Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Whatever happened to grass-court tennis?

Hey, wasn't I just talking about clay courts and endless baseline rallies just a few days ago?

There's a few straggling tournaments on dirt throughout the rest of the year, with a couple this week: Warsaw for the men and Barcelona for the women. However, the main thing happening for most of the pros is making the adjustment to playing on grass. The men are in Germany, where Roger Federer—the current Lawn King—is the defending champ and won his first-round match today, and in England for the Artois Championships, which features Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and multiple champs Andy Roddick (pictured making that rarest of shots nowadays, a volley) and Lleyton Hewitt. The women are playing the DFS Classic in Birmingham, where top seed and last year's Wimbledon runner-up, Marion Bartoli, got bounced. (Man, is she struggling!)

But as players gear up for the big W, I have an important question, one that's been nagging me for a few years:

Why isn't grass-court tennis now like it used to be?

Remember just a few years ago when the clay-courters would skip the grass-court season and be caught golfing instead? When, after trudging on the dirt for what seemed like months, serve-and-volleyers knew it was their time to shine? (By the way, whatever happened to serve-and-volleyers? A question for another time, I guess.) Now, it looks like its being played on a fast clay court, much like the old grass they used to play the Australian Open on when Mats Wilander won twice in the early 1980s. (I'm really aging myself with that one!) The balls are fluffier, the courts aren't lightning-quick anymore: What's wrong with a little contrast?

I admit, Rafael Nadal's feats of making Wimbledon finals two years in a row is impressive, especially after coming off a grueling clay-court season. But would that have happened in the days of Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich, Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic, just to name a few guys, and the stuff they were playing on? No way! Much like he almost lost that match to Robert Kendrick a couple of years ago, that would have been the case on a regular basis back then.

I think the definite sign, though, that showed things changed for good was the year Hewitt won in 2002, taking out David Nalbandian. Three out of the four semifinalists were primarily baseliners, poor Tim Henman being the lone net-rusher. Hewitt had a game similar to Andre Agassi's that could do well on faster surfaces. I think Nadal's is different than their's: Just look at his results on hard courts and carpet compared to those two.

Now that Federer guy, he plays a pretty nice game of grass-court tennis, and so does Roddick: I don't think he just benefits from having the biggest serve out there. He returns well enough on grass and rallies well enough, too. Some of these other guys, I just don't know...

For the women, if you don't hit like you're launching balls from a cannon, you don't have a shot. Probably the most unlikely champion in the past 15 years would be Martina Hingis. She was just so much more talented than everyone in '97 when she won and playing Jana Novotna was pretty much like target practice. Now, if you tried to play like she did or Novotna for that matter, you'd likely be eating a lot of turf that day from trying to dodge rockets coming at you from Serena and Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova.

I think my favorite women's grass-court players of all time were Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova. There was enough of a contrast in their styles to make it interesting to watch, where you'd wonder if Navratilova's lefty serve-and-volleying would be enough to overcome Graf's forehand, slice backhand and sheer athleticism.

I'm sorry to sound like an old fogey. I guess I just liked how it used to be in the old days. Just think back even to that Ivanisevic-Pat Rafter final when you're watching Federer and Nadal at Breakfast at Wimbledon again and you'll see what I mean.

(Photos: Getty Images)

1 comment:

Shelia said...

Good Morning Van!

Just popping through to say hello. I've been running like crazy over the last few days.

I hope that you have a great day! :D

Take Care,~~Shelia