Grass, the Lost Civilization

Friday, June 14, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

LONDON—Lleyton Hewitt couldn’t have come up with a more appropriate shot to close out his quarterfinal win over Juan Martin del Potro today. Behind a skimming slice approach, the 32-year-old father of three moved in and knocked off what looked like the simplest of volleys. The ball came high to his forehand, and he did little more than put his racquet up and block it down the line. Del Potro had expected Hewitt to go cross-court, and like so many players on this slippery surface before him, he had no chance to reverse course once he’d been wrong-footed. Hewitt’s shot may have been simple, but it was also the intelligent choice of a longtime grass-court lover and expert.

I mention this shot not, primarily, to praise Rusty, though Friday was one of the finest of this four-time Queen’s champ’s periodic returns to glory. Instead, I mention his winning volley in order to praise the surface that Hewitt loves so much, and the subtle style of tennis that it can inspire, and require. Today’s performances by Hewitt and his fellow surprise semifinalist here, Marin Cilic, were enough to make me mourn the lost civilization of grass all over again. 

Hewitt’s last winner could be described as a “control shot,” which is something we don’t see much of in tennis these days. At least we didn’t see many of them through the clay season that occupied us all spring. On dirt there are offensive, defensive, and touch shots; for the most part, all of them are hit with as much spin and racquet-head speed as possible. So this week it has come as a surprise to see the men at Queen’s mixing in balls that aren’t hit with maximum spin or speed or power. Grass gives you less time, and less predictability, than other surfaces; while its quality has improved over the years, you still never know when a ball will flat line, jump straight at you, or die in the weeds. If clay is exhausting from a stamina perspective, grass is draining from a watching-the-ball perspective. Especially on a windy day like today, you have to work a little harder to make contact in the right spot.

Yesterday on a swirling Court 2, Alexandr Dolgopolov, who has one of the most elaborate forehands of anyone, cried out in frustration that he had no idea where the ball was going to go next—his contact point could be anywhere on any given shot. In these cases a simple block, with nothing fancy on it, no extra spin or pace or grand ambitions, is often the smartest play. With the right placement, the grass can do the rest. These shots mostly go unnoticed on TV, but I’ve enjoyed seeing them up close at Queen’s. Even Dolgo adjusted and had success with simple slices and blocks down the middle of the court—until he imploded all over again because of an overrule.

Today it was Cilic and Hewitt who let the court help them the most. Cilic’s quarterfinal with Tomas Berdych was textbook modern grass tennis. It was played from the baseline, but with preemptive aggression. These two tall-ballers—each is 6’5” and not known for his speed—took the earliest openings possible. Depth was rewarded and anything short was punished. Serves didn’t need to clip the line to earn a free point; a nice, biting slice out wide in the deuce court was typically good enough. Cilic’s ground strokes, which often hang dully at mid-court, sped through instead. His finest moment, like Hewitt’s, came at the net. Late in the second set, Cilic held serve by approaching down the line and blocking a backhand volley down the line. It didn’t have much pace, and it didn’t cross the service line. Yet Berdych, despite some fine flailing and scrambling, couldn’t catch up to it. There was a pleasure in watching Cilic do exactly what was necessary and nothing more, a pleasure at least equivalent to watching another player win a point with a 100-M.P.H. forehand. Used properly, grass rewards restraint.

In this, as in other ways, it feels like a lost way of tennis life. There was a time when the modern game appeared to have passed grass by, but things have come full circle in the last decade. The sport is now at its most varied and dynamic when its played on a quick, slippery, easily torn lawn, a boutique surface used for just one month each season. 

It’s a lost civilization that deserves to be revived and expanded, but if anything, my trip to Queen’s has made that harder for me to imagine. When Wimbledon announced last year that it was moving back a week starting in 2015, it had seemed possible that a Masters event on grass could be squeezed in after the French Open. Unfortunately, one of the few ready made locations for it would be Queen’s, but it’s difficult to see a venue this cramped, as charming as it is, handling an event that size.

Tennis, I’m afraid, will never get its Camden Yards, the retro stadium in Baltimore that gave baseball a visible and emotional link to its past, and whose sold-out crowds quickly inspired every city with a team to imitate it. Grass-court tennis doesn’t have to be a one-month nostalgia trip. The simple pleasure of a Lleyton Hewitt volley, and victory, proved it again today. Rust, and grass, never really get old.

******

Speaking of lost civilizations, I saw and heard another from my press seats in the stadium today. A few yards away, as Hewitt and del Potro ran each other around through the late afternoon, lunch was in full swing in the Queen's Club's dining room. This being the first sunny day here in some time, the festivities naturally spilled outdoors and into the stands in front of me. Pitchers of cocktails appeared and were passed from row to row and member to member. A young lady took her shoes off and let her hair down. The laughter grew louder all around. A woman to my left, watching del Potro chase down a Hewitt lob, told her husband with a giggle that he “looked like a blind giraffe.” In these quarters, this is what’s known as getting rowdy.

Soon, though, as 4:00 P.M. drew near, the laughter turned to a low hum of impatience. Hewitt and del Potro appeared to have worn out their welcome among a club member of two—after all, Andy Murray was supposed to be on now, right? As the second set drew to a close, another woman, to my right this time, said, “Oh, good, it’s almost time for tea.” 

Her husband looked at her and smiled. “Well, there is one more set to go.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s two out of three sets.”

“Not for me, it isn’t. It’s time for tea.” A few seconds after del Potro had won the second set, she was up and bustling her way toward the club’s café.

For much of this match, four well-dressed, middle-aged men sat in front of me, sipping cocktails and bantering in a way that sounded highly urbane to my American ears. I assumed they were Queen’s members, and began to imagine their lives, their expensive cars and ski trips and...I don’t know what I imagined they did exactly, but I knew it had to be tremendous, and enviable. Why couldn't I have a life like that?

So it was with a good deal of surprise that, midway the third set, I watched as an usher walked up to their row and informed them that they had to leave. A short argument ensued, before the usher said, firmly, “I’m asking you to leave. Can I see your tickets?”

“We don’t have any,” one of the men blurted as they stood up to go. They had, from what I could tell, snuck in. It was the best thing I saw all day.

*****

Cilic Photo: Anita Aguilar

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