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Grass court tennis on the back foot

The first week of The Championships is behind us and it's clear that grasscourt tennis is once again coming under the scanner for different reasons.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2003 03:19 IST
S. Kannan

The first week of The Championships is behind us and it's clear that grasscourt tennis is once again coming under the scanner for different reasons. Since the time a certain Goran Ivanisevic started blasting those aces in the early nineties much to the discomfort of his opponents, the cry has been tennis is getting boring and one-dimensional.

Louder voices were head in 1992. Even though the charismatic Croatian lost the final to Andre Agassi, there were noises that one day one of the line umpires on court could actually get killed. We are now in 2003, and it's a huge relief that no umpire has been killed. What perhaps, is being killed is the sheer joy of watching the classic serve-and-volley artists perform.

Tennis has evolved quite a bit and it's a far cry from the days when three of the Grand Slams were played on grass. Today, the whole grass court season lasts no more than four weeks comprising the Wimbledon fortnight.

Should grasscourt tennis not be preserved in its pure form then? If the action at last year's Wimbledon and the first week this year is to be taken as an indicator, it's not the dying breed of serve-and-volleyers who are basking under the pleasant British sun. Sadly, it's the big serve and the heavy metal forehand that is being discussed more often with Andy Roddick standing as the front-runner for the title.

Even though not many will talk in open about the changes that have gone into the preparation of the lush green courts, the fact is the surface can no longer be termed as unpredictable. Nor can the Spanish armada complain there's bad bounce and they have to bend their knees to go for the low balls.

The days when a Stefan Edberg or a Boris Becker hit a first volley and ended the point seem very much a thing of the past. And don't be surprised if in coming years one has to go to the archives and see video clips of how these players once controlled a whole match by standing close to the net, fully knowing they were taking huge chances.

The changes in the composition of the grass with more efforts thrown in to slow down the game by increasing the ball pressure has had such an effect, that anyway can see it with naked eyes. You don't necessarily have to be present on the lawns of SW 19 to see which way the wear-and-tear happens on these courts.

When Pete Sampras won seven titles here (the last three coming against Goran Ivanisevic, Andre Agassi and Pat Rafter from 1998 to 2000), or when John McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Pat Cash and Michael Stich finished as champions from 1981 to 1991, there was very little grass on the fore court on the last day of The Championships.

This time, with a week gone, it's just the opposite. Most of the grass worn out is on the baseline, which is suggestive of the way the game is headed. Unless, of course, a Tim Henman or Roger Federer comes along and proves us wrong.

Last year, there was huge disbelief when Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian contested the final. Ivanisevic was not there to defend his title and Pat Rafter decided he had played enough tennis after losing the final twice here. The rest packed up so early that serve-and-volleyers could not be seen anywhere on the horizon.

Even though some of the top Spanish players like Carlos Moya, Alex Corretja have given the 2003 Championships a miss, it did not have too much to do with hatred for grass. "Tell me, when Hewitt can win the title here with this kind of a game, would it not hurt Moya," said Leander. What the Indian said was not to undermine Hewitt's achievement, but highlight that fact that had conditions like these prevailed a few years back, more baseliners would have been coming here from the clay court season to perhaps challenge Sampras.

Take the case of Gustavo Kuerten, who has won the French Open thrice. He skipped Wimbledon in 2001 and 2002, but came this time. Obviously, when the superior players like Kuerten and Ferrero see a Nalbandian making the final, there's nothing wrong if they fancy their chances.

One reason why the texture of the grass has been altered is that it yields a higher and more predictable bounce, making it more conducive for the groundstrokes. Come on, nobody comes to Wimbledon to see long rallies. They get enough of that at the French Open.

Out here it's the sizzling Sampras second serve or the patented overhead slam dunk, the artistic Rafter volley or the touch artistry of our own Ramanathan Krishnan, which people still savour.

With an increase in the ball pressure as well and more fluff, not only do we get to see more rallies at Wimbledon, but also a slowing down of the game.

The other day when Henman, a natural serve-and-volley player, was struggling with his game and staying back on his second serve, McEnroe and Becker were agonising over it. Henman minced no words in saying the courts were slower, making it more difficult for him to come in. "I think the change is huge when compared to last year," he said at the post-match conference.

At a time when the whole of Britain is crying for a champion from home, it is surprising that the bosses who have a say in what goes on at Wimbledon are tampering with quite a few things, knowing fully well that Henman and Rusedski love the quicker surfaces. To change the whole character of the surface not only means more problems for the serve-and-volley players, but actually more advantages for players like Andy Roddick, who serve big, can afford to stay back and keep whacking the ball till his opponent's hands start bleeding.

Not all can do it, since the stress and strain on the body is huge. And that perhaps is the reason why there are so many injuries as well today and why players struggle in the middle of the season.

At a time when the power dimension in men's and women's tennis is increasing, it does come as a surprise when greats like McEnroe and Martina Navratilova say the racquet head size should be reduced. Will a lesser contact area not mean that the players will have to go through the torture of sorting out their strokes all over again at practice?

When Bjorn Borg won five singles titles here from 1976 to 1980 from the back court, people wondered how he could do it. Here was the ice-cool Swede winning with a style which he had used at the French Open as well. The point is that was the wooden racquet age. If people tell you today that spectators want to see more rallies and not just the slam bang stuff, don't believe it.

There's enough of it all year round with indoor carpets also forming a portion of the calendar.

The breed of serve-and-volley specialists is vanishing. Perhaps, a survey ought to take place where viewers should be asked what they want to see at Wimbledon.

Do they fancy the images of a diving Becker or Nalbandian engaged in a rally? Do they fancy seeing an Ivanisevic serve thunderbolts or a Hewitt return big and then wait for executing the forehand winner.

Oh yes, how can one forget the classic serve-and-volley which Jana Novotna used to win the ladies title here in 1998? She was a rarity, even though Venus Williams comes close with her net skills. But watch Venus --- champion here in 2000 and 2001 --- today or a Lindsay Davenport in action. Even they are forced to stay back.

Come on folks, why should we force grass court tennis on the back foot?

Champions’ roll

Bjorn Borg (baseliner): Winner from 1976 to 1980.

John McEnroe (serve and volley): Winner in 1981, 1983 and 1984.

Jimmy Connors (baseliner): Winner in 1982.

Boris Becker (serve and volley): Winner in 1985, 1986 and 1989.

Pat Cash (serve and volley): Winner in 1987.

Stefan Edberg (serve and volley): Winner in 1988 and 1990.

Michael Stich (serve and volley): Winner in 1991.

Andre Agassi (baseliner): Winner in 1992.

Pete Sampras (serve and volley): Winner 1993, 94, 95, 97, 98, 99 and 2000.

Richard Krajicek (serve and volley): Winner in 1996.

Goran Ivanisevic: (serve and volley): Winner in 2001.

Lleyton Hewitt (Baseliner): Winner in 2002.

2003: ?

First Published: Jun 29, 2003 03:19 IST