In this week's Reading the Readers, we discuss a well-worn but never entirely beaten-to-death subject. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at email@example.com.
Everyone says that the courts are slower than they were, and the surfaces aren’t as different as they used to be. How do we know that? The players say it, but they also talk about the balls being heavier or lighter. Last month I saw a post on a tennis blog that used stats to show that clay and hard are not getting closer together. Which do you think is right?—Doug, from Florida
I saw that post as well, from the thoughtful, stats-oriented Heavy Topspin blog, and found it interesting. But as even the writer, Jeff Sackmann says, a definitive answer to this question is difficult, if not impossible, to find:
“There are many factors that contribute to how fast a tennis ball moves through the air (altitude, humidity, ball type), and many that affect the nature of the bounce (all of the same, plus surface). If you’re actually on court, hitting balls, you’ll notice a lot of details: how high the ball is bouncing, how fast it seems to come off of your opponent’s racket, how the surface and the atmosphere are affecting spin, and more. Hawkeye allows us to quantify some of those things, but the available data is very limited.”
In other words, the speed that a ball takes to get from one player’s strings to another's is a function of many factors, only one of which is how it reacts to hitting the court itself. As far as hard numbers comparing past and present, we’re in the dark there as well. The ITF tests courts for Davis Cup (not sure about Fed Cup) and gives them a “pace rating,” to keep the surfaces within a playable range, but it doesn’t test at tour events. Changes in surface speed can happen for any number of reasons there. Two years ago, Rotterdam tournament director Richard Krajicek thought the final of his event was over too quickly for fans, so he had the court slowed the following season. In 2010, Bercy sped its court up, but has since slowed it back down to match the pace of the World Tour Finals in London, which immediately follows it.
Sackmann uses two stats to try to determine whether clay and hard courts are becoming more alike: the change in the number of aces, and the rate of service breaks, on each court over the last two decades. Neither is a definitive proof of how quickly a ball takes off when it hits a particular court. I’ve wondered in the past whether the players’ return position, which may be farther back on clay in general, helps lower the ace count on that surface (players may or may not return from farther back on clay, it’s just a thought). Also, I read in a few places where the high number of aces at this year’s Brazil tournament was used to back up Rafael Nadal’s claim that the clay there was playing extremely quickly. Not all clay is the same, of course, but the fact that the tournament was indoors may have helped the servers in that case.
Still, using aces and service breaks seems as good a method as any with the data we have right now. By Heavy Topspin’s calculations, the rate of service breaks show that the difference between hard and clay courts has narrowed in the last six years, but that that the difference was even smaller in the early 1990s, well before anyone claims the courts were slowed down, and it was almost as small from 1998 to 2002.
As far as aces go, there’s even less evidence for the surfaces converging. In the last five years, there have been 46 percent more aces hit on hard courts than clay, a gap that was matched only twice in a single season from 1993 to 2003.
“If surfaces are converging,” Sackmann asks, “why is there a bigger difference in aces now than there was 10, 15, or 20 years ago...? However fast or high balls are bouncing off of today’s tennis surfaces, courts just aren’t playing any less diversely than they used to. In the last 20 years, the game has changed in any number of ways, some of which can make hard-court matches look like clay-court matches and vice-versa. But with the profiles of clay and hard courts relatively unchanged over the last 20 years, it’s time for pundits to find something else to complain about.”
Let me follow up with some various thoughts on the subject:
—I don’t know enough about statistics to say whether Sackmann’s methodology is sound or faulty. But I do agree with the basic premise of his next-to-last statement: “In the last 20 years, the game has changed in any number of ways, some of which can make hard-court matches look like clay-court matches and vice-versa.”
Over the long run, the sport has become more-baseline oriented, and uniform, because of the rise of two-handed backhands; the use of Westernized forehand grips, which make hitting with topspin easier but volleying more difficult; and the invention of more powerful racquets that allow players to hit winners from the baseline on a regular basis. With baseline tennis ascendant everywhere, speed, stamina, consistency, and defense—which have always led to success on clay—have become just as crucial on all courts. Even if courts have been slowed, those factors would still more important in the game’s transformation. (In my opinion, serve-and-volleyers could still be successful if, from the beginning, they used one-handed backhands and devoted themselves to rushing the net.)
—From what I can tell, Heavy Topspin’s stats are taken only from the men’s side. Among players and pundits and fans in general, surface speed is talked about almost exclusively in terms of its effects on the ATP. But the women’s game has changed in similar ways over the decades. Whether the surfaces have contributed to the shift or not, two-handed backhands and baseline tennis rule the WTA as well.
—What about Wimbledon? Sackmann claims there isn’t enough data to say anything about changes in grass courts. We know that Wimbledon went to a different turf in 2001; All England officials say that the pace of shot hasn’t changed, but the bounce is higher now.
—It’s difficult to generalize about court speed. It varies not just from one event to the other, but from one court to the next. Last year at the U.S. Open, it was generally agreed that Armstrong was playing quickly, while Ashe was playing more slowly.
—How about the players? Most believe, if only vaguely, that the courts are slower than they once were. After his loss to Novak Djokovic at the World Tour Finals last year, Roger Federer said that tournaments slowed the surfaces to give the Big 4 a better chance of going deep in their events. I don’t know whether that's true or not. Krajicek’s decision to slow the court in Rotterdam had to do with giving ticket-buyers more time for their money. I’d also say that the player who most tournament directors would want in their final is still Federer, and he likes a faster court.
Players are as suggestible and self-interested as anyone, and we shouldn’t take their word as gospel, even on this subject. Most of today’s pros have no idea what surfaces played like in, say, 1995. But you can’t dismiss what they or their retired colleagues believe, either. Today’s veteran players, whatever their preconceived notions may be, would know the answer to this question better than anyone.
—Whether the courts are slower, or less varied, than they used to be isn’t the point. The point is whether their current speed has helped make the sport, on both the ATP and WTA sides, too homogenized. I'd say that more variety in playing style should be encouraged, however we can do it. While I wouldn’t want to return to the bad-bounce days at Wimbledon, making hard courts faster could lead to more exciting, attacking, baseline-oriented tennis in the short run. In the long run, it might even inspire a young player to come to the net. But someone will still have to teach him what to do once he's up there.