The Forgotten Art

We’ve been watching a lot of grass court tennis in the last two weeks. Between Wimbledon’s YouTube Channel going round-by-round with a spectacular array of matches and the BBC Rewind programme audiences have been spoiled for choice. We’ve had Evonne Goolagong Cawley winning her second title, and Borg winning his fifth; we’ve had Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal; we’ve had thrillers from Pete Sampras, Serena Williams, Boris Becker, and Steffi Graff. We’ve had Murray winning both his titles and Virginia Wade winning hers. These two sacred weeks of summer that we thought we had lost have instead been as enthralling, gripping and sofa bound as always.

The matches played over the last two weeks have ranged from 1975 to 2019 and the changes in grass court tennis have been on display like never before. Early in (what would have been) the first week of the tournament the BBC played the 1978 final between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, followed by the 2005 final between Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport. In the first match the grass was stripped bare from the baseline to the net, in the second it was only worn away behind the baseline. This trend is true for all the matches we’ve watched; the more recent they are the better condition the grass is in at the tail end of the tournament. But why? And what does it mean?

Tennis courts are slowing down. This fact is inescapable. Of course, there are many factors involved but one look at this chart recently posted by the ATP proves fast tennis courts are essentially extinct. As you can see, there isn’t a single event classified as fast.

The same is true of the Grand Slams, with Federer claiming the 2011 US Open courts were much slower:

“It’s just unfortunate. I think that maybe all the Slams are too equal. I think they should feel very different to the Australian Open, and now [here] I don’t feel it really does… I’m not sure if it’s really what the game needs.”

Here, Federer has hit the nail on the head. Every event seems to be gradually slowing down until they reach a uniform speed. We mention this in order to provide context for the grass courts, which by all rights should be the fastest surface in tennis. The diversity of play has gone.

There are a number of contributing explanations for this. For a start, the players are stronger and fitter than they used to be, meaning they can cover the court at a greater pace and therefore have longer rallies. Additionally, the advancements in racket technology mean striking the ball powerfully from the back of the court is far easier than it used to be. As a result, coming into the net (the previously preferred style of play on grass) is far riskier, as you are more likely to be passed. It is undeniable that these advancements in technology and fitness have had a major impact on the way tennis is played. But something else must have changed to make this evolution quite so uniform, even on the grass.

Talking to Sue Barker recently, Tim Henman provided part of the answer to this: The All England Club changed the grass. After the 2001 tournament, the last to be won by a serve and volley player, Wimbledon changed its surface from 70% ryegrass and 30% creeping red fescue to 100% perennial ryegrass. Despite Wimbledon officials insisting this would have no impact on the speed of the courts, the change was drastic. The 2002 final saw defensive baseliners Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian do battle, with the former emerging victorious, demonstrating perfectly how much the courts had slowed down. Tim Henman famously commented: ‘I remember sitting at a changeover in 2002 in utter frustration and thinking, “What on earth is going on here? I’m on a grass court and it’s the slowest court I’ve played on this year”.’

Debate between players, pundits and tournament officials continues to this day, but the visual evidence provided by watching old matches speaks for itself. Changing the courts was a way of reducing the difficulties of a natural surface so susceptible to ware, damage, and irregularities. It wasn’t the first change Wimbledon had made. The grass used by the club in the 70’s and 80’s wore down more easily, which meant it became patchy. As a result, the ball would skid through the court and stay really low, often with an irregular bounce. It was therefore safer to come to the net. In the early 90’s Wimbledon began using a ryegrass mix, a change that saw the development of games which consisted of 2 aces, an unreturned serve and a one-two punch. Quick-fire rallies at net and exceptional court coverage instantly became a thing of the past. So too did the need for adaptation, players no longer have to be experts in all that this tricky surface requires, in fact they don’t have to be grass court experts at all.

In a second-round encounter from 1992, John McEnroe defeated Pat Cash over five thrilling sets. The baseline rallies, the aggressive rush forward of the serve-and-volley, the cut and slash of net play, the sneaky lobs and well executed smashes made every second of this encounter utterly thrilling. Neither of your writers had ever watched this match before, so didn’t know the result, and found ourselves hooked from start to end. This isn’t to say that the 2018 quarter final between Rafa Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro, in which they trade massive forehands and find impossible angles, isn’t edge of your seat tennis. It truly is. But it isn’t grass court tennis. Or perhaps more accurately, it is what passes for grass court tennis today, but it is also hard and clay court tennis, for they have blurred together. This blurring was highlighted recently when the ATP posted a video of Nadal’s victory over Djokovic at Queens in 2008 with the caption ‘THIS is grass-court tennis.’ We shared this video with each other, commenting that these are, ‘Goods rallies but not grass court tennis. This is clay or hard-court tennis on a grass court.’ Sadly, this really does seem to be what grass court tennis has become.

Since 2003 every Men’s Champion at Wimbledon has been a baseliner: Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic. Of these four only Murray and Federer adapt their games to the grass. Murray plays far more aggressively, while your writers would argue that Roger is a true modern-day grass-courter. He attacks on every point and comes to the net frequently. He couldn’t be considered a classic grass-courter as his serve-and-volley (while effective) is used more to surprise his opponent than as a go-to tactic, but he plays a different game on grass than anyone else. Obviously, this small sample isn’t scientific proof the courts are getting slower, but it does demonstrate that aggressive fast court style play is no longer the primary recipe for success at Wimbledon.

But what does this actually mean for tennis? It’s all very well us ranting about grass courts getting slower and the rallies becoming indistinguishable from every other surface, but what would we prefer? Do we want a return to the incessant wave of aces, occasionally followed up by a single volley? Of course not. Do we want the serve-and-volley grass court tennis seen in the 70’s and 80’s? Perhaps, but we know that isn’t actually possible. Mostly we just want grass courts to retain everything that makes them unique. Wimbledon may have all the tradition, but surely it will lose some of its soul if the grass essentially becomes a green hard court?

Countless players cite victory at Wimbledon as their greatest ambition or achievement, and we can’t help but feel that’s because it requires an extra level of dedication than the other slams. To achieve a Wimbledon title, a player should (or rather did) have to adapt their game for the grass. Bjorn Borg, for instance, came to the net far more frequently during Wimbledon. It wasn’t his natural style of play, but he accepted he would have to change his game in order to enjoy success during the tragically short grass court season. The fact that, at Wimbledon, Djokovic can play exactly the same way he always does and still win 5 titles is a tragedy (and not just because we dislike him). The artistry of grass court tennis appears to have vanished.

Perhaps we are looking for something impossible, something we can’t even really name. But we can’t help but feel that powerhouse baseliners like Djokovic and Nadal get to win 95% of the tournaments every year. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a few weeks in the calendar where tennis felt different, where players really had to force themselves out of their comfort zones, where charges to the net were just as common as rallies from the baseline? We think so. We also think it would be hilarious watching the #NextGen trying and failing to learn to play on grass. Roger’s 9th title would be in the bag!

Just the other day Wimbledon announced that as of 2021 the seedings at the Championships will no longer use their grass court formula, instead going directly off the world rankings. While this simplifies matters, and rewards yearly consistency, it is a crystal-clear sign of how homogenised todays surfaces have become. Even the home of grass will no longer be rewarding successful grass court play. If these last two weeks of carefully curated grass court excellence tells us anything, it is that this is a loss to tennis fans everywhere. For a true grass court match in which every inch of the court is used as players rush forwards, back, side to side and even dive, is a work of pure tennis art, the likes of which we may never see again.

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