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Wimbledown: After a terrifying Tuesday on Centre Court, Novak Djokovic falls frequently in otherwise routine win
"I thought it was pretty dangerous," said one player about the conditions. With a series of high-profile injuries, the endangered playing surface was the topic of discussion at its venerable home.
Published Jun 30, 2021
WATCH: An ASMR video of Serena Williams' footwork, from the 2021 Roland Garros tournament.
Novak Djokovic’s preparation for Wimbledon, where he is vying to win both his third consecutive tournament title and third consecutive Grand Slam trophy, was unorthodox. For one, the runaway No. 1 played the week before The Championships, something top-ranked players almost never do. While the compressed, two-week interval between Roland Garros and Wimbledon likely influenced Djokovic’s decision to enter the Mallorca Open—along with a tennis club he opened nearby—he also played doubles at the ATP 250 event, reaching the final with Carlos Gómez-Herrera before an injury to the Spaniard forced a withdrawal.
The work trip to the Spanish island didn’t exactly sit well with Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. A former Wimbledon champion, Ivanisevic knows his way around the All England Club’s lawns as well as anyone, and he told Sasa Ozmo of Tennis Majors that, in his opinion, “we should not be playing the tournament because the grass at Wimbledon is very different as compared to the one in Mallorca.”
While Ivanisevic added that Wimbledon’s pandemic protocols and Djokovic’s early start as defending champion were other reasons he would have eschewed Mallorca, the surface comment struck me on Wednesday, as the Serbian reprised his 2018 final with Kevin Anderson. It was a day after Serena Williams retired from the tournament after slipping on Centre Court, a day after Roger Federer benefited from Adrian Mannarino’s similarly unfortunate fall, and the same day that Djokovic tumbled all over the esteemed patch of turf—before nonetheless dispatching Kevin Anderson, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
Maybe it’s just the moment we’re in—the NBA playoffs have been riddled with big-name injuries, though those happened on hard courts—but seeing Djokovic lose his footing time and again made me cringe, even though he’s slipped on the sometimes-slick surface many times before. His footwork is a blessing, but while grass can accentuate his propensity to glide across the baseline and slide into his shots, he can be penalized through no fault of his own.
“Definitely had a very close contact with the grass in the first match and also in the second one,” said Djokovic on Wednesday. “A few falls, maybe more than I would like. But I don't think it's about courts. Obviously it was raining for few days. Maybe first match under roof, the humidity affects the moist, the kind of surface of the grass, and it becomes a bit more slippery than in normal circumstances.
“But I think the fact that I didn’t play on grass courts for two years, the fact that I’m coming from several months of clay-court [play] that is a surface completely different in terms of movement and bounce and everything to the grass, the surface in which you slide at all times, I think I’m still adjusting my movement, adapting myself to this surface.”
Shortly after Djokovic’s win, Nick Kyrgios and Ugo Humbert were embroiled in a fifth set on No. 1 Court. At 6-6, Kyrgios make a quick cut to his left to try to return a shot—and went down in a heap.
As Kyrgios writhed on the ground, ESPN commentator James Blake said, under his breath as if he didn’t want to admit it, “We’re seeing just far too much of this.” (Kyrgios’ audible response was a four-letter word that begins with an “F,” but wasn’t “Fall.”)
Today I thought it was fine, it was not slippery, but like, I didn’t want to go and play yesterday in the evening—I thought it was pretty dangerous. Anastasija Sevastova
There aren’t many names in tennis bigger than Serena, Roger and Novak—and in most lines of work, concerns from the upper echelon have a way of trickling down to everyone else. In light of a tumultuous Tuesday, did Djokovic feel anxious before his second-rounder?
“I didn’t have Serena's retirement and Mannarino’s retirement in my head, to be honest, today, even though that’s very sad to see,” Djokovic said. “I can’t speak on behalf of the other players, whether they feel the courts are maybe a bit more slippery than maybe previous years.”
Elina Svitolina waited two years and two days to play her first-round match at Wimbledon, with her opener postponed until Wednesday due to inclement weather. She wasn’t concerned about the surface, though she did consult with her boyfriend, Gael Monfils, about the conditions.
“He told me it’s a bit slippery,” said the No. 3 seed, who won in three sets over Magda Linette, “but to be fair, I’m sure Wimbledon wouldn’t allow [us] to play on the court if the court would be in any danger for player.”
Anastasija Sevastova, who reached the quarterfinals of the Eastbourne tune-up and also played her first-round match on Wimbledon on Wednesday—she defeated Zarina Diyas, 6-4, 6-1—didn’t want any part of the grass on Tuesday, after seeing what happened on Centre Court.
“Today I thought it was fine, it was not slippery, but like, I didn’t want to go and play yesterday in the evening—I thought it was pretty dangerous,” the 56th-ranked Latvian said. “I saw a lot of players like struggling to move, and thought yesterday in the evening, it was really slippery and dangerous for us.”
Ever since the 1970s, when the US Open moved from leafy Forest Hills to loud Flushing Meadows—and the playing surface changed from grass to hard courts—tennis’ original battleground has slowly disappeared. In 1988, the Australian Open left for greener pastures in its move from the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club to Melbourne Park, boasting a new, bouncier hard surface—Rebound Ace—to go with the game’s first retractable roof. (“From what I’ve seen so far,” Martina Navratilova said, “they’ve thought of everything.”)
Thirty-three years later, grass-court tournaments have nearly been eradicated from the tennis calendar. The cost to maintain the temperamental courts is high; the slightest bit of rain renders them unplayable; and despite calls from many fans and players for a 1000-level tournament on grass, none has surfaced. While many bemoan the fading importance of grass, it remains the stage of the sport’s most prestigious tournament—even if it wasn’t enough to compel Rafael Nadal to play it this year.
It’s hard to envision grass’ place in the professional tour growing. But it will always have Wimbledon, and the small swing of turf tournaments that precede it should continue to serve as a pro tennis niche. Though even that could be in question, given that Wimbledon recently did away with its grass-court seeding formula. In a normal tennis season, the elimination of this longstanding adjustment to the men’s tournament would have been bigger news, except that there were far greater concerns in 2020.
“Given the quality of competition, entertainment and modern grass courts, following detailed discussion with the player groups, the AELTC has decided that the grass-court seeding formula used since 2002 has served its time,” read a statement from the All England Club. “The Championships 2021 seeding for the Gentlemen’s singles draw will be based solely on ranking. There will be no change to the method of seeding for the Ladies’ singles draw.”
In response to the rash of slips on the surface, and in particular Williams’ retirement, the All England Club issued another statement, about its courts, saying that their preparation “has been to exactly the same meticulous standard as in previous years.”
As Rod Laver, the last men’s player to win a calendar-year Grand Slam, completed the quartet at the US Open, he did so wearing spiked tennis shoes. Before his final against Tony Roche, “It had been raining for several days, and the courts were slippery and soft,” The Rocket recalled to TENNIS Magazine in 2015. “At one point that week they had a helicopter flying low over the court to dry them out. I don’t know that it worked.
“I had spikes in my bag, because in Australia you always just expected there would be some rain, and that you would then go back out on the court when you could … I was able to maneuver the ball much better with better footing.”
Don’t count on seeing Djokovic wearing spiky sneakers this fortnight, though in his quest for his own calendar-year Slam, which of course requires victory at Wimbledon, he would do well to take this part of Laver’s strategy: It’s not always the nicest conditions, so you have to be ready to play under bad conditions as well. You have to make the best of what you’ve got.
“Hopefully as the tournament progresses I'll also fall less,” Djokovic said on Wednesday, before smiling and adding, “even though I don't mind falling more if the result is winning a match.”