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Not Just For Cows
“Some say that grass is for cows. I guess clay is for making bricks.” – Greg Rusedski.
For a long time, a cultural cold war gripped the world of tennis. At the heart of this conflict were two different visions of what the game in its purest form should be. On one side were those, mostly from continental Europe and Latin America, who believed tennis should be a baseline battle, fought with grit, consistency, and endless topspin on a court of crushed red brick. On the other were those, mostly from English-speaking countries, who believed tennis should be a game of serve and volley, slices, aces, and risky net rushes on a freshly mown lawn.
So goes the story, anyway. In reality, of course, there have been plenty of players who haven’t conformed to these stereotypes, and the predominant surface in world tennis has long been the hard court in any case. The divide between the most ardent supporters of grass and clay was real, however, and at times it could be bitter. For many, the game being played on the other surface just wasn’t proper tennis.
The list of greats who have been champions at one event but merely challengers at the other include Sampras, Henin, and Becker.
They could hardly be blamed for coming to this conclusion. The characteristics of the two surfaces tend to make for very different playing experiences.
Firstly, clay, being a relatively spongy surface, produces higher, slower bounces and responds well to topspin; grass, being a much lower friction surface, tends to cause balls to skid on lower trajectories, particularly if they have been struck either with a flat or sliced stroke. The consequences of this are that: a) grass courts typically allow much less time to intercept and respond to aggressive shots; and b) most balls on a grass court will be struck between knee and waist height, where the greater proportion on clay will be hit between waist and shoulder height.
Secondly, to move correctly on clay, a player really needs to have learned how to slide into shots from a young age; if they try that on grass, they fall over.
For many players, the difficulty transitioning from one surface to the other was confounded by the accident of history that leads Wimbledon to commence a fortnight after the climax of the clay-court season at Roland Garros. The list of greats who have been champions at one event but merely challengers at the other is long and illustrious: Sampras, McEnroe, Newcombe, Edberg, Becker, Seles, and Henin among others all failed to clinch the career double.
Even until quite recently, very few expected great success in both Paris and London. Of the ten men to reach the finals of the Wimbledon Championships between 1997 and 2004, only Federer and Agassi ever got to the finals of the French Open; starker still, of the eleven finalists at Roland Garros in the same period, only Agassi and Kuerten managed to reach the quarters at Wimbledon during the length of their entire careers. It even got to the point when many prominent clay courters simply stopped turning up at the All England Club due to frustrations with the Wimbledon seeding process.
Of the eleven finalists at Roland Garros between 1997 and 2004, only Andre Agassi and Gustavo Kuerten managed to reach the quarters at Wimbledon during the length of their entire careers.
In the last few years, however, old tensions appear to have mellowed. The defending ladies’ singles champion at SW19 is a former Roland Garros winner. The same man has won both the French Open and Wimbledon Championships in the same year for the last three years. Six players in each of the current ATP and WTA top tens have won grass court titles, and of these only one (Murray) has not also won a clay court title. Success on both of these very different surfaces no longer seems rare. So why the change?
Let’s look at the men’s 2010 French and Wimbledon finals, each of which featured eventual champion Rafael Nadal against a tall, big serving, huge hitting opponent.
In many respects, the tennis appeared different, as would be expected. The players were standing closer to the baseline and hitting the ball lower in London than in Paris. At Wimbledon, a greater proportion of serves went unreturned (34.1% of good serves against 26.8% in the first set of each match), rallies were likely to be shorter (the mean number of shots in points with a successful return of serve was 5.7 against 7.1), and the net was more frequently approached (in 24% of points as opposed to 9.7%). In general, attacking tennis was rewarded more (when one player attacked either from on the baseline, inside the court or at the net, they won the point 70% of the time at Wimbledon as against 55% at Roland Garros).
Despite the differences, there were a number of similarities between these two particular matches that might help to explain why today’s players seem better able than ever to perform on these diverse surfaces.
Although most shots were hit from much further back in the French Open final, the proportion of rallies that involved attacking shots struck from on or within the baseline was in fact very similar (73% of rallies in the first set of the French Open final, 71% in the first set of the Wimbledon final). Berdych, Soderling and Nadal in both matches sought to address any ball that came short, and even on clay the players were willing to take the chance to step in and dictate play when the opportunity came. The success rate may have been much higher on grass but the fundamental strategy – at least in these two matches – remained the same.
Compare this to some equivalent finals from the ‘cold war’ years. In the 1979 Roland Garros title match, the rallies between Bjorn Borg and Victor Pecci averaged at over 8 shots each, despite the fact that around half of these rallies involved a net approach (almost always by Pecci). Only two of the eighteen baseline points in the first set were resolved with a winner rather than an error (the other twenty-three winners in the set were volleys, aces and passing shots). In the next year’s classic Wimbledon final between Borg and McEnroe, well over 90% of all points involved either a serve volley or a net approach, and the average rally length was less than four shots. Borg – who on clay epitomized the defensive grinder (he made four errors in that first set, striking the ball nearly two hundred times, and approached the net voluntarily once), became a serve volleyer on his 1st serve and approached the net over three-quarters of the time on his 2nd.
In the classic Wimbledon final between Borg and McEnroe, well over 90% of all points involved either a serve volley or a net approach, and the average rally length was less than four shots.
This, perhaps, was the true nature of the division between the surfaces for so many years, why it was so difficult for players to transition from one to the other. Those whose games were best suited to clay – the defensive baseliners – were largely unable either to apply that strategy to grass or, with the exception of Borg and a few others, to adopt the serve and volley strategy that was by far the most effective for lawn tennis. The same applied in reverse for the grass court greats when they stepped on the clay.
Today, however, though most of the top players have great defensive skills and consistency (and, indeed, some talent at the net), the strategy that wins the big matches is that of the offensive baseliner. The men and women who tend to win majors play proactively, stepping into the court when the ball comes short, addressing the ball forcefully and taking the shot when it’s there to be hit.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the French-Open Wimbledon double is likely to become routine. Grass in most cases still rewards those with the greatest weapons and quickest reactions more than clay, just as clay continues to reward consistency and stamina more than grass. Because of the changes that have taken place to the way the game is played on all surfaces, however, the divide that once cut the game in two has been healed, at least in part. Just don’t expect everyone to like it.
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