Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sunday 30 June 2019

Game changer

The world’s greatest tennis championship used to be fast and furious. Serve and volleyers ruled the grass courts of SW19. No more. Was it the grass? Or something else? Jack Kessler investigates

The 2001 Wimbledon Championships were a standout edition of the world’s greatest tennis tournament. It featured the only meeting between the two greatest grass-court players of the modern era: Pete Sampras, ageing now, and Roger Federer, boyish and full of potential. It saw perennial British hopeful Tim Henman falter just a set and a cruelly timed rain delay from reaching the final. And the championship match, played on a “People’s Monday”, boasted a football world cup atmosphere as the wildcard Goran Ivanisevic finally exorcised the demons of his three previous final defeats, by defeating Pat Rafter 9-7 in the fifth set of an emotionally exhausting match.

Tim Henman during his semi-final against Goran Ivanisevic in 2001

In other ways, it was a typical Wimbledon: a wide range of players, young and old, executing the classic grass-court tennis strategy – serve and volley. Sampras had lost to Federer in the fourth round; Federer was defeated by Henman in the quarter-final; in the semi-final Henman lost to Ivanisevic who then beat Rafter in the final. Serve and volleyers all.

Those 2001 Championships will also be remembered as the final vintage of a long, fruitful era. Ivanisevic and Rafter shared 243 serve-and-volley points in that championship match. The next year’s final, contested by Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, was unprecedented – it did not feature a single serve-and-volley point. Indeed, of the four men’s semi-finalists, the only recognised serve and volleyer was Henman, who would never again reach that stage of the tournament. In the space of 12 months, grass court tennis appeared to metamorphose from serve and volley into a baseliner’s game. What had happened?

Following the 2001 Championships, the All England Club made a small but significant change to the composition of its famous grass on which Ivanisevic had prayed, Jana Navotna cried and John McEnroe screamed. That grass was comprised of 70 per cent Perennial Ryegrass and 30 per cent Creeping Red Fescue. But for the 2002 tournament, it was altered to 100 per cent Perennial Ryegrass.

Serena and Venus Williams on the worn surface near the end of Wimbledon 2002, the first year of 100 per cent Perennial Ryegrass

Wimbledon’s official explanation for the change was that it would be “the best way forward to combat wear and enhance court presentation and performance”, and that this could be done “without affecting the perceived speed of the court”.

The first part has certainly been achieved. There is no doubt that the Wimbledon surface lasts longer than it did 30 years ago. Gone are the days when the ball would regularly hit the court and dart sideways. But it is the second half of that statement, that it could be done without affecting the speed of the play, that has generated such controversy.

In May, I travelled to Bingley to meet Mark Ferguson, research manager at the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), which is responsible for testing and managing the All England Club’s famous grass courts. In the early 1990s, STRI began analysing the court surface, looking to harness technology to produce a better, more consistent grass. Grass provides a natural surface, which deteriorates significantly over the two weeks of play, and this was most obvious in two sections – on and around the baseline, and behind the “T”, closer to the net where players serve and volley. STRI concluded that Perennial Ryegrass could tolerate a lot more wear and could be cut to the short lengths required.

Michael Stich and Boris Becker contest the 1991 final with the old grass composition…
… Four years later the final between Becker and Pete Sampras showed the wear and tear…
… whereas the Mark Philippoussis-Roger Federer final in 2003 shows the difference in using Perennial Ryegrass
Last year’s final between baseliners Kevin Anderson and Novak Djokovic

Ferguson explained why the older grass composition had led to an inconsistent, lower-bouncing ball. “It was a shallow-rooted plant, so when it wears out, it kicks out in big chunks and lumps. You tend to get a very low bounce because it’s hitting this spongy surface that’s absorbing quite a lot of the momentum of the ball which can come through quite low. But as the surface wore out, the ball would hit one of these spaces of spare ground and rear up, so the bounce was inconsistent.”

When a tennis ball makes contact with the new Perennial Ryegrass court, it produces a more consistent bounce. Ferguson says: “The surface still wears out, but it’ll wear out very gradually, and it just erodes rather than kicking out because it’s a deep-rooted plant. The bounce of the ball is much more consistent and much more predictable.” But 100 per cent Perennial Ryegrass also produces a higher bounce. This has brought Wimbledon in line with the International Tennis Federation’s standard for any surface – that it should have around 80 per cent of the rebound achieved on a concrete surface.

Why did this relatively small change in the height of the bounce play such a seemingly outsized role in the way grass court tennis is played? In an eerily empty but reassuringly drizzly Centre Court at Wimbledon, the head groundsman Neil Stubley explained: “If the ball seems like it’s staying low, you’ll have to search for it. Whereas if it’s coming up, you’ve got more time. People say it’s got to be slower, because the ball is coming through to me now. It might not be, it’s just travelling higher, but still at the same speed. Sometimes it’s player perception. The balls are coming up higher, so it just gives that player an extra tenth of a second to reach for the ball.”

Henman explained why the slower conditions had such an impact on his game, and that of other serve and volleyers. “If you’re getting help from the surface, the quality of your shot doesn’t have to be quite as accurate. So if you’re serving at decent speed, 18 inches from the lines, that may be sufficient to give you a weak return which you can comfortably volley for a winner. But if your serve lands 18 inches from the lines and the ball is checking, not going through the court and decreasing in speed, your opponent will return it with interest, you’ll have a low volley, and they’ll have time for a passing shot. It has a huge impact on the way different playing styles can compete.”

Baseliners, on the other hand, welcomed the change. Following a first-round loss, baseliner Marat Safin once despaired: “I give up on Wimbledon. I love tennis, I just don’t like grass.” By 2008, on reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals, he had recanted. “I played well because I think the courts, they have been getting slower and slower throughout the years. So it’s not any more like they used to be like eight years ago. It was really fast, and now you can play from the baseline and nobody even getting close to the net … thanks for the people to make the courts slower.”

After the Bjorn Borg era matches often become too dominated by serves

Wimbledon had fixed its bad bounces, but had created a slower, higher bouncing surface, which helped the baseliners first to compete, and then dominate Wimbledon.

By the mid-1990s, grass-court tennis had been in the doldrums. Post Borg-McEnroe, pre Federer-Nadal, matches were often serve-dominated and lacking in rallies.

The May front cover of US magazine Sports Illustrated went as far as to ask : “Is tennis dying?” Sally Jenkins wrote: “On those rare occasions when a player with a recognisable name takes the court, nothing happens. If you want action, go to a basketball game. In the average men’s hard-court match the ball is in play less than nine minutes per hour, and on grass it’s less than four minutes. The rest is toweling off, ball-bouncing, pacing and griping about calls.”

The unofficial tipping point can be traced back to the 1994 Wimbledon final between Sampras and Ivanisevic. On a baking hot day the players hit 42 aces between them (a large number for a three-set match). It was less serve and volley and more ace and walk back to the chair.

Wimbledon responded immediately. The following year, it introduced a new, lower pressurised ball, which would slow the game down by absorbing more energy when hit. While this change alone did not mark the start of a baseline invasion – the next six men’s Wimbledon titles were won by serve and volleyers, Sampras, Richard Krajicek and Ivanisevic – it was evidence that Wimbledon recognised there was a problem, and demonstrated that it was willing to do something about it.

Speaking in 2002, the nine-times Wimbledon men’s doubles champion Todd Woodbridge confirmed his belief the slower balls hurt the serve and volleyers. “The cover is bigger on the ball – after about two or three games, it fluffs up more. There isn’t as many aces as there was. That helps the good returners, helps the baseliners to stay in the points a bit more.”

When I asked Stubley if the 2002 change to the grass was a deliberate attempt to slow down the courts and prevent another Sampras-Ivanisevic ace fest, he demurred.

Pete Sampras during his final against Goran Ivanisevic in 1994 when there were 42 aces in a three-set match

“Not for us – it’s purely an agronomic viewpoint. It’s about making sure that the grass we select are best for the tennis. Primarily for us it was about making sure that we could get the right grass species to last.”

Graham Kimpton, head groundsman at Queen’s, which takes place on grass two weeks before Wimbledon, confirms there was no directive to slow down the courts. “People say ‘they’ slowed the courts down as if there’s some sort of CIA conspiracy. I don’t think anyone specifically went out and said ‘you must slow these courts down’. Like Wimbledon, we were trying to reduce the wear.”

The decline of serve and volley on grass had in fact begun before the 2002 change. In the 1997 men’s Wimbledon Championships, there was an average of 64.6 serve-and-volley points per match. By 2001 this had already fallen to 40.5, and has continued to fall ever since. At last year’s event, the average number of serve-and-volley points per match was just 7.8. This is a strategic shift in grass court tennis tactics that preceded the 2002 change.

Furthermore, it is important not to overlook the success baseliners were already enjoying during the serve-and-volley, power-dominated 1990s. During that decade, baseliners reached the Wimbledon final on five occasions: Jim Courier, Andre Agassi (twice), MaliVai Washington and Cedric Pioline, with Agassi winning the title in 1992. But the 2002 change was clearly influential.

Few sports have seen as significant a technological leap as tennis. The transition to graphite rackets in the 1980s is well documented, but equally significant was the introduction in the late 1990s of Luxilon polyester strings.

Gustavo Kuerten’s use of new polyester strings gave him an advantage over those still using natural gut

It is June 1997, and the Parisian crowds at Roland Garros are falling in love with a young Brazillian with colourful clothes, a wide grin and an explosive game. Gustavo Kuerten won the French Open with a bit of help from his Luxilon Original strings. These gave Kuerten a big advantage over players still using the old natural gut. They enabled him to generate vast amounts of topspin, which helps baseliners hit passing shots that dip aggressively below the height of the net, forcing the volleyer to hit up and eradicating their positional advantage.

Henman, who played in that year’s French Open, saw first hand the impact of those Luxilon strings. “That year, most of the players were still using natural gut. The ball was very fast and difficult to control. With Luxilon, you could string the racket much looser, which gave you a bigger sweet spot. Loose strings also mean more spin which gives you more control. Kuerten was able to take big swings, play aggressively from the back of the court and not miss.”

Speaking in 2006, nine-time Wimbledon singles champion Martina Navratilova laid the blame for the decline in serve and volley squarely on the advances in string technology:

“Serve and volley is very difficult because of the rackets and strings, not because the grass is slower … it’s so easy to get the ball down, dip it, and then you have to volley up. The rackets and strings have improved the groundstrokes exponentially more than they have improved the volleying ability … You see people hitting passing shots ten feet behind the baseline going backwards and they still get it by people at the net. Impossible with a wooden racket.”

Roger Federer adapted from being a serve and volleyer to staying mostly on the baseline

Federer has played so long that he spans multiple generations. He came up when serve and volley remained dominant, and played in that style for his first few Wimbledons. Today, Federer only serves and volleys as a change-up play or surprise tactic.

Stubley believes the decline of serve and volleying was a natural shift that took place. He said that the change in the composition of Wimbledon’s grass courts “coincided with the late ’90s, where there was just a natural shift. It meant that more of the younger generation coming through were just brought up on baseline tennis. So you can still play serve and volley on a traditional grass court. It’s just that most players now haven’t been taught how to do it, so they just stay at the baseline.”

There have been other significant changes that have impacted on playing styles. In the 1960s, three of the four grand slams were played on grass. Today, it is only Wimbledon. Hard courts around the world have been slowed down. Indoor carpet, one of the quickest surfaces, has disappeared entirely. Given the large number of clay tournaments, it is no surprise that players base their games around slow, high-bouncing surfaces.

Navratilova bemoans the slowing down of court surfaces. “All the courts are slower… You hit a great volley and, you know, the person’s got five minutes to run it down… Now the ball has gone completely in favour of the baseliner. It’s a shame.”

Martina Navratilova, pictured in the 1982 final, bemoans the slowness of the game today

At the Queen’s Club this month, I watched Stanislas Wawrinka warm up against Juan Martin del Potro on a practice court. The Wawrinka backhand is an astonishing shot on any surface, but there is a reason why grass is his least favourite, and why Wimbledon is the only grand slam he is yet to win or make a final. Even on modern grass courts, the ball bounces lower than on any other surface. Wawrinka has less time for his long, glorious swing. He needs to abbreviate, ensure his contact point is lower, and rely more heavily on his gluteal muscles and quadriceps rather than his groin and upper body.

Grass court tennis, and its most famous tournament, Wimbledon, is still a fast, low-bouncing surface which favours attacking play. Mischa Zverev, Feliciano Lopez, Dustin Brown – grass court specialists who can harness the idiosyncrasies of the court to their advantage – still exist and can flourish. But they are few and far between.

Henman is uniquely placed to make a judgment on the 2002 change, as the only player to make the semi-finals in both 2001 and 2002. He recalls his fluctuating emotions during his 2002 quarter-final match against baseliner Andre Sa. “I’d gone past feeling frustrated, past crying, I was now just laughing. I couldn’t believe how slow these grass courts were playing.”

The death of serve and volley at Wimbledon is the result of a combination of factors, including the slowing down of courts around the world, the advent of polyester string and improvements in the players’ physical conditioning.

It seems inconceivable that the 2019 Championships could be won by a new Navratilova or Stefan Edberg. But in their place, Wimbledon has enjoyed an era bursting with all-time greats. Serve and volley may have died, but grass court tennis is thriving.

Further reading