There is a very famous video on YouTube (starts at 6:20) where Jason Goodall compares the speed at which a Roger Federer’s serve reaches the returner at Wimbledon 2003 and 2008 respectively. In both videos, Federer had served at 126mph and in 2008, the ball reached the returner at 9mph lesser compared to the one in 2003 (a little less than 20% difference). There is a general consensus that the courts at Wimbledon have considerably slowed down since 2001, and hence it has supported the baseline bashers more than it used to do in the 90's.
The above video provides a considerable proof for that; but what the above video doesn’t mention is that the trajectories of the two serves (even though it originated at same speeds) were different.
In 2008 (the yellow trail), the ball was hit with more topspin, which is why it was already higher up in the air than the one in 2003 (the blue trail). The different trajectories ultimately result in different speed at which the opponent hits the ball.
But it is indeed true that the courts at Wimbledon definitely seem to look slower than in the 90's and the consensus is that the U.S. Open has officially become the fastest surface among the majors.
There is a varied opinion on this matter as well, and hence I thought to look it from different angles.
Both Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal have been mentioned that Wimbledon is still the fastest surface compared to U.S. Open. But the balls used at the latter are lighter and hence zip through the court faster than the ones at Wimbledon, which makes the courts appear faster.
Q. How does it compare with Wimbledon, for example?
RAFAEL NADAL: Everybody talks about Wimbledon is very slow. Maybe because I won two times. (Smiling.) When I started to play on Wimbledon in 2003 or 2002, I don't remember, 2003 we are in 2010, so I played like eight Wimbledons. The speed of the court always was the same. That's my feeling. So there's no discussion Wimbledon is much faster than here. Is another sport than here. But I like the faster courts.
Q. What are your thoughts on the speed of this court versus the speed at Wimbledon and how that affects Rafa's game?
ANDY MURRAY: It's quite clear the balls are a lot faster, a little bit harder to control the balls. Guys are serving harder. But I think the court itself I think grass is definitely still quicker than here. I just think because of the warm weather and obviously the balls being they seem very light in comparison to the Slazengers, which are pretty heavy. I think it's just a little bit harder to control the ball on the return. Obviously guys serve a little bit bigger, which might make it a bit harder for Rafa to break.
In fact, Nadal has repeatedly mentioned that it is not the court speed of the Open, but the balls used, that make him more uncomfortable.
As always, the statistics play a very important part in deciding these issues. Finding out the speed of a court is a tough task, and may vary on various parameters; hence, I took the one where the data was readily available—the Ace count.
A comparison of ace counts (aggregated for Men’s Singles across all rounds) at the four majors gives us the following information:
Ace Count (all rounds)
Ace Count (4th round)
The ace count is overwhelmingly high at Wimbledon compared to the other three majors, approximately equal at both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open while much lower (but with lesser difference) at the French Open.
The ace counts is definitely not the only factor which determines the court speed, and it may vary from year to year, but the overwhelmingly high number at Wimbledon (we may like to deduct approximately 300 aces from the 2010 count, given that the 300+ aces in the Isner-Mahut match increased the stats abnormally, but even after deduction the count stays at 3100 and 2950 respectively—still much higher than the other three slams) does makes the claim that Wimbledon is still much faster.
The data, statistics, and players’ thoughts aside, there is a general acceptance among the fans that the Wimbledon grass ‘seems’ slower than the U. S. Open and the grass of the 90's. Some of this may be based on the visual perception, while some may just be just the psychological effect of the hype that has gained traction in the last few years, but as a matter of fact, the grass does ‘seems’ slower these days.
One of the reasons, of course, has been that grass is slower compared to the 90's—as it has been documented comprehensively, but the other reason is also the revolution of strings and the advent of topspin in the game.
In 2003, the top players included Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Mark Phillippousis, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt et. all, most of whom either played serve-n-volley, or hit hard, flat strokes. Compare it to 2008, the top players include Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roddick et. all, most of whom (including Roddick) preferring to pound topspins at the opponent than relying on the flat, perpendicular racket head.
And while Wimbledon may not be as penetrative as the clay of Roland Garros, it is still responsive enough to the topspin (evidence being Rafa’s vicious spinning serves are much more of a weapon at Wimbledon than at the U.S. Open). Even the drop shots and volleys were more effective at SW19 this year, compared to Flushing where they were being tracked down with more abandon.
Consequently, the top spinning strokes stay more time in the air and pop up after hitting, compared to a flat shot hit at the same (or even marginally less) speed. At the U.S. Open, the surface being not that responsive to topspin (due to the use of the balls and the smooth asphalt surface), the players (especially Federer, Djokovic, and Murray, and more recently del Potro) tend to flatten their shots, resulting in a relative faster speed off the court.
In fact, during the Wimbledon Quarter Final between Nadal and Soderling, BBC broadcaster John McEnroe was repeatedly quoting that the surface again felt like the one used in the 90's. And it does support the theory—Soderling hits his forehand flat with minimal topspin. The same court appears a lot slower once Nadal hits his forehand.
Comparing the speed of the courts depends on a lot of factors: spin, bounce, and the type of balls used being the most important. The greater use of topspin at Wimbledon makes the courts appear relatively slower than the ones at the U.S. But the spin and bounce does not take away from the fact that Wimbledon is still the fastest surface around, at least in the majors.
Is it as fast as it was in ’99? No. Is it still faster than the surfaces used at the other majors? Yes.
And even with today’s speed, if players are able to hit more than 10 aces per match (and hence more service winners), why would you want to further enhance the speed and convert it into an ace fest?