This thought provoking article appeared in today's Guardian's comment section.
Grass or clay?
A new hybrid tennis court has prompted an exhibition match between Nadal and Federer, a big lawsuit, and questions about whose winning streak survives.
May 14, 2007 6:30 PM |
For as long as I can remember, I've been a tennis fanatic. That's over thirty years now. Some of my earliest memories are of watching classic tennis matches, most of them involving Borg, Connors and, later, McEnroe. My father and his cousin taught me to play on public courts in London when I was about five years-old, and when I was a bit older my parents scrimped and saved enough to have me join the David Lloyd Club, which was at that time practically the only indoor club in the city. Sometimes my dad would get up at five in the morning to drive me out to the club, out near Heathrow, for lessons; other times, I'd get up practically in the middle of the night to catch a night-bus or the first tube of the day to the airport and then a bus from there to the courts.
I can still instantly recreate in my mind's eye what it felt like to get out on those indoor courts after a frosty early morning ride and start thwacking balls back and forth; I remember the running exercises, the serving practice, the echo of newly-out-of-the-can balls bouncing off the floor under the cavernous, hanger-like roof.
I daydreamed about winning Wimbledon, but never really had the talent to do much more than get through a round or two in local kids' tournaments. When I got older, I stopped dreaming about becoming a Grand Slam hero and put my energies into watching others, reveling in the glories of the teenage Becker, Agassi, Sampras and the other stars of my generation. A few years back, I wrote an article about searching for televisions to watch important tennis matches in such unlikely corners of the worlds as the lower Himalaya. I had more fun writing that than practically anything else I've written.
Yes, I'm a politics hound and a news junkie. But, when I take off those masks, what I really pride myself on is what I consider to be my panoramic knowledge of tennis. Who won what when? Who broke what tennis record by winning how many matches in a row? And so on. Pure, unadulterated, sports trivia. (I know many other journalists with similar obsessions: a politics writer friend of mine is an American football obsessive; one of my journalism school mentors is a baseball nut. The editor of the New Yorker is, I believe, a boxing history aficionado.)
So, given my obsession, I was a bit miffed last week when I got a strange call from my father about a hybrid tennis court upon which Federer and Nadal, the two ranking princes of the game, had dueled on May 3. A hybrid court? No way! This in a sport that a mere sixteen years ago almost excommunicated the young Andre Agassi for appearing at Wimbledon and refusing to conform to the all-white-clothing rules in place at the venerable championships. My, haven't we come a long way in a short time.
No, I wasn't miffed about the event itself, which struck me as a brilliantly innovative gimmick in an age of gimmickry. Rather, I was perturbed that I'd somehow managed to miss all coverage of this bizarre spectacle... My only excuse to myself was that having two young kids has, indeed, finally taken a toll on my ability to stay on top of the news.
Anyway, here's what apparently happened. An exhibition match was arranged in Mallorca, Spain, between Roger Federer, who has been invincible on grass for the past five years, and Rafael Nadal, who's been equally dominant on clay in recent years. Federer's won 48 straight matches on grass; Nadal a stunning 72 on clay.
On May 3, half the court was grass; across the net, the other half was red clay. In front of nearly 7,000 people the two duked it out, switching ends every two games just like in a regular match. Two and a half hours after they hit the first ball, Nadal eked out the narrowest of victories. The final score: 7-5, 4-6, 7-6. The deciding tie-break was won by Nadal 12-10.
Shortly afterwards, Renata Marcinkowska, a one-time bit-player on the women's tour, announced she was suing IMG, the company that had arranged the two million dollar exhibition match, for ripping off her idea. Marcinkowska claims that she had patented the hybrid court idea, then approached IMG with the aim of promoting an exhibition match, was given the brush-off, and then found out IMG was running with her idea and claiming it as their own.
I'm interested in the lawsuit up to a point. After all, the hybrid court notion is original enough to certainly deserve patent protection. And if Marcinkowska did, indeed, make the intellectual leap that facilitated such a creation, she probably deserves her share of the resulting filthy lucre.
But, if I'm honest, here's the question that really intrigues me: did Nadal maintain his clay-court winning streak, or did he finally break Federer's grass-court win tally?
For a sports statistics nut, there are a multitude of issues in play here. Did Nadal win more points on grass or on clay? If he served while standing on clay and the ball blasted past Federer, who was standing on grass, which surface takes credit for the point won? Do we care about the speed and height of the bounce that each surface generated, or do we care more about the sort of footing that the player had depending on the surface he was standing on? Nadal won three of his last four points while standing on the clay side of the net. So did he win them on clay, or did Federer lose them on grass? Does the result prove Federer is less versatile on clay than Nadal is on grass? Or did some of that red clay dust blow on over to the grass across the net, thus slowing the grass down by a vital sliver and working to the Spaniard's advantage?
As a tennis fanatic, I won't rest easy until I see such a hybrid match in person and start to work out ways to answer these questions. As for the gimmick quality of the event? Well... fifteen years ago, Agassi's blue-jean shorts were written off as a gimmick... and look what he went on to do. Who knows, perhaps the hybrid court is a glimpse of tennis's future. Maybe in a few years, in an attempt to capture a youth audience insistent on continuous novelty, the French Open and Wimbledon will be amalgamated - a tennis equivalent of Churchill's desperate last-minute proposal to politically unite England and France just before France fell to the Nazis. The courts will be half red, half green, the players will all wear blue-jean shorts, and the location will be half-way between London and Paris, on one or another of the Channel Islands.
Anyone for tennis?
What do you think of the opinions expressed by Abramsky. I for one tend to find the whole idea amusing and agree with the author that I would like to see such a match played. What about the questions he asks, did Rafa extend his streak on clay and did he break Roger's dominance on grass?