They've been slowing down the courts at the US Open for a while now.
Surface tension: Players say bounces are higher, pace slower on U.S. Open hardcourts
For years, players have observed that the once lightning-slick lawns at Wimbledon have gradually slowed down. One look at the brown baselines this month revealed the obvious: a surface once dominated by net chargers has become a backcourter's paradise.
But the notion that surface speed has changed could just as easily be applied to Grand Slam tournaments in New York, Paris and Melbourne, Australia.
According to players, officials and tournaments, surface speed has been trending toward the middle, meaning grass and indoor courts are slower, clay is faster and balls bounce higher and with less pace on hardcourts.
No less an intergenerational authority than Martina Navratilova is convinced this homogenization has taken over the sport.
"Everything's slower," says the nine-time Wimbledon singles champ, who at 49 has played in four decades on tour.
On grass, "The slice stays low, but the topspin doesn't," says Navratilova, who finished her career at Wimbledon two weeks ago in doubles and mixed doubles.
Many players assert that hardcourts in the USA are no exception.
"You don't have these American hardcourt tournaments which are just unplayable from the baseline, unreturnable," says No. 1 Roger Federer, the reigning U.S. Open champion who won his fourth consecutive Wimbledon crown July 9 against Rafael Nadal. "Everywhere you sort of get into the points. It's actually quite slow now."
The evidence is more than anecdotal. After the 2000 Open, U.S. Tennis Association officials felt the DecoTurf II at the National Tennis Center in New York was too fast. They slowed it down for 2001 and made another adjustment in 2003.
When Spanish baseliner Juan Carlos Ferrero made it to the final that year against cannon-serving Andy Roddick, officials felt they had achieved a happy medium. It hasn't changed since.
"With Roddick and Ferrero reaching the final that year, we thought we had the right balance," USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier says.
Other tournaments in the North American summer hardcourt swing, now part of the US Open Series, followed suit in order to align themselves with the season's final Grand Slam.
That's the case at the Rogers Masters in Montreal and the Pilot Pen in New Haven, Conn.
"We could not attract top players unless we had the same surface as the U.S. Open," says New Haven tournament director Anne Worcester, who laments the push toward the middle.
"The beauty of tennis is the heterogeneity of our surfaces," adds Worcester, a former CEO of the WTA. "In my view, maintaining that diversity is a critical asset to the sport, and I think we should be doing everything possible to encourage serve-and-volleying in tennis."
Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre agrees attracting pros who want to play on something similar to the New York courts is a big reason his event switched to a slower DecoTurf surface in 2003.
"But the main reason is the show itself," he says, explaining that the switch to a medium-paced court ensures that attacking and counterpunching styles can thrive while increasing the odds of long, entertaining rallies.
At Wimbledon, erosion provides ample evidence that, if not speed, the style of the game has changed. Where once sandy brown patches would develop around the service "T," now the bulk of the worn turf is on the baseline.
Tour officials say there has been no conscious effort to dumb down surfaces, with the exception of indoors, where tournaments have adopted slower courts to increase rallies and avoid two-shot tennis.
"We try to avoid the extremes," says Andre Silva, vice president of player relations for the ATP tour.
Eddie Seaward, the head groundskeeper at the All England Club, says Wimbledon has not attempted to slow down the grass in his 17 years overseeing the club's 19 playing and 22 practice courts.
"I'm not saying (claims of slower grass) are bunk, but we have done nothing intentionally to make them slower," says Seaward, 62.
However, the composition of the grass has changed in recent years. In 2001, Seaward and his staff switched to 100% ryegrass from a blend using 60% ryegrass, which is thicker and sturdier and therefore more durable.
The bigger change, as far as Seaward is concerned, is the soil. The club went to a denser, harder dirt that lets in more air and dries quicker, meaning bounces are truer and higher, especially in arid, hot weather — which was the case at Wimbledon this year.
"The only thing I can think of is that the ball bounces higher because the courts are harder than 10 years ago," Seaward says.
That's certainly Andre Agassi's impression. The 36-year-old Las Vegan, who announced at the start of Wimbledon that he will retire at the U.S. Open, says the surface has become so hard and true that the ball "almost ... bounces like a hardcourt."
Conspiracy theorists aside, there are other reasons it's now often more advantageous to hug the baseline rather than charge the net.
Racket and string technology has contributed to the extinction of serve-and-volley tennis. The ability to hit big returns and balls that many players say are bigger and heavier are other factors.
Rick Leach, a former No. 1 doubles player who played for 20 years at Wimbledon, says he kept balls from previous tournaments and the felt covering is much less fluffy from years past.
The materials used in most indoor surfaces are more cushioned and slower. Likewise, some events in the USA are using surfaces with more granules in the paint, which causes the ball to grip more and accentuate the effect of topspin.
"In my opinion, there has been a conscious effort to slow the ball speed down a bit," says Jim Lathrop, whose company, Total Tennis, oversees resurfacing for the courts at the ATP's Cincinnati Masters tournament.
"I mean, Indian Wells, forget about it," Navratilova says of March's Pacific Life Open tournament. "You hit a great volley, and the person's got five minutes to run it down and hit it by you."
Whether homogenization is good or bad for the sport is another topic.
Virginia Wade, the 1977 Wimbledon singles champ, says the switch from the red clay of Roland Garros to the grass of Wimbledon used to be "dramatically different." But even though it's closer today, that's not necessarily bad.
"It's been an evolution, but it's no detriment to the game," Wade says.
"Now the ball has gone completely in favor of the baseliner," she says. "It's a shame."