Surface Matter

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MELBOURNE—The spirit of former U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to hover over the players’ pre-tournament press conferences here this weekend. According to Rumsfeld's famous formulation, the mysteries of life and war can be classed as “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and, murkiest of all, “unknown unknowns.” By the time Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray were finished with their interviews on Saturday, I was starting to think that their main topic of discussion, court speed, belonged in the last category. 

When it comes to surface pace, it's like Rummy said: “There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

After a week or so of practice at Melbourne Park, Nadal, Federer, and Murray all believed they knew how quickly the Plexicushion here was playing. The trouble is, they all knew different things.

“Faster conditions that I ever played here in Australia,” said Nadal, who was worried that his baseline style wouldn't work here this time. “I don’t know why the people who decide to make the conditions that fast.”

By the time Rafa was finished talking about it, he sounded like a poor schmoe ranked No. 150 rather than No. 1. "They decide," he said, "and I'm just a player trying to be competitive from the beginning."

Federer dismissed Nadal's concerns. “It’s a little bit faster than last year,” he said, “But not a whole lot.” Federer even tried to calm his old friend and rival down. 

“I don’t know what the big problem is,” Federer said when he heard Rafa's comments. “Really can still play from the baseline, no problem. You can stay back, return from the back. You can do all that stuff if you want to.”

Finally, Murray arrived to set his elders straight. 

“Same as last year,” he said without hesitation when asked about the surface speed. “Exactly the same. Same balls. Same speed. Laver is a little bit faster than Hisense.”

Today, the fourth member of the Big 4, Novak Djokovic, echoed both Federer and Murray.

"For me," Djokovic said, "the court, Rod Laver Arena, is the same like last year. Last year it was slightly faster comparing to the years before, but no major difference."

There are, by my calculation, three possible reasons for the discrepancy. 

First, Nadal didn’t play in Melbourne in 2013. Last year Federer said basically the same thing about the courts here, that they were a little bit faster than they had been in 2012, especially Laver. Put two years of incremental increase together and the speed may have been a surprise to Rafa.

Second, it’s not that easy to isolate the effects of the court itself. Ball speed, temperature, wind, and the opponent’s shots all have their roles in the pace of play. As Federer said yesterday, “I played the other night against Jo [Tsonga]; things clearly slowed down in the nighttime. It’s not going to be 40 degrees [104 Fahrenheit] at nighttime either, so the ball’s going to slow down.”

Third, each of these players brings his own psychology to the discussion. I’m sure Nadal believes what he says, but it’s not too much of a stretch to think that his internal worry machine is running high as the new season begins. Subconsciously, he can use an obstacle to overcome, and as the current world No. 1, none of his peers fit the bill at the moment.

Court speed, as we can see, is an elusive element of pro tennis. Neither tour measures it, though Davis Cup has a “pace rating” to ensure that home teams lay down a fair surface for their ties. Yet we constantly hear that slower surfaces have turned the men’s game into an artless war of attrition between boringly efficient baseline drones. Curiously, the same conversation is almost never had about the women’s game, even though the WTA has undergone the same transformation in playing style—from net-rushers to baseliners—as the men. That's partially because there’s a long-held sexist tradition in the sport that men’s tennis=all of tennis, but I think it’s also because the women don’t have a figure like Federer. 

There are plenty of us who want to see the courts sped up for the sake of variety and aggressiveness. But there’s also a widespread notion that Federer has been hurt the most by the slowdown. For many, the Maestro’s artful all-court style is the ideal style, “the way the game is meant to be played,” and the courts haven’t allowed him to play it. "More variety,” to these fans, is synonymous with “more Federer.”

But while it’s true that Federer would likely benefit more than his rivals from faster courts, it isn’t true that his fall from No. 1 is due to the spread of slower ones. Federer has spent virtually all of his career in the so-called slow-court era. The Australian Open went to a medium-slow surface, Rebound Ace, in 1988, a decade before he joined the tour; Wimbledon went to firmer, high-bouncing rye grass in 2001, two years before he won his first title there; and we’ve been talking about the effects of slow hard courts at U.S. tournaments since at least 2006, his best season. You don’t get to five French Open finals, as Federer has, without knowing your way around the baseline.

Federer is a transitional figure. He learned the game in an era when net-rushers and one-handed backhands were still much in evidence, then adapted to an era when they weren’t. But while surface speed was a factor in that shift, it wasn’t as crucial as the game’s longer-running evolution in equipment and technique. Light, powerful racquets, Westernized forehand grips, and two-handed backhands made ground strokes easier to hit, and volleys more difficult. So far, the two have been mutually exclusive. I can’t think of any player with a two-handed backhand who has been a natural volleyer. Murray is probably the closest; when he appeared on tour, I thought he might become a breakthrough hybrid of baseliner and net-rusher. But like everyone else, he discovered that the surest way to winning these days is to rule the baseline.

Speeding up the courts isn’t going to turn any current pro into a serve-and-volleyer overnight, but tennis should still do it at some of its tournaments. There's no question that the sport, both men's and women's versions, could use more stylistic variety; the next Murray-like talent should feel that he needs to use all of his all-court skills to win. But the Aussie Open isn’t the place to do it. It has established itself as a home to medium-slow hard courts, and naysayers to the contrary, those courts have been producing brilliant tennis for years. The time to speed things up is at the end of the year, during the U.S. hard-court and indoor seasons. Faster-paced tennis is the tradition there, one that should be brought back.

For now, I suspect that we’re going to find that the surface in Melbourne this season won’t be lightning fast. Just don’t tell Nadal that; he needs all the obstacles he can get.

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