Uncomfortable Questions: Grass Stain

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Today, we’ll take a look at the way Wimbledon has “evolved” in our “Uncomfortable Questions” series. Think of these daily posts as posing questions that nobody wants—or thinks—to ask in the midst of all those animated conversations about the favorite sons and daughters as Wimbledon approaches. Today, I’ll ask:

Was it a mistake for Wimbledon to slow down the grass?

The conventional wisdom in tennis has always been that slower courts produce more rallies, and more rallies provide more enjoyment for spectators. This may be true, but there are a few byproducts associated with slowing down the courts to the point where we are now approaching de facto standardization. It diminishes the pool of potential champions and contenders, and it also promotes a specific style of play. Or maybe I should say that it has wrecked what once was a fairly robust palette of competitive styles that seemed to guarantee a greater diversity in results.

Since 2004, one or another of the men’s “Big Four” has won 35 of the 38 Grand Slam events, and their record in Masters 1000 events is even more impressive. Since 2005, only 12 of the 77 Masters titles went to someone outside that group. Kudos to Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal, but there’s a kind of sameness at work in their superiority, too. We don’t really have a dominant player, nor even a dominant rivalry (although Djokovic-Nadal shows signs of becoming that). We have four guys who are that much better than anyone else, and the uniformly slow surfaces tend to reinforce their stranglehold for the simple reason that slower courts allow better players more time to adapt to and counter opponents who are in the proverbial “zone,” or able to harness superior power.

That isn’t entirely a good thing, and it represents a departure from the thinking that gave us the pro game the way it’s played today. Time ago, we had specialists on clay and experts on grass and indoor carpet in the mix, and styles as diverse as dogged baseline grinding and kamikaze serve-and-volley—and everything in between. The surfaces used on the 11-month pro calendar offered something to practitioners of every style. It was essential to the very idea of a world tour, which partly sought to test the players on all surfaces under all conditions. That has changed dramatically.

The move to slower surfaces, along with technology-driven changes—including variations in racquet-head size and string and frame materials—have empowered a specific style based on, ideally, a big serve, a powerful forehand (as I wrote the other day), and great defensive skills. This creates a self-selecting group, and it highlights an odd byproduct of the enormous trend toward standardization. The guy we think of as “the champ” has to fight for his reputation every day; he’s got to take on everyone, from Alejandro Falla to Fabio Fognini, to maintain his status.

This is sort of like making the heavyweight champion fight everybody who’s on the undercard on any given fight night, and it lends credibility to claims, made most vociferously by Nadal, that the ranking system is flawed and the players are chained to a wheel that doesn’t stop for anyone. Let’s put it simply: How many times does Rafa have to win Monte Carlo anyway? But the system continues to generate revenue (don’t ever, ever underestimate how much importance people attach to that, even as they criticize) because the appetite for tennis is great and the world is still big enough so that once you finally make your way around, you might as well start all over again.

What’s gone missing, though, is what you might call the “local” angle that used to be fairly important in tennis. North American or British players no longer tread softly when they arrive in mainland Europe, knowing that Spanish and Italian clay-court grinders with loosely strung racquets and calf muscles like giant bratwursts lie in wait. The American cement courts that gave birth to that awesome weapon, the “cannonball” serve (a specialty of Ellsworth Vines), are no longer lightning-slick. And in 2002, when Wimbledon introduced its new slower, higher-bouncing courts, it essentially shut out the player who was once a fixture at the tournament, the lanky giant with the live arm who made spectators ooh and aaah at the sight of his serve—and caused rivals to tremble in their lily whites.

Oh, there are a few men around who could still play that role—John Isner and Jerzy Janowicz come to mind—but Wimbledon used to produce more stunning upsets than it does now, and that isn’t just because the Big Four are so good. It’s also because the surface is no longer the equalizer it once was.

The only real stunner in recent years was Lukas Rosol’s upset of Nadal in the second round last year. I don’t care how much Nadal’s knees hurt in that one; it’s obvious that Rosol basically blasted him off the court with groundstrokes the likes of which we haven’t seen since. I don’t think it would hurt the game at all to have at least one of the Big Four smacked down before the first week is out this year as well.

Of course, we still had that astonishing 183-game win by Isner over Nicolas Mahut a few years ago, to testify to the fact that the big cannon has not been entirely silenced at Wimbledon. And the reality is that two men with particular grass-court skills, even on today’s slower courts, have dominated at Wimbledon over the past two decades: Federer and Pete Sampras. What appears to have changed, though, is the number of players capable of challenging the elite players, recording monumental upsets, or playing ultra-aggressive serve-and-volley tennis.

You can put that change down to the fact that there’s no percentage in pursuing that attacking game anymore, which Federer himself has said. Sampras changed to a one-handed backhand with the express purpose of winning Wimbledon (it may not have been as brilliant a decision as it once seemed), and Pat Rafter once hoped to serve-and-volley his way to the title on Centre Court. But nobody out there is creating a game for the greatest tournament of them all anymore, because the greatest tournament of them all no longer rewards certain skills as it once did, and those skills, while still marginally helpful at Wimbledon, don’t do you nearly much good at other events.

Give Wimbledon credit. It’s managed to maintain tradition with little apparent change over the years, thereby sustaining a reputation as the ultimate tennis tournament, the tournament that still matters the most in the eyes of most people. Meanwhile, much has changed, from the signage on Centre Court to the scoreboards that were once operated manually from the inside by human beings. And much has changed in how the game is played on the emerald hued lawns, much of it for the better for spectators, some of it for the worst when it comes to maintaining a diversity of styles as well as a diversity of champions.

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