Everyone loves Wimbledon but do they really love playing tennis on grass?
Andy Murray calls it a pain in the backside. Playing on a grass court is a right, royal pain in the fundament.
Now, before anyone thinks that our knighted champion was having a pop at Wimbledon and its manicured lawns, let us explain: Murray was being serious. The switch from two months’ hard graft on the slow, red clay courts of continental Europe to the lush grass of south-west London hurts.
From sweating blood to welting the ball at earlobe height in the spring, suddenly the great and the good have to contend with the ball fizzing around their bootstraps and then stubbornly refusing to bounce when it gets there. All that bending and lunging puts an almighty strain on the gluteus maximus – the bum muscle – in those first few training sessions.
Murray, though, perseveres and with his rear end honed to perfection, he enjoys his brief stint on the green stuff. As the five-time champion of Queen’s Club and twice the winner of Wimbledon, he is rather good at it, too. But he is very much in the minority.
There was a time – and it was not so long ago – when three of the four Grand Slams were played on grass. Only the French dared to be different with their dusty, crushed brick (due to delicate Brexit negotiations, the obvious joke to make here has been redacted on grounds of taste and of not wishing to cause an international diplomatic incident).
But by 1975 the US Open had torn up its lawns and even the Australians, who thrived on the grass, switched to hard courts in 1988. Only Wimbledon remained true to its roots while the rest of the grass-court season was whittled away to almost nothing.
Of the 125 tour-level events listed on the ATP and WTA’s calendars, only 14 are played on grass (eight for the men and six for the women). For the mathematically minded, that is 11.2 per cent of tournaments played on the green stuff. And they are all shoe-horned into a six-week spell after the French Open. So why bother? Wimbledon – that’s why. If it were not for the juggernaut of SW19, the grass courts would shrivel up and die.
That said, even Wimbledon was struggling in the 1990s. Pete Sampras was king of Centre Court, but in the 1994 final, as he blasted his way past Goran Ivanisevic in three sets of huge serve, missed return, ace, service winner and eventual capitulation of a crushed Goran, the natives were getting restless. This wasn’t tennis; this was tennis players facing a firing squad.
Between 1993 and 2000 Sampras won seven titles. His stranglehold on The Championships was loosened only by Richard Krajicek in 1996 – and his serve was none too shabby either. For even the most diehard fan, it was a bit like watching paint dry. The rest of the men in the locker room – and their coaches – had had enough.
Back in those days, the aerial shots of Wimbledon during the second week showed green bits around the edges of the courts, two brown spots on the baseline where the server did his stuff and huge patches of well-trodden dirt around the net. Those were the days when rallies (if the point got that far) lasted two or three shots and the only way to play on grass was to serve big and rush forward as fast as your size nines could carry you.
Fast forward a couple of decades and the baselines are literally ground into the dirt while the net area remains a green sward of lushness. Oh, sure, it is still possible to charge the net at Wimbledon, but it is a tactic fraught with danger. As you lurch forward, you are likely to see the ball whistle past you like a laser-guided missile. The passing shot and the return rule the roost these days.
This is due in no small part to the decision to slow down the courts at the end of the Nineties and beginning of the Noughties. In those days, Wimbledon was not popular with the clay courters of Europe. The seeding committee, an august body of club members, ignored the official rankings and promoted the big blokes with booming serves and in so doing tended not to favour the dirtballers from overseas, predominantly the Spanish contingent (more jokes have been censored here). All in all, it was not a happy time. Something had to be done.
In came the 32 seeds, out went the seeding committee and the groundsmen were given new instructions on how to prepare the courts. So now we have grass-court tennis played from the baseline and the serve-and-volley game is all but dead.
Even so, grass is still a one-off and with the exception of a handful of players (including Murray and a certain R Federer of Switzerland), few truly like it.
Sampras hated it when he started out, Agassi could not fathom it at first and you suspect even Serena Williams – she of the seven Wimbledon singles titles – does not really like playing on the stuff. This is the same Serena who tempered her joy at learning she was expecting her first child last year with the thought that now she would have to miss The Championships when she had “planned” on winning. “Planned” like other people “plan” to have the garden shed reroofed or the front room recarpeted. But you have to doubt whether she really likes grass.
And yet almost everyone loves Wimbledon. Rafa Nadal set his heart on winning there long before he started mopping up Roland Garros titles and in 2002 Serena was as pleased with her new All England Club member’s badge as she was with her first singles title and trophy there.
Grass-court tennis may be a pain in the backside, but it is worth the suffering. And, thanks to Wimbledon, it is here to stay.