Article I wrote on my blog. Whether you agree or disagree, have a read. Read on....
The pace of courts in professional tennis has become the big topic over the last few years on various internet forums printed media. Players have made comments from time to time, especially concerning Wimbledon, but for the first time the issue has come up at the US Open. Roger Federer’s comments after his first round match forced the United States Tennis Association to put out a written statement. Poor weather conditions since the annual resurfacing of the courts meant the courts had been used and power washed less often
The USTA said "Both of these factors have resulted in the courts playing a little slower than usual. We expect the court surface to speed up as the courts get more play throughout the tournament as they traditionally have."
The fact that the USTA felt compelled to make a statement proves there is one thing that is universally agreed on in tennis, the courts have slowed down considerably over the last 10 years. The reasons why have been well documented; but what hasn’t been documented is the impact the slowing of courts has had on both the WTA and ATP tours.
The primary reason for the slowing of courts revolves around the Wimbledon Championships. During the 1990s complaints were that rallies were too short and the game had become too serve dominated. This was before the explosion of the internet and digital television, so most casual tennis fans would watch Wimbledon as it was one of the few tournaments that would be shown on terrestrial television around the world. Also, many clay court specialists would just not play Wimbledon.
The situation came to a head in 2001 when some of the Spanish players including French Open finalist Alex Corretja boycotted the tournament complaining that the Wimbledon Committee were basing seeds not on world ranking but on past pedigree on grass. Many clay court players had no pedigree so they were given a lower ranking. They argued that this was unjustified as they worked all year round to build up a ranking. The situation was further exacerbated by then World Number One and French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten skipping the tournament to take a holiday.
The Wimbledon Committee decided to change the seeding system from 16 to 32, a system the other three major tournaments adopted. However, that’s not the only major change Wimbledon made over the years. From 1995 through 2001 Wimbledon have also changed the composition of the seeds on the famous lawns to slow down the grass and the impact of big serving. Those changes really manifested itself in 2002 when Lleyton Hewitt went on to win Wimbledon. Hewitt’s win coincided with the demise of Pete Sampras as a force on grass, Pat Rafter’s time out from the game to contemplate his future, Roger Federer’s first round defeat and Goran Ivanisevic’s inability to defend to his title due to shoulder trouble. Richard Krajicek got to the quarterfinal but had a surprising 5 set loss to Xavier Malisse.
It became apparent in 2002 that attacking serve and volley tennis was no longer a viable proposition at the top level. This was mainly due to the fact that junior players coming through were no longer attacking the net, whilst future World Number One Roger Federer would change his game on grass from an attacking one to a baseline game to adapt to the changing times. Another significant change Wimbledon made was to go to a heavy duty ball to lessen the impact of big serving. Serving speeds were the same but the returner had a little more time to react as the ball slows relatively after bouncing.
It used to be that each major tournament had unique characteristics. The Australian Open was played on rebound ace between 1988 and 2007 (a rubberised hardcourt which was slow and high bouncing). In 2008 the Australian Open laid a more conventional hardcourt called plexicushion which is decidedly medium pace. The Australian also went from Slazenger balls to Wilson balls, Wilson balls are lighter and quicker but that hasn’t made any real impact on the pace of the courts. Rebound ace favoured both attacking players and aggressive baseliners as players like Sampras, Becker, Agassi, Lendl, Courier, Kafelnikov won the tournament with different styles of play.
Another significant change in the last 10 years has been the decline of indoor carpet courts on both the WTA and ATP tours. The indoor season was an important part of the calendar with tournaments in Europe and the United States culminating in the end of year Championships. For many years the womens final was played in Madison Square Garden in New York and Los Angeles. The mens tournament was played in Madison Square Garden, Frankfurt and then Hanover in Germany.
Indoor carpet as a surface favoured attacking players but baseliners could also excel on the surface. Players of the calibre of Ivan Lendl, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles had excellent records on the surface. Modern players like David Nalbandian have also done extremely well on indoor carpet. However, most of the indoor tournaments have replaced carpet with hard courts including Paris Bercy and Rotterdam. Tournaments such as Philadelphia and Stuttgart have been taken off the calendar in recent times. In 2005 Jim Courier was interviewed on BBC radio during Wimbledon and stated that the demise of attacking tennis was due to the decline of carpet tournaments and the ATP should address the issue.
The fact that hardcourt tennis is played all year round both indoors and outdoors doesn’t help with player injuries as hardcourts are so punishing on the body.
Medium pace courts allow players more time to set up their shots, there is less need to develop a large skills set to earn a good living from tennis. This is especially true in the womens game at present. There are currently a large proportion of players who play a similar game based on the Nick Bollietieri blueprint. That blueprint is to try to control the middle of the court with fierce groundstrokes and have a big return game. However, many players are not developing their serves as a reliable weapon, do not develop any volley or overhead skills and hardly ever apply slice on the backhand side to change the pace and tempo of rallies.
Caroline Wozniacki has been World Number One for twelve months and yet has a great amount of technical flaws in her game including a weak 2nd serve and poor volleys and a general passiveness in her game. We are unlikely to see players of the technique, variety and strategy of an Amelie Mauresmo or Justine Henin anytime in the near future. Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova is one of the few players today who has the potential to add a lot of variety to her game, especially on grass.
The mens game is also suffering as the general public do not know who the players are outside of the top four. And with the new ranking system that gives points like confetti, David Ferrer who’s currently ranked 5 in the world is almost 10,000 points behind number 1 Novak Djokovic. The mens game also has a problem where 90 % of the players play a similar game where the slice backhand and net play are very much exceptions to the rule.
Medium paced courts are presently masking any flaws in technique players may have. With current racquet and string technology, players have much more time to set up their shots to keep the rallies extended, and it has become more difficult for shotmakers to hit through players or make telling volleys consistently. It has become much more difficult to rush opponents into errors plus the return of serve has probably become more vital than the serve.
Medium paced courts have discouraged players with natural attacking ability to adopt that strategy as it doesn’t pay in todays game. At Wimbledon it will become increasingly difficult for an attacking player to win the tournament. Joe Wilfred Tsonga got to the semifinal this year playing great tennis but ran into Novak Djokovic in the semifinal, who probably has the best defence in the world. Players like Tsonga would thrive on indoor carpet courts if they still existed.
An interesting phenomenon we’ve seen in the last 10 years are tall players who play as counterpunchers. That would have been inconceivable twenty years ago. Andy Murray and Gael Monfils are blessed with athletic ability and a big serve and could have played much more aggressive tennis. It can be argued that both players haven’t maximised their potential due to their style of play, again exacerbated by slow and medium paced courts on all surfaces.
It’s time that the powers of tennis look to find ways of bringing back variety to the game. The mens game will face a similar scenario to the womens game once Roger Federer hangs up his racquet. The womens game has really suffered since the departures of players like Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin because so many of their matches and rivals offered a great contrast in styles which the public always love to see. When Wimbledon rushed to slow down the grass courts, they overlooked the great matches played over the years between the attacker and the baseliner such as Rafter v Agassi or Navratilova v Graf.
The International Tennis Federation, The ATP and WTA would do well to listen to the fans and lay the groundwork of reintroducing variety into the game of Tennis, by speeding up many courts. This would encourage coaches around the world to teach more variety to their pupils and not the one dimensional baseline game we now see so often.