WATCH: Highlights from Djokovic's final-round win over Kyrgios

Wimbledon has always been tennis’ most prestigious tournament. But as much as the All England Club cherishes tradition, there have come touchstone moments when it has moved boldly in the direction of major innovation, in the process dramatically altering the DNA of the entire sport.

In 1967, eager for the tournament to feature the world’s best tennis players, All England Club chairman Herman David proclaimed that beginning in 1968, Wimbledon would be open not just to amateurs, but also to pros. This revolutionary step triggered the beginning of Open tennis—the full-fledged professionalization of the game.

A more recent game-changer came in 2001, when the All England Club altered its grass surface. A mix that had been 30 percent creeping red fescue and 70 percent ryegrass became 100 percent ryegrass. The result was a grass featuring slower bounces. As Eddie Seaward, Wimbledon’s head groundskeeper, said in a 2010 New York Times article, the difference in response time between the old and the new grass was a tenth of a second. Bounces were also slightly higher and, most notable for players and spectators, more consistent.

All of that greatly altered the way tennis was played on grass. Initially, the change was jarring. The 2001 men’s final had been heavily dictated by the relentless serve-and-volley tactics of Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter. A year later, two baseliners, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, squared off in a final that featured nary a volley.

Then came the transitional avatar, Roger Federer. In 2003, the year Federer won his first of eight Wimbledon singles titles, he served-and-volleyed on 48 percent of his service points. Nine years later, when Federer lifted the champion’s trophy for the seventh time, that figure was less than ten percent.


This player-coach duo featuring two generations of Wimbledon champions has proven to fit like a glove.

This player-coach duo featuring two generations of Wimbledon champions has proven to fit like a glove.

Research conducted by strategist Craig O’Shannessy of Brain Game Tennis reveals that while serve-and-volley was deployed in nearly one-third of the points at Wimbledon in 2002, by 2018 that figured had dropped to just under seven percent.

Yet as appealing as serve-and-volley tennis can be—at least for a time —the truth was that at Wimbledon it hardly made for a viewer-friendly experience. Throughout the ‘90s, the power of the serve had often made men’s matches at Wimbledon a series of staccato-like moments. For all the drama of the ’01 Ivanisevic-Rafter “People’s Monday” final, the rallies were rarely compelling and hardly showed off the wide range of skills that had emerged in tennis over the Open Era.

The change of the grass has brought Wimbledon more in line with how tennis is played all around the world. Contemporary tennis has become an all-court game, predicated on effective groundstrokes and blazing movement. While grass still rewards its share of first-strike tactics, rallies over the last 20 years have become longer and far more eclectic. Go way back to the three straight finals Federer and Rafael Nadal played between 2006 and 2008. The ’08 one in particular—won by Nadal 9-7 in the fifth—was a carnival of speed, movement and variety that many (including me) consider the greatest match in tennis history. Look more recently at the ’19 men’s final between Federer and Novak Djokovic, won by the Serbian, 13-12 in the fifth. Within this, there remains plenty of forward movement. Earlier this week, in their recent five-set quarterfinal matches, Djokovic and Nadal came to net 39 and 36 times, respectively.

Just over 20 years ago, there were even cries that Wimbledon should get rid of grass. But that wasn’t necessary. Who’d have thought a seemingly subtle change in the composition of the lawn would have such a major impact?