How Tennis Should Bolster the Grass-Court Season

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJune 13, 2014

Switzerland's Roger Federer  serves  the ball to  Mikhail Youzhny of Russia  during  the final of the  ATP Gerry Weber Open tennis tournament  in Halle , Westphalia, Germany, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Martin Meissner/Associated Press

The heart of tennis tradition is in Europe where red-clay courts at the French Open make way for green lawns at Wimbledon. And while this grand theatre catches the eye of even the casual sports fan, the trouble is that the prologue quickly turns into the epilogue. Tennis dilettantes scan their programs, wondering why the show cannot go on.

The grass-court season is merely an intermission and that’s a tragedy.

The ATP World Tour must invest more effort to lengthen this interlude and bolster the quality of grass courts tennis. The payoff would be enormous attention and development for the sport.

Fans and Players

The proliferation of hard courts throughout the year has swallowed up most of the tennis world. While clay-court tennis continues to hold onto its minority share of the calendar, grass has been put out to pasture.

In February, I argued for the addition of another important clay-court tournament in my article, "Why Tennis Should Add a 5th Grand Slam in Brazil."  However, several contributors from the Tennis Community supported the idea of adding a grass-court Masters 1000 tournament.

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There are several reasons why many tennis fans lobby for more grass-court participation. Yes, tradition and idyllic grass settings are appealing, but most of all it’s a unique forum for alternative skill sets.

Tennis athletes with quick reflexes and talents can become more visible and entertaining. Much of Roger Federer's great success was built on Wimbledon's grass courts, but many other players could benefit.

This is not a pitch for big servers but rather a plea for wonderful tennis athletes who can serve and volley in this Brave New Tennis World of baseline warriors. These are the tennis athletes who can pick up low-skidding balls with tremendous reflexes and send them back with their own special angles and vertical coverage at the net.

This is where short points are beautiful and thinking man's tennis rewards the risk-taking attacker.

Indeed, the breadth of grass-court talent cannot thrive in only a few weeks. An athlete like Germany’s Dustin Brown cannot otherwise challenge and defeat World No. 1 Rafael Nadal on his ideal surface.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

Veterans like Radek Stepanek, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Sergiy Stakhovsky are often denied more than one quick shining opportunity. They must instead take their talents to the indoor season or other fast hard courts, usually in autumn, when sports fans are tuned into other channels.

It’s true that racket technology and court conditions have all but removed the possible existence of modern grass-court specialists. Another John McEnroe is not walking to Centre Court anytime soon. Stefan Edberg clones are not exactly rolling out of tennis academies.

Tennis has changed, and it's not going to resemble the way it was played decades ago. But this is all the more reason to develop the next generations of tennis players with the ambitions to succeed on grass with modern versions of retro tennis.

Consider a few benefits to increased grass-court competition:

  • Enhance modern forms of attacking tennis and skills to be used on all surfaces
  • Several important grass-court tournaments to tune up for Wimbledon
  • More grass-court data, conversations and records
  • Develop improved grass-court identity for players and fans

Upgrade the Rankings Points for Grass

There has long been a two-week gap between the resolution of the French Open and commencement of Wimbledon. That’s hardly enough time for a cheap tour in either Paris or London. For a tennis player, it’s certainly not adequate time and preparation to rest from the former and tune up for the latter.

The ATP may not care much about the independently run French Open and Wimbledon tournaments. But perhaps they can help push for a four-week period between these two prestigious events that would help them showcase their own meager grass-court schedule.

The All England Club at Wimbledon has already made its move to start one week later beginning in 2015. Chairman Philip Brook issued a statement on Wimbledon:

All our research indicates that there is widespread support within the game for extending the gap between the French Open and Wimbledon and, importantly, we think most players will welcome the prospect of a longer grass court season and spending more time on the softer surface of grass.

The next step is to negotiate a way to end the French Open one week earlier.

Another giant problem is that all grass-court tournaments not called Wimbledon are treated like a bar hostesses at Eastcheap Tavern. They are priced at 250 points for a winner, meaning that star players may or may not show up for big efforts.

They might go through the motions for a tune-up, but the playing field is usually weak. There is less incentive for stars to play full out for points that would be the lunch equivalent of cheese and crackers.

With a four-week gap between these Grand Slam tournaments, the ATP lineup could begin the week after the French Open with The Topshelf Open at the Netherlands and Eastbourne International in Great Britain with their usual 250-points rewards. This would be a head start for grass-court specialists and players eliminated early from Roland Garros.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 05:  The groundsman cuts the grass on centre court as the new layout turns from red to blue at Queens Club on June 5, 2009 in London, England. The newly named AEGON Championships will run from 8th June to 14th June 2009.  (Photo by
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Week Two could then feature a pair of mid-level 500-points tournaments at Queens and the new grass-courts venue at Stuttgart, Germany. Stars resting from two weeks at Roland Garros could then choose one of these opportunities with fresher legs and a chance to get ready for the next two big tournaments.

Week Three would then have the ATP tour playing a Masters 1000 event at Halle, Germany. It’s a well-run tournament, and it would be the crown jewel of German tennis and a worthy opening act to Wimbledon. (Hamburg may or may not feel better about this, but it’s at least partial retribution for their loss of Masters 1000 status on clay.)

Week Four would be a time of rest and Wimbledon festivities including the weekend draw. Meanwhile, players would be as adjusted as possible for grass-court tennis and ready to peak for optimum performances. Fans would be able to evaluate and follow the progress of grass-court results, name favorites and help promote this exciting and unique part of the tennis year.

Of course, grass tennis courts are costly and require incredible upkeep. But added TV revenues and perhaps a subsidized system, including all of the ATP tournaments, could negate possible deficits and allow the financial successes to be near-equal to its hard-courts rulers.

There would undoubtedly be counter arguments, but grass courts could create more exciting alternatives for tennis’ future. It’s certainly no less insane than dyeing crushed brick smurf-colored blue.

Refusing this modest proposal (certainly less radical than Jonathan Swift’s masterful essay), the ATP may as well let hungry cows graze through the current grass-court tournaments. After all, none of the tennis players are going to fatten up their rankings with the status quo.

Tennis fans will be left staring at grainy 1980s TV footage and black and white photos that witnessed a long-forsaken era of serve-and-volley tennis.


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