Wimbledon: Grass or Green Clay?

Maybe it's just me, the way I think. Or maybe it's not. I have been sitting here watching Wimbledon now for a week and I am in shear disbelief. My Wimbledon was ruined after the second round.

No, my tournament wasn't ruined because I lost both Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova in the first week, and then Jelena Jankovic to start week two. I'll admit it is a huge loss, as both Ana and Maria succumbed to opponents much less talented and experienced as themselves and the loss of the top three seeds this early is just way too much to handle. I may never recover fully from watching their exits from the tourney.

No, my tournament wasn't ruined by the loss of both Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic also in the first week, although it is peculiar that on grass, the surface that favors the powerful and those with complete games, both of these players fell early and easily.

No, my tournament wasn't ruined by the charge of Marat Safin to the second week, albeit that rarely happens and it gives the Marat Safin Mafia too much joy. Nor is the fact that Feliciano Lopez happens to be in the round of 16 what is making me unhappy.

What has ruined it all for me, and what has brought me to this point is the audacity of the powers of the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) to insist that they have not changed the playing conditions here to favor the clay-court players. As recently as Sunday, the AELTC on Wimbledon.org had a story about how the conditions of the courts haven't really changed. They offer no specific evidence, but they said, "It would not be Wimbledon if, every year, people did not complain that the courts are getting slower, and more like clay. But there is no evidence to suggest these claims are accurate."

In dissecting the story first, I see that most of the discussion is focused on the fact that the courts and balls haven't changed in the past 13 years. That is interesting in itself. It hides the fact that there have been changes from the heyday of the sport, the late 1970s and early 1980s. Until the mid-1990s, clay-courters, with the exception of Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander, rarely made it into the second week. Many clay-court specialists even skipped the grass court season because of the playing characteristics of grass and especially Wimbledon. To quote ATP Tour veteran Jonas Bjorkman, "There was a time when clay-court specialists wouldn't even make the trip," he said after losing to Rafael Nadal at Queens Club just prior to the start of The Championships, Wimbledon.

Balls changed from white to yellow in 1986 at the AELTC, then in 2000 Slazenger introduced an "ultra-high visibility yellow ball" for use at the tournament. The tournament acknowledges that the balls are delivered in vats prepared two weeks in advance of the tournament, but continues to claim that the balls are the same as when they were provided in pressurized cans. As an engineer, I'm very skeptical. Tim Henman, the last great Brit to grace the lawns of AELTC with a serve and volley style, himself noted several times in the past couple of years that the balls lost their liveliness quicker and had less life in them after just a few games.

Wimbledon officials admit that the lawns are groomed differently, although they try to down play the effect. "In 2001, experts advised the Wimbledon groundsmen to change the court surfaces to 100 percent perennial ryegrass, which is stronger and more hard-wearing than the previous mix..." Previously, the courts were a mixture of mix of 70% rye and 30% creeping red fescue. The rye grass chosen for the courts is more durable and withstands the two weeks of abuse better, but it grows more upright, catching the ball more firmly and helping it slow down. With the change in grass, the court maintenance changed, as well.

First, the grass is cut slightly higher. This allows more of the ball-catching effect. Second, the grass requires less water, so the soil surface top layer is harder and more compact, allowing a much higher bounce. The soil mix is rarely talked about, but you can slow the court down even more by varying the amounts of sand and clay in the mixture. Grass courts are rolled with rollers that typically weight between 500 and 1,000 pounds. I'm guessing that they might be rolling the courts at higher weights to compact the soil even more. Probably true, as the moisture requirement of the soil to maintain the fescue-rye mix of the 1970s and 1980s would not allow a very heavy roller.

Head groundskeeper Eddie Seaward says it best, "Soil does compact a little over the fortnight, so the courts will become slightly harder over the course of the tournament. Soil compaction makes the ball bounce higher so it appears that the players have more time. And it gives a truer bounce, so the ball does not skid through, which also creates the perception that things are slower." He's right about the bounce, but I'm not sure he is being completely honest that the courts only appear to be slower.

I have spoken to many players and coaches who are at Wimbledon, and there seems to be a consensus that the courts are playing more like clay and I think the results this year say it all. Feliciano Lopez into the round of 16. Andreas Seppi of Italy making a match of it with Marat Safin, four very close sets before Safin pulled it out. Andy Roddick falling to Janko Tipsarevic. Simone Belelli, also of Italy, dispatching Fernando Gonzalez, a skilled grass court player who on his own nearly destroyed the U.S. in a Davis Cup match on the grass. Rafa Nadal crushing players like he does on clay. On the women's side, even more evident. Not one of the women who defeated the top three seeds is known for their power, serve, or volley. Yet they managed to win by slugging from the baseline. Sounds like clay court tennis to me.

Roger Federer, look out. They are stacking the cards against you. Conditions here clearly favor Nadal. Better brush up on your clay court game. You may not be as invincible here now.

The luster of Wimbledon for me this fortnight is gone, but for now, Wimbledon is still my nirvana. So I'll finish my tournament the way I always do. Don't bother calling or writing me on Saturday or Sunday morning, as I'll be sharing the women's and men's finals with my girl, Suzanne Paquette, a bucket of strawberries and cream, and a perfectly chilled bottle of Moet.

Comments and Conversation

July 1, 2008

Therese Muchewicz:

The AELTA did change the grass courts and the then out-going CEO Chris Gorringe admitted to having done so in an interview he gave which was published in a tennis magazine I read a few years ago! I kept the copy! Indeed, he not only admitted to changing the mix of the grass but also said why the AELTA had decided to do it…because they couldn’t favour one man- alluding to Tim Henman - over other players. The ‘other players’ were the clay-courters who whinged and whined and refused to come to Wimbldeon because it was too fast for them. Indeed, the AELTA sacrificed the only chance the Brits ever had of having a Wimbledon champion when they did this from 1999 onwards.

Why are they trying to cover it up now? Because they know - and most other people now know - they betrayed Tim Henman and British tennis and made a huge mistake!

funny how Nadal -perhaps the greatest clay-court player of all time - finds himslef within touching distance of the Wimbledon trophy and favourite to win above Federer!

July 1, 2008

Therese Muchewicz:

Hiya All

I found a copy of the quote I saved all these years from the tennis magazine.

Chris Gorringe former CEO of the All England Club.

“”Two years ago [2002] we decided to change the grass…..I think Tim Henman would have preferred a slicker, lower bounce, but sadly some would say, we are not constructing a court or an environment for one player, we are providing what’s in the best interest of all players”.

Maybe they should publish this on the Wimbledon website?

It says it all really! Betrayed Tim Henman and British tennis fans and the serve-volley game and now the AELTA are too scared to admit it!

July 16, 2008

Eyeroll:

Wimbledon sucked in the ’90s. It was a serving exhibition farce. They had to change the surface to compensate for the insanely powerful racquets that players have today. And considering that they have had two of the greatest men’s finals in history the past two years, I seriously doubt they are lamenting the change very much. (I also seriously doubt that Roger Federer could possibly have reached six straight finals on the hyperspeed grass of the ’90s.)

Tim Henman reached four Wimbledon semifinals, which is probably more than his talent warranted, so I’m not sure what all the whining is about. I suppose they should speed the grass back up so that Andy Murray can coast to the final on his 150 mile per hour serve? Get a grip.

July 18, 2008

sofia:

this is not the way to change the grass or conditions of playing at wimbledon,,,as we alll know that roger is the champion on grass and the expected winner but due to this act rafa got the chance to toook the trophy far away of roger.so the offical should telll the players before the event about this so can prepare themselves for this.

August 7, 2008

Grafight:

Rafa won at Queens Club. Did they change their grass too, to make it “more like clay”?. After a thrilling final at Wimbledon, Rafa won at Toronto, in hard court. Did the Rogers Cup organizers decide to add some magic ingredients to their hard courts to make them “more like clay”? Are we going to say this every time Rafa wins a non-clay tournament? Probably, so get used to it. You’re going to hear it A LOT.

November 9, 2008

Therese Muchewicz:

Dear Eyeroll

I do not understand you! Wimbledon in the 1990’s saw some of the best players in tennis and some wonderful matches. Sampras, Agassi, Rafter, Rusedski, Courier, Philippoussis, Ivanesevic …Or are you going to tell me that Pete Sampras was boring? If so, you do not understand the pure magical style that he had. At least he didn’t bash around the baseline with double-handers because he didn’t have a back-hand…

As for Tim Henman Andrew Castle and other sports commentators all recently came out and publicly stated that had they not changed the courts he would definitely have won Wimbledon. I know whose opinion I would trust and it is not yours.

Also the longest ever match played at Queens was between Tim Henman and Pete Sampras!

Purists of the game refer to Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Tim Henman as having a beautiful game. No other players! Many lament the demise of the serve-volley game - including myself. When you come to the net you are more vulnerable and the game is more aggressive…

Anyway, you are misisng the point …the AELTA admitted changing the courts becuase other players were not able to play on the surface and refused to come to Wimbledon - such as Kuerten and Rios. Good on Rafa that he has worked hard on the grass - I love him to bits but he would not have lasted two minutes on the grass courts of old.

The point of having different surfaces was that the Slams all offered something slightly different - now the grass at Wimbledon might as well be replaced with clay …because it plays like a clay court. Before he retired Tim Henman observed that Wimbledon was perhaps the third slowest surface he had played on that year! Says it all really….

One other point you are missing - no other tournament director would change the surface to suit other players…Sampras and Federer hated - hate - Roland Garros - you don’t see the French speeding it up to suit those who like faster courts - nor should they.

It seems like you are happy to go with regular Tim Henman bashing when you know nothing about him. I followed him tournament in and tournament out for a decade and by golly I lament him not being around. He was unappreciated by the general public who probably only ever watched him at Wimbledon but who were then such an authority on him! Not! I presume you fall into that category!

Grafight …Raf won at Queens because Roger Federer and other top players played in Germany that week!…Not that I didn’t enjoy seeing him pick up the trophy….

February 1, 2010

Harrier:

It has been a log time since Nadal won Wimbledon. The British have a reputation for attacking people who consistently win their awards. This time they stuck it to Federer. Unfortunately in doing so they completely screwed Murray. Wimbledon is making tennis too political. I think it would be better for tennis to crater Wimbledon and have a slam in Johannesburg, S Africa. Better weather and far fairer. The country would appreciate tennis a lot more.

For the traditional Tennis person of Englishman, getting a taste of their own medicine for the continued games they play has got to be expected. And S. Africa is not that far to go for the better weather that in itself would be better appreciated.

June 12, 2011

NadalFan:

I love Wimbledon.I can not wait to start.my favorite is Nadal.

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