The ‘slowing down’ of Wimbledon is as much myth as reality, and marks a significant step in the evolution of grasscourt tennis

Do we credit the 2001 change for making Wimbledon more accommodating to stylistic variety, or do we blame it for making the tournament less unique than it used to be? The product that we see on our TV screens makes answering that question fairly easy.

Musab Abid June 27, 2019 10:26:06 IST
The ‘slowing down’ of Wimbledon is as much myth as reality, and marks a significant step in the evolution of grasscourt tennis

Ace down the T. Service winner. Ace out wide. Serve and volley winner. Ace out wide again. Serve and forehand winner. Ace down the T.

That’s pretty much how most millennials would remember Wimbledon matches from the 90s. With enhanced string technology and improved fitness levels, first-strike tennis on grass was fine-tuned to such an extent in that decade that it reached near-perfect levels. And as spectators discovered in those blurry days of short points and quick matches, perfection is boring.

The slowing down of Wimbledon is as much myth as reality and marks a significant step in the evolution of grasscourt tennis

File image of Wimbledon Centre Court. AP

You didn’t know whether to applaud the umpteenth point won with a thunderous ace or dismiss it as the work of a hulking robot. Big servers like Goran Ivanisevic, Richard Krajicek and of course Pete Sampras tasted tremendous success on the slick lawns of Wimbledon, and baseline rallies seemed like a thing of the past. There was no escaping the rote, almost mind-numbing pattern of grasscourt points; the most you would get by way of variety was an unreturnable serve out wide instead of down the T.

By the end of the decade, the fans weren’t the only ones complaining. Players like Gustavo Kuerten (then the World No. 1) and Anna Kournikova added to the chorus of voices expressing discontent with the slam-bang style of tennis that had become so common at Wimbledon. The grass of Wimbledon seemed to be playing quicker than ever, and there was ostensibly no place for baseliners at the All-England Club anymore.

The players’ complaints weren’t just about the speed of the ball; they also had an issue with the unpredictability of the surface. The bounce on grass is inherently lower than on other surfaces, but at Wimbledon, it was also treacherously uneven. It was almost impossible to anticipate when you’d get a ball that stayed low or even flat-lined.

Since you didn’t know how the ball was going to bounce, your best bet was to not let it bounce at all. Rushing the net and taking the ball on the full was actually less risky than staying back at the baseline and trading groundstrokes. Serve-and-volleyers had Wimbledon in a vice-like grip all the way up to the end of the 90s, and there seemed to be no end in sight to their dominance.

This stuck out like a sore thumb in the face of the game’s changing styles and attitudes. Power baseline tennis was slowly becoming the norm on clay and hardcourt, but grass remained stubbornly immune to the evolution of the sport. Naturally, the purveyors of modern tennis started feeling alienated from grass, and Wimbledon in particular. The most prestigious tournament in the world was in danger of being reduced to a relic of the indulgent.

The organisers didn’t turn a deaf ear to the voices of dissent. In the autumn of 2000, they decided to change the composition of the grass, in order to make it more durable and presentable. They switched from a mix of 70 percent ryegrass and 30 percent creeping red fescue to 100 percent ryegrass, while going to great lengths to assert that the change would not affect the ‘perceived speed of the court’.

But it did affect the speed of the court, albeit not immediately. The first year with the new grass didn’t see a noticeable change (presumably because of the rainy conditions that fortnight), and the two finalists in 2001 were Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter – who were both known for being effective serve-and-volleyers.

You’ll also remember 2001 as the year when Roger Federer defeated Pete Sampras in their iconic fourth-round clash, which is widely regarded as one of the most resonant changing of the guard moments in the history of the sport. Did the new grass somehow blunt the efficiency of the erstwhile King of Grass, throwing him off his game long enough to make him lose his first match at Wimbledon in five years? It’s tough to say because Sampras was already showing signs of decline by then, and also because Federer went on to become, well, Federer; it is entirely possible that the Swiss was simply too good for an aging champion, 100 percent ryegrass or not.

It was in the 2002 tournament that the effects of the change in the grass composition became really pronounced. The final that year was contested by Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, two dyed-in-the-wool baseliners who refused to go anywhere near the net for a vast majority of their match. Tim Henman, a player fully committed to the serve-and-volley style, famously remarked about that edition, “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’.”

After the shock of that 2002 final being won by a counterpuncher like Hewitt, Federer restored some sanity by winning the next five editions. But there was an unmistakable change even in the Federer template for success. During his 2001 win over Sampras, he had shown an obsessive inclination to attack the net, finishing several important points in the forecourt. But his title runs from 2003 to 2007 were largely accomplished from the baseline, with net approaches being more of a surprise tactic than a primary game-plan.

Then in 2008 Rafael Nadal dethroned Federer in that transcendent final, and all illusions of serve-and-volleyers being a dominant force at Wimbledon were shattered. It wasn’t just that a claycourt expert had triumphed at Wimbledon; Bjorn Borg had shown it was possible all the way back in 1976. But it was the manner of Nadal’s win that truly shook the foundations of everything we believed to be true about grasscourt tennis.

The Spaniard hadn’t changed his game too much while playing at Wimbledon, the way Borg had. While the Swede got out of his comfort zone and attacked the net regularly in order to succeed on the grass, Nadal stuck to his tried and tested topspin-heavy game to defeat all of his opponents – just the way he had a month earlier at Roland Garros.

How was this possible? How could topspin, defense and baseline consistency be so successful on the fast-paced grass, where the bounce was supposed to be low and skiddy? The Wimbledon organisers have always denied that the new ryegrass variant ever affected the bounce of the court; they have repeatedly insisted that bounce is “largely determined by the soil, not the grass”.

But then they had also claimed that the new grass wouldn’t affect the speed of the court, and yet we have seen not just Nadal, but also Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray (both counterpunching baseliners) win multiple trophies at Wimbledon in the last decade. So have the Wimbledon organisers been deliberately trying to understate the impact of the new grass, or is the ‘change’ in the behavior of the courts purely imaginary on our part?

The truth lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. While the new grass composition doesn’t materially alter speed or bounce in controlled conditions, it does have an effect on both of those things in a tournament that lasts two whole weeks.

Adrienne Wild, an expert in sports turfs, had said back in 2001, “The traditional grass varieties at Wimbledon, especially the red fescue combinations, have a really nice finish but can wear, allowing the ball to zip off worn and patchy surfaces.” By contrast, the 100 percent ryegrass, which was chosen in the first place because of its durability, have short, firm blades that don’t wear out as easily. That means there are fewer patchy surfaces as a match goes on, and therefore fewer abnormal bounces.

More consistent bounce doesn’t automatically imply that the bounce is higher. But when you consider that the unpredictability of the earlier grass only made the ball stay low on occasion, the fact that the bounce is more consistent now implies that, on average, it is greater than before.

The same logic also applies to the speed of the surface. The abnormally low bounces on the earlier grass caused the ball to skid through, giving the players less time to react and consequently the impression of quickness. That doesn’t happen nearly as often now, which again makes the average speed lower than it used to be.

Thus, the switch to 100 percent ryegrass has effectively made the Wimbledon courts slower and bouncier, even though the new grass doesn’t alter speed or bounce in isolation.

There is, of course, a widely held perception that Wimbledon has been constantly slowing down the courts over the years, but that’s not true. The one change that did happen was in 2001; there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest there has been any modification since then.

That the nature of the winners’ circle has altered so much in the last decade – you’re just as likely to see a Kei Nishikori in the Wimbledon quarter-final now as you are a Milos Raonic – is down to a variety of other factors that have accentuated the effects of the 2001 move. Racquet technology is constantly improving, and hitting passing shots is now easier than ever. Coaching techniques have also played a part; young players today aren’t asked to focus as much on volleying as on hitting groundstrokes from the back of the court, so there aren’t enough serve-and-volleyers around, to begin with. If a style of play isn’t even prevalent anymore, basic laws of probability suggest it won’t be particularly successful anywhere, let alone at Wimbledon.

The most important factor, however, may have been the mind. Hewitt’s win in 2002, followed by Nadal’s in 2008, convinced everyone that baseline counterpunching had just as much chance of winning Wimbledon as serve-and-volley, if not more. Claycourt and hardcourt specialists who used to shy away from giving their best at Wimbledon in the past are now embracing the challenge with newfound self-belief. And that’s half the job done right there.

Today, Wimbledon is no longer the preserve of the big server, or the relentless attacker. The counterpuncher Djokovic is the favorite to win the 2019 edition with Nadal not too far behind, and even the likes of Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev are expected to do well. First-strike tennis is still rewarded on grass – which is why Federer will always be a Wimbledon contender till the day he retires – but there’s a greater balance between offense and defense now.

Do we credit the 2001 change for making Wimbledon more accommodating to stylistic variety, or do we blame it for making the tournament less unique than it used to be? The product that we see on our TV screens makes answering that question fairly easy.

Not many of us would be thrilled if every game at Wimbledon consisted of two aces and two service winners. The 90s were fabulously entertaining in general; the grasscourt play of that decade, not so much.

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