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It’s where lawn tennis began. It takes loving care, and ideally an English climate, to perfect it. But when it’s right, the sappy, greasy, springy grass can offer the swiftest, most subtle, most sensuous tennis of all.
The Wimbledon lawns are the best-known patches of turf in the world, but it’s the grass of the historic Queens Club that is more often considered the most perfect iteration of the medium.
Perhaps that is because Wimbledon has, very gradually, had to adapt to the rigors of a more muscular and gruelling game as the other tools of tennis have evolved.
The modern racket is capable of so much more than its wooden forebear, and the player who wields it can maintain longer and more powerful rallies and matches than ever before.
The traditional pattern of wear that used to spread from baseline to the ‘T’ to the net has been replaced by a raw, brown swathe across the entire baseline.
So the grass, pounded as it is, has had to become more resilient—incorporating more perennial rye—and with that extra toughness has come a higher bounce and slower shoot-through.
But Wimbledon’s courts continue to challenge the parts of players that other Slams can’t reach. So what are the characteristics that differentiate it from clay and synthetics?
First, the ball moves off this surface more quickly and with a little less bounce. The sap and the natural moisture in the underlying soil make the surface a little greasy so the ball can skid off the surface with some extra zip.
This is most noticeable in one of the key attacking and counter-attacking shots in the grass court artillery: the slice. A shot that is naturally low bouncing, it slips and skids through a grass court and, played in the right hands, can almost die away as it lands.
Indeed slice, so often regarded as a defensive play used to counter a heavy baseline game, on grass can become the stiletto in the attacker’s arsenal of weapons.
The inherent pace of grass’s surface also favors the big serve, the drive volley, and the smash. Again, in the right hands, these can be executed with just a little extra venom.
By combining the slice with an accurate, wide serve, a player can open the court for the classic one-two, as the server has time to approach the net and cut off the return with a cross-court volley.
This was the signature play of great Wimbledon artists such as Stefan Edberg, Martina Navratilova, and John McEnroe, and it is still a frequent tactic for all-courters such as Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
A flexible, forward-moving player, or one with a big serve-and-volley style, may score more easily on grass than a player who grinds points out from the baseline, but against a great defender, these attacking qualities are not enough.
Other important attributes are soft hands and great touch that can switch between a flat down-the-line drive, a looped top-spin cross-court, and a slow slice that angles away from an opponent and dies on contact with the ground.
Grass differs—from clay in particular—in another major area. It requires nimble feet to make fine-tuned adjustments around the court because it can be an unpredictable surface with varying amounts of grip and slipperiness.
The only way to counter this unpredictability it to stay light and balanced. It’s not possible to make a last lunging stride into a long slide: That way lies twisted ankles or worse!
So footwork has to be measured and precise, and the body balanced enough to change direction side-to-side and back-and-forth. Of course, these are essential qualities for every tennis player on every surface, but they are worth just a little more on grass.
And make no mistake: grass can be a difficult mistress. Not only will its surface play slightly differently from dry days to humid days, or from early in a tournament, when the sap is strong, to late in the tournament, when it has been pounded away.
Because it is natural, and is subject to daily maintenance and to wear and tear, it will not promise a perfect bounce on every shot. Imagine a cricket wicket, and the variation from day to day, week to week. A little of that is also inherent in the grass court.
It’s in that very naturalness, though, that grass has more in common with clay than with the proliferating hard courts: It is kinder on the player’s body. The court absorbs the impact of a player’s feet, knees, and hips more than the unyielding plexicushion that is hard—and hot—beneath the shoes.
Grass may be like clay in its ability to absorb some of the body’s stresses, but it has another element that lends it a unique aural quality for the player and the spectator. It is the quietest of all the surfaces, devoid of skidding feet and the screech of rubber on rubber.
The noiseless movement of feet allows the sound of racket on ball to resound more clearly, giving eloquent clues as to how the ball might behave. In a passage of play that counters slice with slice, the game can become almost silent, like a series of whispers.
Perhaps that’s the clue to why tennis at Wimbledon—and tennis at Queens—is played in a relatively hushed environment.
Sometimes the only sound is the gasp from the crowd as a shot destined, it seems, for the net, skims across the tape, only to be sliced back with equal deftness.
The Queens draw has already offered up a perfect exhibition of the craft of grass court tennis.
Richard Gasquet, switching between top spin and slice, especially on the single-handed sweep of his backhand, swings the ball from one corner to the other, waiting for an opportunity to patter in, body low, for a gently angled volley.
He is designed for this environment, as are Federer and Andy Murray. Each of them has fast feet, balance, and the ability to bend deep to skim a volley short or, just as easily, pierce a drive down the line.
So at Queens, Murray and Gasquet will be players to watch. But also at Queens is the more old-school exponent of fast courts, Andy Roddick.
Both Andys are former winners because, though they have different methods, both take advantage of the special qualities of grass.
Even more fascinating will be seeing how Rafael Nadal continues to adapt his style to this surface. His game has already taken on the necessary skills—volleys, wide swinging serves, sliced backhands—to open up the attack.
And he, along with Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic, have all been practicing attack-the-net drills in training sessions ahead of their matches.
For the lover of all-court tennis, then, there looks to be a feast of power and nuance, strength and nimbleness, attack and counter-attack, slice and top-spin in store.
There certainly seems to be a new appetite for this type of tennis amongst many of the top men.
Whether it’s because a powerful baseline game is no longer enough to win the big matches or because a mixed bag of tricks is an intelligent route to greater longevity in the game, long may it continue.