Australian Open 2020: Courts could slow down with new manufacturer, giving counterpunchers a better shot than before

Tennis Australia has decided to replace its erstwhile court manufacturer California Sports Surfaces with a new one – GreenSet Worldwide. The courts are still Plexicushion but reports from the qualifying matches suggest that it is playing slower than last year.

Musab Abid January 18, 2020 10:16:48 IST
Australian Open 2020: Courts could slow down with new manufacturer, giving counterpunchers a better shot than before
  • There are enough first-hand reports to attest that the Australian Open surface did in fact speed up from the 2017 edition of the tournament

  • Hawkeye stats for the Slams show that the court pace index (CPI) of the Australian Open – 42 – was higher than that of both Wimbledon (37) and US Open (35.4) in 2017

  • Players who like to stand on top of the baseline and take the ball early – like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic – have had more success at the Australian Open lately than the US Open

If you’ve ever visited a tennis message board or forum on the Internet, you’d know that attributing a player’s loss to the ‘unfairly’ altered court speed is the easiest way to get everyone’s attention. Countless wars have been fought over whether Wimbledon’s surface has become like ‘green clay’ to favour defensive counterpunchers, why the Shanghai Masters’ slickness has no place in the modern world, and how playing on the Indian Wells courts is like plodding through a tilled farm.

The Australian Open, strangely, has seen complaints at both ends of the spectrum. A few years ago everyone was bemoaning how the new Plexicushion surface was too slow, and that the decision to move away from Rebound Ace had robbed the tournament of its uniqueness. But since 2017, the conversation has been all about how Roger Federer has benefited from the new super-fast version of the blue acrylic courts.

Australian Open 2020 Courts could slow down with new manufacturer giving counterpunchers a better shot than before

Australian Open gets underway from 20 January in Melbourne. AP

That discussion seems likely to get another twist at the 2020 edition of the tournament, as Tennis Australia has decided to replace its erstwhile court manufacturer California Sports Surfaces with a new one – GreenSet Worldwide. The courts will still be Plexicushion, with tournament director Craig Tiley asserting that the surface will “remain the same”, but early reports from the qualifying matches suggest that it is playing slower than last year.

Now reports about court speed from players and experts are often confusing and contradictory, and there is rarely any consensus among them. For instance, just last year at Wimbledon, the likes of Roger Federer and Milos Raonic said the All-England courts were playing slower, while Rafael Nadal insisted they were the same as always. That seems illogical on the face of it; how can two players experience different court speeds while playing at the same venue? Is one of them flat-out lying?

Fortunately, the explanation is far less sinister than that. The pace at which a ball travels is affected by several other factors in addition to pure court speed; things like air temperature, humidity levels and altitude of the venue all have a significant bearing on it. And since different players experience these elements in varying degrees (depending on the day and time they play), they often form different conclusions about the court speed itself.

That said, there are enough first-hand reports to attest that the Australian Open surface did in fact speed up from the 2017 edition of the tournament. We even have Hawkeye stats for the Slams in 2017, which show that the court pace index (CPI) of the Australian Open – 42 – was higher than that of both Wimbledon (37) and US Open (35.4). We don’t know how exactly the change happened – an alteration in the depth of the cushioning at the top seems the most likely factor – but the fact remains that the Australian Open has been the ‘quickest’ Slam since 2017.

Now keep in mind that CPI is purely a surface-based metric, which takes into account only the friction on the court and the degree of compression of the ball on impact. When you factor in the heat and relative dryness of the Melbourne air (compared to, say, the humid New York), it seems probable that the real-time speed of the ball at the Australian Open would be even higher than the numbers suggest.

Is that the reason why players like Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem tend to perform better at the US Open than the Australian Open? Both Nadal and Thiem started out as clay court specialists, meaning they instinctively preferred standing behind the baseline and taking big swings at the ball – traits particularly suited to slow surfaces. But even though they’ve both changed their hardcourt game over the last few years, taking the ball on the rise more often now, they’ve still struggled to replicate their New York results in Melbourne.

Nadal has won two of the last three US Open titles, but hasn’t won the Australian Open since 2009. And Thiem has reached a quarterfinal and three other fourth rounds at the US Open, without having anywhere close to the same results in Melbourne.

Conversely, players who like to stand on top of the baseline and take the ball early – like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic – have had more success at the Australian Open lately than the US Open.

Australian Open 2020 Courts could slow down with new manufacturer giving counterpunchers a better shot than before

Qualifying rounds suggest courts are playing slower than last few years at the Australian Open. AP

This dichotomy, however, wasn’t always a feature of the two hardcourt Slams. In the early days of Plexicushion – from 2008 up until 2017 – the surface was largely considered slower than both Wimbledon and the US Open. And even the Rebound Ace used before 2008 was generally slower than the Decoturf of New York, especially in hot weather.

The inconsistency of Rebound Ace under different temperatures was actually the biggest reason why it was ditched for Plexicushion in 2008. Rebound Ace would get sticky and concrete-like when the temperature got particularly high, which elicited complaints from players that it was increasing the chances of injury. And let’s face it, playing on a surface that changes drastically based on the time of day is just not something anyone would be comfortable with, injury scares notwithstanding.

It was the large amount of cushioning (roughly 15 mm) at the top of the Rebound Ace surface that was responsible for its inconsistency. By contrast, Plexicushion has only about 4 mm of cushioning, which makes it far more even across different temperature conditions.

But now the Plexicushion in Melbourne Park has a different manufacturer than before, and it is unclear whether the court speed will remain the same as it has been the last three years. Will the early reports of it being slower than last year hold good for the entire fortnight? Courts typically speed up as a tournament progresses, with the wear and tear from constant play reducing the friction on the surface. Will that happen in Melbourne too this year, thus restoring the CPI to its relatively high 2017 levels? Or will it go back to the early days of Plexicushion, when long-drawn-out baseline rallies based on defense and foot speed were the norm? (I’m looking at you, 2012 Australian Open final).

There are is as much uncertainty in the air around Melbourne Park right now as there is smoke from the devastating bushfires. A change in court conditions is often a precursor to a change in the trend of results at the tournament – as we’ve clearly seen at Wimbledon – so it is entirely possible that the Australian Open winners’ circle will start looking a lot different from the 2020 edition.

The first match of the main draw this year will certainly tell us a lot. And not just about which players are in the best shape and form, of which we already have a pretty good idea.

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