A Reading the Readers for the off-season. If you have a question or comment you would like addressed in this column, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After he lost to Novak at the year-end championships in London, [Roger] Federer said that he thinks the courts are too slow. He’s said that before, but this time he acted like it was a conspiracy to “protect” the guys in the Top 4 [Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Murray], because they all play good defense on slow surfaces. Doesn’t it sound like sour grapes to say that right after you lose, as if it’s the court’s fault?—Shirley C.
Federer wants faster courts, Nadal wants more clay—are either of those things a surprise?
I’ll get to the other issues you bring up, but let me start by saying that Federer is right. Not because fast courts are better than slow, but because the game would benefit from a variety of surface speeds that would, hopefully, inspire and showcase a variety of playing styles. I like the men’s game right now as much as anyone else, but I think most would agree that it could use a jolt of the attacking, net-rushing tennis that you’re more likely to get on a quicker surface. The indoor season, after the majors are over, would be a logical time for a fast-court stretch; the event in Bercy experimented with a quick surface two years ago and it produced a week of exciting tennis.
If the vast majority of hard surfaces are slow to medium-slow, there’s less reason for players to use the front court, which means that an entire element of the sport withers. If you watched the fifth rubber of the Davis Cup final
between the Czech Republic and Spain a couple of weeks ago, you could see that the winner, Radek Stepanek, a natural net-rusher, was able to use the faster hard court in Prague more effectively than Nicolas Almagro. Stepanek was rewarded for having a better transition game and better net skills—for having more variety. That’s something the sport should be promoting.
Did Federer blame the court for his loss? No, he acknowledged his opponent’s good play. (Though some Federer fans I know do seem to think that when he loses, it's not because there was something wrong with him, it’s because there was something with the sport—I guess that's called being bigger than the game.) As far as his talk about the unstated “goal” being to keep top players in tournaments longer, that’s not impossible to imagine. At the same time, the most marquee player of all is still Roger Federer; no tournament director wants to keep him out of the final of his event.
The slow court phenomenon, of course, was not invented to help out Djokovic or Nadal or Murray. The Aussie Open went to slow, bouncy Rebound Ace in 1988. Wimbledon’s grass, which we still call “new,” was installed in 2001; I wrote a feature for Tennis Magazine in 2003 about how the hardier turf was tilting the balance of power toward the ground-stroker. Most think the new grass is slower, though the tournament’s groundskeepers say that the main difference is a higher, truer bounce, which is what makes it easier to play from the back of the court. (There’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy about the grass today: Fewer serve-and-volleyers mean fewer tears and bumps in the middle of the court, thus helping bounces stay true.) As for hard courts, I was writing about the “slow court era” in Key Biscayne as far back as seven years ago.
In other words, Federer, who has won four Aussie Opens on medium-slow hard courts and all of his Wimbledon titles on the “new” grass, has been no slouch in the slow surface era himself. Anyone who gets to five Roland Garros finals knows how to work from the baseline and play a little defense. This isn’t to say that he has done better because of slow courts; it’s just to say that he has adapted to surface changes successfully in the past. In 2003 Federer won Wimbledon at the net; in 2004 he won it from the baseline, and has ever since.
I should also mention that, to me, baseline tennis is not by definition boring. I like watching Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, del Potro, the same way I liked watching the best net-rushers of the last era, Sampras, Rafter, Edberg, Becker. While there are plenty of baseliners I don’t want to watch today, there were plenty of dull serve-and-volleyers in the 1980s and 90s. It’s individual players, not any one style, that appeal to me.
Which brings me back to the variety question. I wonder how much of a difference, in the short term, faster courts would make. Bigger racquets, better strings, Western forehands, and two-handed backhands have done more to transform the sport than surface speeds. Michael Llodra, pretty much the last living serve-and-volleyer, reached the semifinals on that quick court in Bercy in 2010. But he reached the same round on a slower version this fall, which makes me think it was the home Parisian crowd that was the important factor in both cases. Whatever the surfaces are like, Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray aren’t suddenly going to start chipping-and-charging, Paul Annacone-style.
The difference that I can see from the past is this. In the mid-1980s, a teenage Pete Sampras and his coach decided they wanted to win Wimbledon someday. At the time, there was only one way to do that, to serve and volley. So he dropped his (very good) two-handed backhand and remade his game specifically to win on bumpy grass. Today’s version of a young Sampras, if he’s targeting Wimbledon, doesn’t have to make that change.
Still, at this point I don’t think making the courts at Wimbledon, or Bercy, quicker is going to shift the men’s game back toward the net by itself. To do that, a 15-year-old prodigy will have to ignore the pro trends and make the risky decision to go the Pistol Pete route—to drop the second hand off his backhand and commit to coming forward. I think that style of play, in the right hands and with the right young legs, can succeed on any hard or grass court. But it would help if a few of them were faster.
Steve, why do you always talk about tennis needing a longer off-season? Can’t you see the players just go play exhibitions the whole time?—Johnny Tennis
Indeed, I can see that. The point is, I don’t have to see it, because I don’t have to pay attention to it. Yes, I want a longer hiatus for the pros; if they had more rest at the end of the year, I think they would stay fresher, mentally and physically, for longer once the season started. And when it comes to the effort involved, exhibitions are nothing like tournaments.
But I’m also not a professional tennis player. I take the spectator’s view, the fan’s view, and I think a longer off-season is good from that perspective for a couple of reasons. Being away from the game makes us more enthusiastic about it when it does come back—you may be different from me, but I don’t want to think about what Petra Kvitova or Andy Murray need to do to move up in the rankings every day of the year (10 months is plenty). A longer break also helps us think in terms of individual seasons, rather than one long rolling, never-ending tour. This in turn should make the year-end No. 1 ranking seem more significant, because it’s been won over a specific, understandable period of time.
That said, I can live with the six-week off-season we have now for the men, and the two months we have for the women. I consider it a good sign that the players have time to play a few exhibitions, and that I have the time to ignore them.