Is Wimbledon really a "grass" tourny??
Hard fact of Hewitt's success
Australian enjoyed firm base from which to challenge rivals, says Jon Henderson
Sunday July 14, 2002
Heard the one about aliens using the Centre Court as an overnight parking spot for their spaceship, which is why the surface was so slow this year? It's probably the only one you haven't. Everybody from John McEnroe to Sid and Doris Bonkers seems to have a theory about the conditions at Wimbledon that explains why Tim Henman and the rest of the serve-volleyers, who traditionally dominate the championships, had such a difficult fortnight this time. Different grass, different balls, a special spray being used to slow down the surface, air being blown under the covers - these are just a few of the conjectures that have passed my way to account for a men's final between two baseliners for the first time since most people could remember. The one about the spray was McEnroe's, the air under the covers was from the friend of a friend of mine and the different grass/different balls theories were coming from all angles. One lady wrote to us from Bradford to suggest that the tournament had been 'sold out by the short-sighted fears' of the All England club, who, fearing a loss of prestige, had 'deemed it desirable to change once again the grass-court surface, making it much slower, and changing the balls so that they are fluffier, fuller, more buoyant and visible'.
Eddie Seaward, the head groundsman at Wimbledon for the past 13 championships, is the sort of phlegmatic, good-natured soul who is not easily moved to anger, but even he registered a flicker of irritation when asked whether there had been any doctoring of the courts. 'There's been quite a lot of silly talk,' he said, 'because we've done absolutely nothing different to them from what we've done in previous years.' Two changes that had taken place since he took over had, Seaward said, merely helped 'the wear qualities' of the grass and had not made the courts any slower. These were to adjust the height of the grass from 6mm to 8mm, something that was done five years ago, and to change the mixture of the grass from 70 per cent rye/30 percent fescue to 100 per cent rye. 'It always attracts people's attention when they see the guy kneeling on the grass apparently counting the blades,' said Seaward, 'but what he's actually doing is looking to see what grasses are surviving in the mixture during the championships, and we were finding that the fescues were not going through the fortnight while the rye grasses were. That's why we changed it two years ago. But it has had no effect on the pace of the courts.' Seaward said that talk of a spray being used was ridiculous - 'There aren't any such products on the market even if we did want to use them' - and that blowing air under the covers merely accelerated the drying process and did nothing to alter the courts' behaviour.
A spokeswoman for Slazenger, the ball manufacturers, said she had been on the thick end of confronting all the rumours about changes to the balls and was trying to find out where they were all coming from. She said the balls had been unchanged for five years except for the addition of a water-repellent coating this year that had not made any difference to them.
So much for the theories. How about the facts? There is one that could explain why the baseline bandits are beginning to pick off the players who like to come to the net. 'I think the only thing that's changed over the years is that we've got the courts harder these days,' said Seaward. 'As a result, you're getting a higher bounce, which may slow the game down and give the players that split second longer to play the ball.' Seaward says the hardness of the courts is now on a par with Queen's, the club in west London that stages the men's grass-court event in the build-up to Wimbledon and whose courts have long had a reputation for producing a higher, more consistent bounce than those at the All England club. This would help to explain why Lleyton Hewitt, who has always played well at Queen's but before this year had done badly at Wimbledon, has suddenly broken through in the grand-slam event.
Another fact is that, with more players staying back at Wimbledon,[i] the grass along the baselines is quickly being worn away so that the deeply-struck balls are landing on a surface that is more akin to a hard court and are easier to hit.[/i[ And the main reason players are staying back is that grass-court tennis is now played almost exclusively in the north-west corner of Europe for four weeks after the French Open and players simply aren't bothering to develop serve-volley games for this short period. Which is not silly talk but a fact that Wimbledon cannot ignore if they want the game's original surface to survive. As much as anything, Wimbledon is a victim of the historically based tennis itinerary - or 'scheduling mess' as Henman described it to me before the championships - that means there is a grand slam at the start of the year in Australia, five months without one and then two in quick succession, the French and Wimbledon, on opposite surfaces, clay and grass. 'Wimbledon might move a week later, but how much would that change things?' said Henman. 'It would give a little bit more time for the clay-court guys to adapt, but if you're looking at it from the point of view of bringing back grass into the schedule I think in all honesty it's unlikely to help.'
For the grass-court game to look forward to a secure future, Wimbledon should be moved to the end of July to allow an extended season on the surface. But this isn't going to happen, which makes it important that Seaward softens up the surface so that it returns to being distinguishable from all the other tournaments pandering to Hewitt and the horde of baseline automatons. The consequence of not doing this could be that Henman Hill becomes the only bit of turf on the premises.