You Know It's Grass Season When...

Friday, June 15, 2012 /by

JwtThe grass-court swing, coming upon us so quickly after two solid months of clay, makes tennis feel as if it has changed into a different sport in the course of a week. No, players don’t serve and volley much on it anymore, but rallies are shorter, serves are bigger, breaks are harder to come by, and a good long slide is less likely to help you win a point than it is to put you on your backside (or, in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's case at right, your frontside). Plus, we've gone from baguettes to horseradish and white bread. What alternative universe have we landed in?

It seems like much of the ATP isn’t sure either. Rafael Nadal joined Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and just about every other seed in Queen's by going out early at Halle today. If the recent past is any indication, though, the top guys will find their bearings quickly—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray have dominated Wimbledon the same way they’ve dominated everywhere else.

Spring has its buds, fall has its yellow leaves, winter has its snow: Just like them, the grass season has its own telltale signs of arrival. Here are a few things you’re sure to see over the next month or so.

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Rafael Nadal goes out in time for the weekend
As I said, this has already happened in Halle, as it has happened at Queen’s five other times. The tradition is that Nadal wins in Paris, makes a quick trip to play a few singles and doubles matches on grass, and by Friday night he’s safely back on a Mallorcan beach or watching Spain’s soccer team. One year, 2008, Nadal did, perhaps accidentally, go through and win at Queens, and he went on to win Wimbledon for the first time that year as well. But his quarterfinal loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber today doesn’t mean there’s trouble on the horizon—Nadal has reached the Wimbledon final the last five time he's played there. More likely it means there’s some fishing on the horizon.

The question arises: Why aren’t there more grass court tournaments?
The season is three days old and I’ve already been asked this via email, via Twitter, and at my own club. The answer is that Wimbledon won’t move it dates back because it has a set spot in the BBC’s summer sports lineup, so that leaves just two weeks for tune-ups after Roland Garros.

That said, the question is a good one. For years it appeared that grass—bumpy, easily torn, played on once a year—was a hopelessly outdated surface for tennis, kept alive only by Wimbledon’s perverse traditionalism. But since Wimby went to a hardier version in 2001, the bumps have been ironed out and the top players, from Roger to Serena to Rafa to Maria, revere the tournament more than ever. No longer a rock fight, grass tennis is as entertaining as it is on any other type of court—it's normal. A Masters or dual-gender event before Wimbledon would seem to be a no-brainer. Except for the small problem that it’s not going to happen.

So enjoy this year. With the players returning to Wimbledon for the Olympics, we get one more week of tennis on turf.

The lament arises: The “new” grass at Wimbledon is too slow
When will we stop thinking of Wimbledon’s current grass, which has been in use since 2001, as new? As I wrote at Wimbledon last year, it’s past time. The current rye turf is better—less bumpy, less easily shredded—than what they used to use. It’s true that the tennis played on it doesn’t involve much old-fashioned serving-and-volleying, and doesn’t differ radically from what you see the rest of the year. But it does reward big serves, as well as variety. Grass keeps a slice low, and forces players to move well.

Has it had a hand, as so many former players believe, in the decline of serve and volley tennis? On the one hand, when Pete Sampras was young, he and his coach changed his two-hander to a one-hander and made him a net-rusher with the specific idea that that’s what it took to win Wimbledon. A young player who dreams of winning Wimbledon today (as every young player does) doesn’t have to make that change. On the other hand, Nadal, Djokovic, and most of the rest of the Top 20 wouldn’t serve and volley even if Wimbledon were played on glass rather than grass. Blame two-handed backhands, Western grips, and bigger racquets for the shift before you blame the “new” surface at one tournament.

Watching Queens, thoughts of Gordon Forbes come to mind

Bournemouth, Hurlingham, Paddington, Newcastle, Manchester, Surbiton, Beckenham, Roehampton. The little English tournaments unfolded with a mildness matched by that extraordinarily temperate summer. We received fifty shillings per week, 2nd class rail fares, and books of lunch tickets which enabled us to east ham and pie and lettuce in dampish tents. Blissfully happy, we played for our lives.

Those little English tournaments were so utterly artless. Home-made, if you like. Red clay courts, damp and heavy, clubhouses of old brick, and inside all the woodwork nearly worn out. Floors, tables, bashed-up little bars. They were funny things, those tournaments, but they were open-hearted.

At the time, in 1954, tennis in England was about as close to being truly amateur as was feasible. We accepted it thus, played it, and adored it.

That’s Forbes’ description, in his amateur-era memoir A Handful of Summers, of the English circuit in the mid-50s. He was already, writing in 1976, looking back at a vanished time. Do those days have anything to do with Queen’s now? Not really—those little tournaments, as Forbes says, were actually played on red clay (clay courts were, even more confusingly, called “hard courts” in England; as far as I know, it was to differentiate them from “soft” grass), and even after an opening-round defeat Andy Murray received something more than a book of lunch tickets.

Still, seeing the clubhouse, the small bleachers, the blue sky and big clouds at Queen’s is enough to make tennis seem simpler for a few days. Even the results aren’t a big deal. The grass season is too short, but maybe that's why it seems so sweet when it gets here.

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Have a good weekend.

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