Wimbledon: Grass or Green Clay?
July 1, 2008 by Tom Kosinski • Print Story •
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.