. Too often, that is a low-percentage shot.

Rather, it’s the serve that produces an easy volley. His first serve averaged 123 miles an hour on Tuesday; his second 119. Many players, even the best ones, lose 20 miles per hour or more from their first to second serve. He did not lose a service game.

“It’s very difficult playing someone who is basically hitting two first serves,” a frustrated Auger-Aliassime said of Cressy after the match.

Cressy has experimented with different serve patterns, trying to spray them across the service box, but he ultimately settled on using just two — one wide and the other down the middle of the court, though he mainly uses the latter just to keep his opponents from focusing fully on his wide serves. Most often, he hits a high, kicking serve out wide. It goes in a lot. If it comes back, it’s often in his volleying strike zone.

After the serve, he sprints to the net and instinct takes over. He never has a plan for where the volleys will go. In a split second, he sees the ball, the court and the opponent. A pulse from his brain to his hands says punch, or drive, or cut, or slice or drop volley.

The ball crashes into his strings. And it goes from there. So many of his volleys land just inches from the baseline. Even the lost art of the deep volley, something lamented by many, including Dick Gould, the retired Stanford tennis coach who helped turn McEnroe into a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, lives on in Cressy.

It is a lonely way to play, Cressy said: so many doubters telling him serve-and-volley is a relic and no one over his shoulder when he looks back to see if anyone will join his cause. There is, though, the joy and cockeyed logic that only the iconoclast understands and figures out how to use for his benefit.

“It is a bumpy road to be unique on the tour,” he said Tuesday, “but that helps my confidence.”

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