All The Same

By Jane Voigt

June 22, 2013 -- Two weeks have passed since The French Open. Players have tried to transition away from the slippery red clay to grass, since then, in preparation for the third Major of the year – The Wimbledon Championships.

In years past that transition would have been met with more trepidation. Not so now because, in the opinion of Down The Tee, court surfaces play much the same around the world, at ATP and WTA tournaments and even at the four Grand Slams. These days, the ball seems to bounce the same whether on green clay, red clay, hard courts, rubber courts or the lovely lawns of Wimbledon.

Wimbledon and tennis writers will promote ‘grass specialists' over the fortnight. They will label Jamie Hampton one. The American qualifier upset fifth-seed Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals at Eastbourne a couple days ago for her third top-ten win. 

Fans, too, will recollect memories of those standouts from the 20th Century: Pete Sampras, Rod Laver, Martina Navratilova. No matter the depth of the nostalgic ‘real grass-court tennis,’ sooner or later the reality of today’s homogenous surfaces will intrude, replacing sentiment with an uneasy insight into today's game.

Specialist, therefore, could be viewed as a thing of the past. Phenomenal records from star-powered players look as if they are specialists but other factors influence them and their performances. 

Rafael Nadal with 8 Roland Garros titles and Roger Federer attempting his 8th Wimbledon title this year, could be seen as clay-court and grass-court specialists. But, really, their records probably have little to do with the terra-battue and grass and more to do with their acclamation to and experience at each tournament. 

Roger Federer loves Wimbledon for its traditions, and indisputable facts. In 1998, he won both the singles and doubles Junior titles. And, as a pro has won 7 titles. Rafael Nadal loves Paris because he is the King of Clay and has been since first touching down in 2004. In the nine years that followed, he has lost one match there. Pete Sampras, the man whose record Federer will try to break, could be considered a real grass-court specialist because of the type of grass used, the soil, racquets and strings. 

In 2001, Wimbledon switched to a new type of grass seed for its 19 Championships and 22 practice grass courts.

Independent expert research from The Sports Turf Research Institute in Yorkshire, UK, proved that changing the grass seed mix to 100 per cent perennial rye grass (previously 70 % rye and 30% creeping red fescue) would be the best way forward to combat wear and enhance court presentation and performance without affecting the perceived speed of the court. (Wimbledon.com)

The 'perceived speed' of a court, it goes on, is a result of compacting soil, and weather. Additionally, 'The amount a ball bounces is largely determined by the soil, not the grass.'

The soil just below the grass has not changed, meaning their crews have not hauled in truck loads of fresh dirt and distributed it equally amongst the courts. However, in order to keep the courts in top-notch condition:  

The soil must be hard and dry to allow 13 days of play without damage to the court sub-surface. (Wimbledon.com)

Tournament crews roll and mown every day. As the fortnight progresses and thousands of side-steps, sliding steps and split steps subject the grass to its annual beating, the firm earth remains stalwart … just as you would figure for an English tennis tournament.

This firm surface of soil combined with baseline games turns Wimbledon -- the epitome of the sport -- into one of a thousand tournaments. Granted, the hallowed appeal of Wimbledon does its best to divert our exuberance for this Major away from a transitioning game. It captivates the world no matter the height a ball bounces, and no matter the player tactics and styles. 

The tournament also points out that balls will bounce lower, if the weather is damp. However, damp air universally affects the bounce. 

The courts' conditions at Wimbledon don't exist in a vacuum, as they don't for any tournament. The changes have been made to keep up with racquet technology, string improvement, and fortified fitness. And, to reflect the markets. Since most did not enjoy wham-bam-points, the changes therefore are purposeful. They slow down the game for longer rallies. 

The length of time it takes two men to complete a final at Wimbledon has been on the rise since 1877. As early as 1881 Briton W. C. Renshaw began to amass his 8 titles, although under a different format. It took him 122 minutes to win in 1885. 

Rod Laver in 1968, the beginning of the Open Era, defeated his countryman Tony Roche in an hour in a best-of-five format, which is used today. The next year, Rocket Rod needed over two hours to defeat another Aussie, John Newcombe, in five sets. 

One of the greatest rivalries at Wimbledon was between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Their 1980 thriller, which ended with Borg winning a fourth set tiebreak 18-16 and the fifth set 8-6, endured for 256 minutes -- approximately 4 and a half hours. In comparison, Nadal's defeat of Federer in 2008, which is considered by some as the greatest match ever played, took just under 5 hours. Not much difference, which acknowledges the anomaly in this discussion.  

However, something valuable is lost at Wimbledon when players do not have to bring out their grass-court skills in order to work through the draw. 

Roger Federer, although approaching his 32nd birthday, remains a preeminent player on grass. At least on a fast grass court. His sole title of the year, which he won last week in Halle, Germany, was played on fast grass. Halle is a 7-day event. It doesn't need a durable surface. 

Pete Sampras and Boris Becker were grass court specialists. They served and volleyed because long rallies ‘way back then’ were suicide. Bad bounces were one hit away, so strategies centered on winning points quickly. ‘Boom Boom’ Becker’s huge serve, as well as Sampras’, left them in perfect positions to dictate points. They came to the net behind their serves. Usually, they were successful.

Roger Federer used to serve-and-volley at Wimbledon. Not so anymore. 

The baseline game has overwhelmed styles and necessities in 21st Century tennis. Juniors don't seem to be encouraged to serve-and-volley because opponents'  passing shots are more accurate, which flattens the percentage of points won at the net. Basically, power is king.

We are left, in the end, with a conundrum. Do tournaments turn their backs on supposed market desires -- to see more tennis at a tennis match and, thus, sell more tickets? Or, do they proceed on a course that tests player talent on the faster hard courts of New York and medium ones in Melbourne, slippery slow red clay of Paris, and fast and low-bouncing grass of Wimbledon?

Let us know your thoughts … Drop us your opinion using the form below. Have you, too, noticed the modification in court speeds? Are you in favor of that? How have players suffered because of longer matches? 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013