Green With Envy

by: Steve Tignor | June 21, 2015

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Wimbledon is a tennis tournament, and a summer vacation for the eyes. (AP)

While I was walking on a Brooklyn street a few summers ago, my eye was caught by something beautiful and familiar inside a ground-floor apartment. It wasn’t a painting or a flower or a vintage piece of furniture. It was a flat-screen TV. More precisely, it was what was glowing so warmly from that TV: An arena of green, in subtle gradations, filling every inch. 

At the center was a grass lawn made faintly amber by the late-afternoon light. Around the edges were the stadium’s walls, painted a deeper forest color. Two players were running and tumbling on the grass. The immaculate white of their clothes was matched by the long strip of tape at the top of the net. The posts at the side of that net were gold. 

I stopped only for a second or two, but it was enough to recognize that this carefully organized tapestry of tones was a scene from Centre Court. There are many appealing aspects to Wimbledon, but the most powerful is how it radiates, in a soothing way, out of a television set. It’s a tennis tournament, and a summer vacation for the eyes. 

To fans in the U.S., Wimbledon’s look is elegant but exotic. For us, actually playing on grass is usually a pipe dream. For years, I imagined it, but couldn't find a patch of turf where my sneakers were permitted to step. As a junior, I was scheduled to play a team event on grass at a club in Rye, NY, but on the way there it rained, and we ended up indoors. Years later, in London, I was scheduled to hit a few balls at Queen’s Club. Again it rained, as it tends to do there. The grass is greener in England, I learned, because it’s too wet for anyone to play on.

But while playing tennis on grass is still an aspirational activity, the good news is that watching it has become a little more common, and a lot more enjoyable. Traditionalists still decry Wimbledon’s 2001 shift to a perennial rye grass; since then, the ball has bounced higher and truer at the All England Club, and turned the last stomping ground of the serve-and-volleyer into another baseliner’s haven. 

Is that so bad? In place of glorified rock fights between power servers, we’ve been treated to a decade’s worth of epic matches. Once considered a relic from another era, grass offers the best of both worlds to today’s pros: It’s reliable enough to rally on, yet slick enough to reward aggressive play. Anyone can be successful there, which is only fitting for the game’s de facto world championship. 

This has led to a call for more grass tournaments. In 2015, that call has finally begun to be heeded: The ATP’s Stuttgart event has switched from dirt to turf, Queen's and Halle have been upgraded from 250s to 500s, and there are three weeks between the French Open and Wimbledon, instead of two—it feels, oddly, like an eternity. Is it enough time to squeeze a big dual-gender event between the Slams someday?

Thinking closer to home, is it possible that more grass tennis could grow in the United States? Newport hosts the only tournament on the surface, during the difficult week after Wimbledon. 

Golf and baseball have profited by maintaining their connections to historic venues like Augusta National and Wrigley Field. It may be too late for tennis to do the same, but Wimbledon’s popularity has always made me believe that it's possible. It’s easy to imagine fans being drawn to a well-promoted tournament held on grass in a retro-style stadium. Tennis, in its rush to make itself colorful enough for TV, has long neglected its green-and-white past, but Wimbledon shows that embracing that past makes economic, as well as aesthetic, sense.

For now, we should ignore the nostalgists and enjoy the grass renaissance. We should also be thankful that Wimbledon never listened to its 1990s-era critics and replaced its turf with Deco-Turf. The grass may be greener on the other side of the pond, but at least we get to see it glow.

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