As a Grand Slam unfurls, it helps to make an expedition. I went looking for a volley, just one volley, just one little, measly volley.
For four arduous hours I roamed the back alleys of the USTA National Tennis Center, combed through the Flushing Meadows wilds, seeking a glimpse of this volley, this phenomenon teetering near extinction. It was like going out to spot an ivory-billed woodpecker, a yellow-eared parrot, a cherry-throated tanager or a Peruvian plantcutter.
Through courts 15, 14, 13, 10, 8, 6, 7, 4, Louis Armstrong, 11, 12 and 17, I wandered, wondering if I should have brought night-vision binoculars, a pith helmet and a field guide that I could show to some unsuspecting kid, point to a photo of Stefan Edberg in the early 1990s and say, "Now, this was a volley," whereupon the kid would tell me to get lost.
Nobody volleys anymore, of course, a condition aptly traced through Roger Federer alone. In his stirring fourth-round, five-set win over Pete Sampras at the 2001 Wimbledon, the grass near the net went trampled by the 19-year-old Federer (as well as the 29-year-old Sampras). Long since regrown by now, you can sense that the grass gazes back at the 31-year-old Federer, grins and luxuriates in safety.