Are U.S. Open Tennis Courts Even Slower in 2010?

Cliff PotterCorrespondent IAugust 31, 2010

NEW YORK - AUGUST 30:  Lleyton Hewitt of Australia returns a shot against Paul-Henri Mathieu of France during the Men's Singles first round match on day one of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 30, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Does the US Open court surface favor Roger Federer over Rafael Nadal? For years, Nadal has been designated as a slower court specialist, with clay as his favorite. However, recently he has had greater success on grass and hard courts. 

The reason, according to some analysts, has to do with the fact that the courts have been slowing down for some time. Worried that huge servers would dominate those events, all surfaces were slower by 2003.

In 2002, Wimbledon altered its grass, creating a thicker, more durable turf that slows the ball down and allows it to bounce higher, rather than skid, and baseliners have ruled ever since. Jim Curley, tournament director at the U.S. Open, said organizers began slowing their own courts down in 2002, adding extra sand to the paint, and did so again before the 2003 tournament to make the court fair for baseliners and serve-and-volleyers alike.

If you watch the US Open this year, pay special attention to whether the court takes spin more easily. If you think it does, you are not alone. It looks like the "fastest" surface in the Grand Slams has gotten slower this year. And, if so, look for better results by those players who are more at the baseline, and those who hit their strokes with the most wicked spin.

"We're trying to come up with a fair field of play for the integrity of the competition," said Mr. Curley. He said Mr. Roddick complained to him once that the courts had become too slow.

Are the courts even slower today? Have they been slowed even more this year, in a second slow down effort?

Some say the clay at Roland Garros, site of the French Open, was sped up which allegedly allowed more players to succeed on the surface and in the tournament. Fans of Rafael Nadal contend that this difference occurred in 2009. The evidence is that this has been occurring for some time, not just in 2009.

At the same time, the differences between the grass, clay, and hard courts featured at the main Grand Slam tournaments have narrowed. At Wimbledon, which has been played on grass since its inception in 1877, the organizers tweaked the composition of the grass in 2001 to make it more durable. As a result, the notoriously quick surface became much slower. Wimbledon is no longer a serve and volleyer’s paradise—Rafael Nadal won there last year by slugging it out from the baseline. Meanwhile, the clay courts at the French Open, historically the slowest surface, have actually gotten faster in recent years.

But while the US Open slowed its courts measurably in 2002 and 2003, this year's tournament has begun to show signs that the paint got another tweak this year, adding even more sand to make the courts even slower and more susceptible to spin. The best evidence came on the first day when Robin Soderling struggled to win against unranked Andreas Haider-Maurer. While Soderling was arguably not at his best and Haider-Maurer was clearly playing very good tennis, the ball seemed slower and more prone to spin. 

Of course, baseliner Lleyton Hewitt lost, so does a close win or loss prove anything about the court? Probably not.

Yet, because of the signs in statements and on the court, this should be the year for Nadal if there ever was one. Although plenty of competition waits for Nadal, the results so far suggest that baseline play could be even more prevalent at this year's US Open. Federer, however, is trying to play more aggressively based on coaching from his newly hired coach Paul Annacone.

So are the US Open courts slower this year? It is hard to know. There is no information released by the US Open on the amount of silica used in the paint for the top layer of DecoTurf, the surface used by the US Open since 1978. So we may not be able to tell from any official word during the tournament.

Federer for one claims that the surfaces are continuing to slow. 

"And as all the courts kind of slow down—indoors, hard courts, even grass— it's logical that today, if you're at the top, you can win on any surface. That's what he's been able to do. (He) still maybe struggles a little bit on the faster hard courts. But, then again, he won the Australian Open already, he's been multiple times in the semis of the US Open, so that is stuff that he does now quite comfortably."

Is this Nadal's year? It is impossible to tell.

That is why the 2010 US Open will prove one of the greatest in memory. And that is The Real Truth.


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