Bad Day for Grass

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Wimbledon’s mystique took something of a hit when the All England Club more or less capitulated to critics—or was it “evolution”?—and slowed down the grass courts to enable longer rallies and fewer serve-and-volley battles in which few points lasted more than three or four touches.

That mystique may be back, but not in a good way—and certainly not in the same way. That’s the takeaway after one of the most downright bizarre and sobering days at the granddaddy of all Grand Slams, a day during which seven players either threw in the towel before a ball was hit or were forced to retire during play. They weren’t pikers either, not by any means. Here’s the list (plus one), and a casualty update:

Victoria Azarenka, No. 2 seed: She slipped on the court and sustained a knee injury in her first-rounder, but soldiered on to win. Today, however, she couldn’t start against Flavia Pennetta.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 6 seed: Tsonga won the first set, then lost the next two to Ernests Gulbis. He pulled the plug after the third set because of a sore tendon in one of his knees.

Caroline Wozniacki, No. 9 seed: She “overstretched” her left foot in the fourth game of the second set, and while she finished the match (losing to Petra Cetkovska, 6-2, 6-2), her mobility was impaired. She left Wimbledon thoroughly bummed out and worried about her fitness for the hard-court segment:

“It’s frustrating because I felt like I have some momentum,” she said. “I felt like I’m hitting the ball well, I can play well on the grass. There’s not really much you can do about those things (injuries).”

Marin Cilic, No. 10 seed: Cilic has had problems with his left knee since Queen’s Club, and while it held up pretty well in his first match, the pain intensified over the past 48 hours and by this morning he could barely put weight on the leg. He decided to withdraw.

“I felt great with my game, felt that I played very, very good tennis (at Queen's, two weeks ago, where he lost to Andy Murray in the final). I played here a very, very good first-round match (d. Baghdatis in three sets). I was really happy with my form.”

John Isner, No. 18 seed: Serving the third point of the match against Adrian Mannarino of France, Isner came down on his left leg after striking the ball (“like I have done 20 million times before,” he said later) and felt a bolt of pain shoot through his knee. A trainer worked on it, but Isner quit the match at 1-1 in the first set.

Like Wozniacki, Isner saw a great chance evaporate right before his eyes. “Rafa had lost in my eighth of the draw and Lleyton (Hewitt) had beaten (Stan) Wawrinka. I know that group. I was the highest seeded player on a surface that I’m tough to beat on, given how well I can serve and how much I can hold serve. That’s very disappointing. It’s tough to think about. I had a good chance to go pretty far here.”

Radek Stepanek, ATP No. 46: Retired with a left leg/thigh injury while trailing Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz, 6-2, 5-3.

Yaroslava Shvedova, WTA No. 55: Withdrew before her match with Petra Kvitova because of a sore arm.

Steve Darcis, ATP No. 110: In what might have been the cruelest blow of them all, the spirited Belgian who upset Rafael Nadal in the first round woke up the following day with his right shoulder so sore he saw no option but to pull out.

Darcis injured the shoulder while diving for a ball in the second set of his match with Nadal, but it didn’t bother him at all until the shoulder cooled down. “After the match, a few hours after, I start to feel so much pain,” he reported this morning. “I couldn’t sleep the night. I saw the physio, the doctor, yesterday. No chance I can play. I mean, I cannot serve. Even on the forehand side, I cannot hit a ball.”

Note that among these casualties, only Azarenka and Wozniacki (and perhaps Stepanek) could blame the slick courts for their misfortune. Darcis did his shoulder in while diving for the ball, Tsonga and Cilic had pre-existing conditions, and Shvedova’s plight was unrelated to the turf—unless you want to count the toll taken by having to hit relatively heavy balls on cold, humid days. Even Isner was reluctant to criticize the courts.

“I don’t think the surface had anything to do with it,” Isner said. “If I was playing on clay, same thing would have happened. It’s just something, with the force of me landing on my leg. I don’t know. It’s bizarre.”

But there’s no doubt that the courts, while always slick before they start to take their customary pounding during the fortnight, seem especially slippery this year. They claimed another victim in No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova, who was spared injury but was just as definitively discharged from the tournament, beaten in straight sets by WTA No. 131 Michelle Larcher de Brito.

Sharapova refused to blame the slick grass for the loss, rightly pointing out that the footing was equally bad for Larcher de Brito. But she was clearly distracted by the slippery footing and, after falling over for the third time, she looked at the umpire and complained that the court was “dangerous.”

Grass-court conspiracy theorists—who came out in force today—had a field day, as did most of the pundits and television commentators. Here’s a sampling:

Brad Gilbert speculated that perhaps the cold, wet weather this spring had kept the grass from growing properly (forgetting, I suppose, that the Wimbledon courts are actually mowed for weeks before the tournament). Chris Evert surmised that a wet fall and cold winter had left Wimbledon’s grass with a surfeit of moisture, causing the slippery conditions. John McEnroe wondered if the unusually slick conditions weren’t somehow related to the fact that Wimbledon also hosted the Olympic Games last year, putting that much more stress on the courts—and leaving them that much less time (five weeks) to recover.

I liked Evert’s theory best, although Darren Cahill made a particularly astute observation. He said that the players have been moving on the grass as if it were a hard court, and on hard courts they’re accustomed to anchoring the leg with which they step into a shot. On the grass, that leg and foot are much more likely to slide and act in an unstable fashion.

What Cahill did not say, but probably meant, is that the slowing of the grass courts at Wimbledon has created the illusion that the courts now play like medium-pace hard courts—and the pros are playing as if that were the case.

In some ways the comparison is valid, but in others it is not. The bounce on grass is still lower than on any other surface, and the court is obviously spongier and more likely to change depending on the ambient conditions than a cement-based or even a clay court. Getting to those low bouncing balls and changing direction on the slick surface clearly calls for different responses by the athletes.

The players may be forgetting or ignoring that, and a few noted that with Wimbledon following so closely on the heels of the French Open, they have scant little time to perfect their footing. Thus, the treacherous footing may be less of a grass-court problem than a calendar problem. That may be true, but most of the players have sufficient time to adapt—Nadal being the great exception this year. It’s hard to imagine that some ATP or WTA pandemic has seduced and led most of the pros into abandoning that obvious and oft-noted need to make changes in footwork and the way the ball is addressed on grass.

Let’s face it, drawing any hard and fast conclusions about one day is risky. The All England Club issued a statement earlier Wednesday denying any variation in the way the courts were prepared, or in the way they appeared to be playing, leading up to the tournament. That’s important, mostly because it undermines the idea that this rash of injuries and the generally poor footing experienced by most is somehow a new thing, or one related directly to some change in the way the courts are made or groomed.

If the current crisis is related to the slowing of the courts in recent years, you have to wonder: Why didn’t this happen last year? Or the year before that? The courts have been slower since 2002. More likely, as a living, breathing feature of the natural world, grass is subject to dramatic changes and responses to the general ambiance. Anyone who has ever watched the glistening dew evaporate in the morning sun can tell you that.

Tsonga assigned most of the blame for the treacherous conditions to the weather. “No, there is nothing about these courts. They’re great. About the only thing we can say is the weather we have since couple of weeks has been humid and cold and windy sometimes. For myself, the weather is not that good to play tennis. And I think for all the joint(s), it’s not really good.”

Others continued to trot out other theories and notions, although I kind of like what Sharapova said when she was asked to opine on the grass at Wimbledon this year. “I’m not sure (why the court is so slick). I’m not a groundsman. I’ve never really worked on grass courts before.”

Let’s just clarify—she hasn’t worked on them with a trowel and hoe, anyway. She’s always labored with a racquet, and it’s generally been a profitable enterprise.

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