With the grass season in full flow, tennis spectators can expect a full helping of strawberries and cream, frustrating rain delays and serve-and-volley tennis. But sadly, only the latter two can be expected at grass court events these days.
Nostalgia for the sneaky chip-and-charge of Tim Henman came to the fore last week when Daniil Medvedev and Gilles Simon somehow managed a 43-shot rally at Queen’s.
You just couldn’t imagine an exchange of that length when Martina Navratilova and Pete Sampras prowled the English lawns. That said, you would see lengthy rallies in the earlier decades when wooden tennis racquets were the norm.
There has been considered debate between anonymous tennis nerds online about how Wimbledon’s courts have slowed through the years and I agree with this theory. But in researching this piece, I’ve realised how technology and physiology are as much to blame as the surface.
If we take a look at the roll call of singles champions at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, there has been a clear shift in playing style over the past 30 years.
Between 1990 and 2001, big servers dominated the men’s singles as Pete Sampras, Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic aced their way to the trophy. Andre Agassi, one of the greatest returners of all-time, was a notable exception to this trend in 1992.
Over the same period, there was more variety on the women’s side with baseliners like Conchita Martinzez, Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport in the mix along with traditional volleyers like Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna.
Since 2002 however, every Wimbledon singles title has been won by a baseliner.
It’s true that net approaches were a factor in the triumphs of Roger Federer (8 times) and Amelie Mauresmo (2006), but not to the same extent as players of the past.
What changed you ask? Well, the grass for a start. Now for the science stuff…
In 2002, the Wimbledon authorities switched to 100% perennial ryegrass which wears better under shuffling feet. The courts were previously composed of 70% rye and 30% creeping red fescue, which is an actual species of grass rather than a pick for the Curragh.
In an interview with Canada’s National Post, two-time Wimbledon doubles champion Daniel Nestor outlined how the grass has changed over the years. “There are hard courts in Montreal and Cincinnati that are faster than playing at Wimbledon and that never used to be the case before. Ever since 2002, it’s a totally different surface.”
If Wimbledon has slowed down, it’s only falling in line with many tournaments on the professional tour.
A graphic from Tennis TV during the 2018 ATP Finals illustrated how slow courts are in general at Masters 1000 level.
Food for thought ?
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) November 12, 2018
Of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments held in 2018, only one (Shanghai) was ranked as ‘medium-fast’ under Hawkeye’s Court Pace Index. None were rated as fast. Miami, Cincinnati and Paris were ranked as ‘medium’ with the remaining five in the ‘slow’ category.
Bear in mind that only three of the slow tournaments (Monte-Carlo, Madrid, Rome) were clay events. Indian Wells and Toronto are played on outdoor hard courts.
The generally slow surfaces combined with more powerful racquets, responsive strings, and players that are stronger, faster and taller, means that net approaches are riskier than ever.
Roger Federer can hit a magnificent approach shot but is likely to not only have to hit a volley, but a tough one. Because of his skill, he’ll make a number of them. But for players of the non-GOAT variety, it’s just too difficult to do consistently in the modern era.
This is a great shame as fans miss out on an exciting element of the game.
Like most watchers, I love to see Rafael Nadal’s banana forehand passing shots and Stan Wawrinka’s ripped backhands down-the-line.
However, wouldn’t it be nice to see more points played in the style of Rod Laver or Stefan Edberg?
If tournament organisers increased the pace at certain events, we could just see that.