The tennis season can be divided into four sections. Of the four, three involve playing on hard courts – either outdoor or indoor – with players making the transition with seeming ease.
However, it’s the second part of the year when the sport’s action turns towards naturalised surfaces – namely clay and grass – which span the months from April to July traversing across the European continent that the players find hard to adjust to.
There again, with a greater proportion of tournaments held on clay, players get adequate time and practice before the French Open starts. Contrastingly though, the shorter time-span between the change of surfaces from clay to grass then is a keener challenge for all players to surpass.
The dichotomy between clay and grass courts
Traditionally, making a changeover from clay to grass involved making a marked variation in one’s style of play. The slowness and high bounciness of clay offered a player more time to retrieve the ball and send it back, even as playing on grass meant cutting down on this reaction time sharply. Having a big serve also helped as players receiving them had no opportunity to get their racquets onto them whatsoever.
To supplement this was also the fact that on grass the bounciness of the ball was far too low, thereby not giving players the advantageousness of sending the ball soaring back right across the net. Thus, for those players whose game was banked upon huge serves, and quicker points – specifically ending the points at the net itself – playing on grass proved significantly efficient.
The Field spoke to Roger Federer about the core mechanics of playing on grass, at the 2017 edition of the Gerry Weber Open, in Halle. The Swiss, who is tied with Pete Sampras for the most number of Wimbledon titles – seven – shared that as compared to the other playing surfaces, grass was tougher to play on.
“There is a lot of adjustments you have to make,” the 18-time Grand Slam champion said. “You are caught in a lot of awkward moments, awkward points, there is bad bounces, the ball doesn’t bounce very high, so you are usually moving forward rather than just sideways and that’s a bit of a change to the other nine or then months of the year that we play on different surfaces. And then the slice on the backhand let’s say and the slide on the serve, they slide very well and you just have to get used to that.”
Federer, who went on to claim a ninth title in Halle and who is bidding to win his eighth title at the Championships, also observed that the curtailed time-gap between the clay and grass season meant that the latter would be hampered by fewer preparatory events before Wimbledon.
“The problem is that we don’t have that many tournaments that we can really get used to it. So, somewhat the grass-court season can be over in a hurry.” Having said so, Federer also subtly hinted as to why grass was one of his most preferred surfaces, aside of his results speaking for him on the surface. “The feel on the grass is great, it’s soft [and] it’s quiet. You don’t hear the squeaking of the shoes like on hard courts or something like that. I just feel like that it’s a very calming surface in my opinion.”
The homogenisation of grass courts
Singular as the surface was, catering to a certain style of play, things have changed now. Where play was meant to be faster, with serve-and-volley and net-rushing being the preferred form of attack, playing on grass currently involves exchanging prolonged rallies from either behind or at the baseline.
According to a senior German sports journalist Rene Denfeld, this transformation of the court-speed of grass was purposefully altered around a decade ago, as it was felt that the different court speeds were favouring only the big-serving players which, in turn, led to shorter match durations.
“[So], on both [tennis] Tours, particularly in the men’s Tour, people [administrators] tried to just slow down surfaces, change it up a little,” said Denfeld. “It’s to give people longer matches to provide more rallies because a lot of people think that rallies equal more entertainment [and] more fun.”
Given the volubility of these modifications, suffice to say then that players who still retain the quintessence of serving-and-volleying have started to fade. Even Federer, who had withstood Sampras’s barrage of shot-making in their only-ever career meeting at the 2001 Wimbledon fourth-round meeting predominantly as a serve-and-volley player, admitted that he had evolved as a player as well.
Are times changing, yet again?
“Well, look, I was a different player way back when at the end of the nineties, the beginning of the 2000s, that’s when things were maybe a bit faster,” noted the former world No 1, who went on to state that there have had been some significant experiments to bring down the speed of grass courts. Not just in the way the courts have come to be prepared, but also in the racquet strings and the tennis balls as well.
“I feel like the balls have definitely changed. They are not as fast as they used to be. They’ve tried different types of grass. I think over the years they dug them out, redid them that does a world of good for the grass courts and makes them more playable from the baseline,” Federer said.
“At the moment, we have slower balls in my opinion and more top-spin on the balls,” he added. “You know the hybrid strings what we use today, it became much easier to play off the baseline and half-volley without a problem of having to think of every single bounce could be wrong. So, then there was just an entire generation as well, who liked to play more from the back than moving forward.”
However, irrespective of these aspects, Federer did opine that many of the current players were trying to speed up the playing process in their own way, thereby bringing about changes anew.
“We see guys moving really up onto the baseline again and even [Andy] Murray, who started as a retriever way back, he’s playing well inside the baseline now, especially on the return games and tries to play one-two all the time,” added Federer. “Same with Novak [Djokovic] anyway. Rafa [Nadal] is playing close to the baseline, maybe [he] has to. So, we’ve seen the trend, maybe changing a little bit these days.”