Show at Little Respect! Slower Courts May be Popular and Profitable, But What about the Players?
By Jane Voigt
November 10, 2014 — Everybody knows that grass in faster than clay. It’s supposed to be anyway. But as the years bounce along, the distinctions in playing surfaces have flattened.
Instead of variations on spin and bounce as players move from tournament to tournament, courts now seem to be melting into one pot of mediocre, medium-speed surfaces, as if what’s under players’ feet doesn’t matter. This repetitive quality is making tennis somewhat mundane.
Gone are the fast hard courts, slick grass courts, and slow red clay courts that brought variety to tennis entertainment. They’ve been replaced with slower hard courts, red clay that plays like a hard court, and grass courts that can withstand the pounding of millions of steps along a baseline that at the end of a tournament looks more like a baseball mound — rubbed clean of green.
“The courts of Roland Garros play like a hard court,” Daniela Hantuchova said at Family Circle Cup this spring in Charleston, S.C. Andy Murray said courts at Indian Wells, “are very slow,” as they are in Miami, “They’re also very slow here,” Tennis X reported in March.
Take, for example, the last big tournament of the year — the BNP Paribas Masters 1000.
The courts in Bercy, which is outside Paris, were lightning fast not too many years ago. The tournament took on a flavor of its own because of that distinction. Fast-court aficionados shined.
But the courts in Bercy are now, as characterized by Rob Koenig on Tennis Channel, “gritty.” That means slow. The ball catches on the surface and grabs it. After a few games, the balls fluff up like a 60s bouffant hair style. Players couldn’t wait for a ball change, Koenig observed.
Ask players about court speed in their mandatory press conferences and they will tell you: It’s medium. It’s a little faster than last week. Something like that. Then, they will add, “but all of us have to adapt.”
But what’s the effect of slower courts on players?
If a court is slower, rallies last longer. If rallies last longer, then match times increase. If match times increase the stress and strain on players’ bodies increase, as well.
Although players are extremely fit, overuse injuries are the bane of maintaining a healthy body that can fulfill scheduled obligations to appear at tournaments.
Couple longer times on court with the powerful baseline game and overuse injuries expand to include wrists, hips, and backs, not just knees and shoulders, two of the most common seen on tour.
Dr. Robert Nirschl, founder of the Nirschl Orthopaedic Center in Arlington, Virginia, has conducted studies that show when muscles are weakened from overuse, “microscopic tears form in the tendon where it attaches to the epicondyle (bone).” This leads to inflammation if not treated and can lead to a chronic tendinosis. Thus, we see kinesio tape laced on players, the way spider webs clutter unkept corners.
Tennis is not on the verge of a trend of injuries that would compare to those in ‘violent’ sports, such as American football. However, the trend to slow court surfaces in order to extend rallies and increase the entertainment value to ticket holders reveals an undercurrent of decisions that could be interpreted as disrespectful toward those men and women tennis fans count on at their favorite tournaments.
Roger Federer at 33 is ranked No. 2, with a chance to be No. 1 when the year closes. Having turned pro in 1998, Federer has maintained a level of fitness that’s most accurately reflected in his 82 career titles, which is third following Jimmy Connors (109) and Ivan Lendl (94).
“I used to not enjoy it when I was younger,” Federer told Daily Motion. “I didn’t understand what I was trying to do. But, it’s part of the grind. I think it’s become a game of movement. And it’s taken a big step into fitness over the last 10 years. I truly believe I don’t lose matches because of fitness.” Pierre Paganini has trained Federer since 2000.
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) has just begun to collect data on player injuries, according to Todd Ellenbecker, vice president of medical services for the player organization.
“We started our current documentation in 2011,” Ellenbecker wrote in an email. “We are indeed looking at this [injury] variable with grass, clay, and hard court, but have nothing to share right now. Many other variables make this challenging. But, we are very happy to have a method in place to monitor tennis injuries.”
Fans may favor longer rallies. And tournaments might make more money because the entertainment value has skyrocketed. Perhaps, though, players should be considered first and foremost.