It’s no secret that the All England Club’s pristine grass courts have slowed down substantially over the years. The 2002 edition of Wimbledon marked the initial shift towards a slower speed, and the results were immediately apparent.
One year after the 2001 instant-classic men’s final between serving stars Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter, the men’s final featured two baseliners, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian. This was the first Wimbledon final of its kind, and it was a sign of things to come.
Now, it seems the courts are slower than ever, and the players have taken notice.
Eight-time champion Roger Federer was quick to sound off on Centre Court's slower speed after his opening-round victory over Lloyd Harris.
“I just felt like it was slow, I couldn’t really have any impact,” he said. “I don’t think I had an ace in the first two sets maybe.”
Federer even went as far as saying Wimbledon is no longer the fastest-playing Grand Slam tournament.
“I definitely think Wimbledon has not been the fastest overall. If you look at rally length, US Open is shorter rallies on average than Wimbledon. That tells you the story a little bit.”
American Denis Kudla, who is something of a grass-court specialist, was shocked by the court speed this year.
"Everyone thinks it's how big your serve is and coming to net; it's really the opposite. It's returners and movers who win on grass. This is definitely the slowest Slam, by far. These courts are so slow right now it's crazy." -Denis Kudla, a grass lover, on #Wimbledon— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) July 1, 2019
Belinda Bencic, who triumphed as a junior in 2013 and excels on quick courts, also noticed a shift from her previous appearances.
“I think the grass is higher,” she said in her press conference Tuesday. “I remember the serve was more effective the years before. Now it's like everybody can return it, just like on a hard court.”
The slower pace will reward elite returners who can handle the powerful serves that are muted by the court speed. Italy's Thomas Fabbiano, 5' 7'', has already taken out two of the games' biggest servers, Stefanos Tstitsipas and Ivo Karlovic, in consecutive five-setters.
Novak Djokovic, arguably the game’s greatest returner, appears to be the real winner. Anything can happen, but on a grass court that plays like a hard court, Djokovic will be close to unbeatable.
American Sloane Stephens, who has historically struggled on grass, welcomes the change of pace.
“I played on the grounds earlier in the week," she said. "I thought they were super, super slow.”
Karolina Pliskova, who has averaged over seven aces per match in 2019, seemed disappointed with the court speed after her first-round victory.
“The ball just stays, doesn't really go," she sais. "It doesn't really slide. Even for the serve, I thought if I still hit good serve, you can still have a point. It was more rallies than I thought there was going to be."
Reilly Opelka, who won the junior tournament in 2015 and shocked Stan Wawrinka in five sets on Wednesday, could hardly believe how much conditions have changed, saying, “This year Wimbledon is playing as slow as I have ever seen a grass court.”
The points are longer and the rallies offer entertainment, but it remains a mystery why a tournament so steeped in tradition insists on drastically changing its signature surface.