Is Tennis Boring?

By Jane Voigt

May 30, 2013 -- Of course tennis isn't boring. But it could be drifting in that direction.

Tournaments used to force players to adapt to different surfaces. Grass was lightening fast. Hard courts could be fast, but nothing like grass. If a hard court had more sand in the surface materials it would be slower. If not, faster. Only red clay courts have maintained their playing consistency over the years, which is why Roland Garros remains unique. 

It all started when tournament officials decided to slow down tennis courts. 

Think back to matches between Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon. They served and volleyed at least 70% of the time when an ace didn't end a point. The courts were softer and rutted easily. If a point wasn't ended quickly, the risk of a bad bounce became more pronounced. Therefore games, sets and matches pilled up faster than cars at rush hour. As a result, viewers turned off NBC and tennis. Ratings tumbled. Revenue from ad sales went in the same direction.

So Wimbledon rethought the composition of its famous courts. They did not fool around so much with the type of grass, although they had over the decades. Instead they rolled and pounded the ground where seeds were sown three weeks before the Championships start date. This began in 2008, according to information on Wimbledon's website.

Thus, the surface slowed. Not because they changed the grass composition but because the ground underneath hardened, was smoother, reduced ruts and thus bad bounces. The lawns of Wimbledon now are similar to medium hard courts with fuzzy green beards.

Those of you who have watched Wimbledon for years can see the wear patterns and compare them. In McEnroe's and Bjorn Borg's era, the grass wore near the net. They served and volleyed so bad bounces didn't influence their game. Today, the baseline is a dust bowl by the end of the first week. The harder surface allows players to remain comfortably 'back.' Otherwise, passing shots could do them in.

The Australian Open, the youngest of the four slams, was initially played on grass, too. In 1988 Rebound Ace, a hard court made from ground tires, was introduced. It plays similarly to clay, some say. Then in 2008 it was replaced with Plexicushion, another type of hard court. When Rebound Ace heated up in the hot summer sun of Australia, it got sticky and players stumbled. It was too dangerous.  

Plexicushion is still used today at Melbourne Park. Players describe it as a medium fast hard court. The U. S. Open uses DecoTurf cushioned tennis courts. 'Cushion' is part of each brands identity. The ball effectively sinks into the surface, if just by a hair, as it will on clay … the slowest court on tour. 

The value of tennis as entertainment seems to have trumped variety and the necessity for a variety of tennis skills. 

The four Majors are not alone in their court management decisions. Tournaments at every level have followed the slams' lead. The courts at Bercy, where the Paris Masters 1000 is held in November, have gone from lightening quick to boringly slow. 

"It's discouraging to watch something like Indian Wells today," one fan told Down The Tee. "It's a hard court event, but the courts are as slow as red clay. I want to see a hard court tournament, not clay."

Couple the surface changes with space-age tennis racquet materials, poly strings, and fitness routines that demand more time than on-court practice, and you have today's tennis with longer rallies executed from the baseline. Players must be fit to withstand the grueling nature of extended play. Strategic patterns become familiar. If a player gets a short ball, the opponent comes in and puts it away. Cross court rallies form the basis for changing the ball's direction, once set up for the blast.

Longer matches have had adverse effects on players' health. The pounding, twisting, sliding, running has a toll. 

U. S. Open Champion Andy Murray pulled out of Roland Garros because of a nagging back injury. The balance between practice, work outs, tournaments, travel, nutrition, and rest must be refined. Yet no one formula is perfect. And no one formula can account for curve balls of fate.

The art of tennis has become more of a battle. And, at times, it has become a battle of attrition. Keep the ball in play. Opponents follow suit because they have not learned other tactics because they don't need them, no one plays like that anymore. Then, at some moment someone falters. 

Thank goodness what we see at Roland Garros has not changed over the decades. Even though racquets and string and fit figures negate the need to feather a shot often, the speed of the terre battue remains true to our memories.  

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013