Surface Tension

by: Steve Tignor | June 28, 2011

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Rf LONDON—Every new story in tennis, it seems, is an old one. This has been doubly true at Wimbledon in 2011. The quixotic quest of a British contender? Tim Henman has been there, and not done that. Serena Williams’ exile to Court 2? She was once heard, while playing in that lowly third-tier arena, to ask, “What am I doing out here?” That was in 2005. Rafael Nadal’s delay-of-game warning yesterday? According to a colleague, Rafa and the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, got into it on this same subject at the French Open way back in 2006.

One reason for this Groundhog Day phenomenon is that tennis appears in the mainstream news only in four, two-week cycles each year. The French Open comes along, and you hear a few stories on, say, using Hawk-Eye on clay. Then the French Open is over and the world forgets all about clay-court tennis for another 12 months. The Wimbledon equivalent to that, and the story that really never will go away, concerns the speed of its grass. When the tournament begins each year, ex-champions and also-rans return with it, this time as dressed up as columnists or pundits for the fortnight, all of them lamenting the surface’s high bounce and the lack of serve-and-volley tennis played on it.

On one level, I agree with them. One of my favorite matches over this year’s fortnight was Feliciano Lopez’s win over Andy Roddick, because it showed that a one-handed, net-rushing game, a game that used to be the standard here, can still be effective on grass. I don’t like it any more than the old-timers when I see juniors belting away with the same basic baseline-hugging, two-hand slugging game.

At the same time, though, these arguments are presented as if Wimbledon just slowed the grass down last weekend, and that it's busy slowing it down even more every night while you're sleeping. The truth is that the surface has been the same composition for 10 years, enough time so that you would think we could call what's played on it these days "grass-court tennis." In 2001, groundskeeper Eddie Seaward, who is retiring this year, changed the mix that was laid down, from 70 percent rye/30 percent fescue to 100 percent rye. He wanted more durability and firmness, and he got it. The all-rye was also cut a little higher, and the bounce was a little higher and slower. Henman noticed the difference right away that year, and it's been that way since. This year, in defending the current grass game, Rafael Nadal said that he first played here in 2002, and the surface hasn’t changed in that time. That’s true for court surfaces around the world. There’s a sense that they’re being slowed more with each passing year, but the Aussie Open has been played on a slow hard court since the late 1980s, and Roger Federer has been likening Key Biscayne to a clay court for at least five years.

The change at Wimbledon was a trade-off, no doubt, but few who watched the tournament in the years before 2001 would want to return to the old grass mix, even if they do wish it were faster now. The slicker turf was also a bumpier, patchier, less predictable surface; more important, the matches that were played on it weren't as entertaining. They were, for the most part, a serve, a stab return, and if that somehow worked out, a volley. I wouldn’t mind seeing the grass quickened—if that’s possible—and I want variety of playing style as much as the next fan, but don’t let the old-timers’ nostalgia make you think that the old grass game was somehow better than it is now.

In fact, there was talk in those days about how Wimbledon, the great doddering dinosaur of tennis, should rip out its turf altogether and join the rest of the world by turning itself into an asphalt parking lot. The consensus was that grass’s time had passed, the players had no time to learn to play on it, and it only pointed up how outdated Wimbledon was in general. Rather than do anything that drastic, the club, as it has with its other facilities, was able instead to update and renovate its surface without tossing it out altogether. No one talks about Wimbledon like it's a white elephant anymore. For most players, it’s still the Holy Grail, and the surface is simply one of the three they play on over the course of the season.

Firming up the courts has also helped unify the sport. When Pete Sampras was a kid, he and his coach made a conscious choice to turn him into a Wimbledon winner—that was the ultimate goal. With that in mind, he switched from a two-handed backhand to a one-hander and developed a net-rushing game based around his serve, all of which are facets of the classic grass-court game. But winning Wimbledon came with a trade-off in those days. That same attacking game was never going to get it done at the French Open; Sampras, seven-time Wimbledon champ, reached a lone semifinal in Paris. The schism between fast and slow court no longer exists, in part because clay and grass have moved closer to each other. This has had the effect of raising the profile of the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. We’ve been able to see them face off in Slam finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, as well as the Australian Open, and, very nearly, the U.S. Open. Sampras and Gustavo Kuerten played superb matches when they met, but the king of Wimbledon and the king of Paris never faced off in a major final—they only played three times total, compared to Federer and Nadal's 25 so far. We didn’t think anything of it then, it was just the natural fast-court/slow-court, parallel-universe order of tennis, but now we can see that it was a loss for the sport.

Today Rafael Nadal can build his game on clay and still believe that he can live his dream of winning at Wimbledon. At the same time, while the ball is slowed more under the Centre Court roof, Wimbledon’s grass remains significantly different from clay. The surface still “takes the bounce,” according to players. It kicks through on hard serves, bounces up with topspin, and stays down with slice. It is possible to serve and volley on it; it’s just that nobody serves and volley anymore. The point is, there is no correct or superior version of grass-court tennis. Federer himself has won his titles on all-rye, and would anyone, even the staunchest traditionalist, have wanted him to play any differently than he did (besides Pat Cash, of course)? He has never served-and-volleyed as often as he did on his way to his first title here, in 2003. He recognized the change and adapted.

I loved, and still love when I see it on tape, the generally underappreciated late-1980s/early-90s version of tennis, when all-courters like Becker went up against serve-and-volleyers like Edberg, and both fought against a baseliner like Lendl. At that point, the game was in the midst of a long transition from the net back to the baseline, so different styles thrived together. The new, larger racquets had also fully taken hold, upping the general level of power and shot-making from the wooden racquet era that had just ended.

It would be fantastic and ideal if one of today’s Top 4 were a serve-and-volleyer, one were an all-courter, one were a baseliner, and one played standing on his head. But realistically, do we have anything to whine about in today’s men’s game? The Borg-Mac era gave us personalities; the Becker-Lendl era gave us quality and variety; but my favorite era—and I’ve seen all three—is the one we’re living through today. Federer and Nadal, as well as Djokovic and Murray, have given us the best matches, and part of that is because they play each other so often and are well-matched everywhere they play, from London to Paris to Melbourne. This decade, Wimbledon’s slow decade, produced the 2007 and 2008 men’s finals, two of the finest and most dramatic tennis matches ever played. I haven’t heard anyone complain about those.

Next year, when Wimbledon comes around and tennis appears in the press again, we’ll read stories about the fast old days one more time. Then we'll sit down and watch Federer and Nadal and Djokovic and Murray and forget all about them.

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