Behind The Scenes
June 22, 2011 -- Wimbledon is all about tradition. Enough said. But comments abound this year about the speed of the grass courts. Has The All England Club toyed with them?
Simply put -- no. As the information for the press states, "The courts are prepared in a similar manner each year to produce the highest quality playing surface for the world's best players to display their full range of skills."
Even though some might perceive that lovely written statement as a slick public relations attempt to quell ill thoughts of meddling with the grass -- the opposite is true. There is no grass court conspiracy, which would lead to favoritism toward one player or type of player.
During the first round 256 men and women compete in the singles categories. If weather holds, the round ends on Wednesday. Of course, the number dwindles by half per round as thousands of staccato steps, lunging dives, and even some slides batter the baselines of the 19 Championship courts.
Head Groundsman Eddie Seaward's paramount concern, then, is a consistent ball bounce, and a consistent ball bounce extending through the fourteen days of the slam. Since a majority of players claim an aggressive baseline strategy during their matches, that immediate area -- called a sward -- gets much of the ground staff's attention.
"There has been no intention either this year or in the previous years to produce slower courts or ones suited for a particular type of game," reads the press information.
However at the beginning of the 21st Century, the combination of grass seeds were altered. The goal -- prevent holes along the baseline.
Since 2001 courts are sown with 100% Perennial Ryegrass to improve "durability and strengthen the sward to withstand better the increasing wear of the modern game." Before then courts were seeded with a combination of rye and creeping red fescue. Who knew grass seed could have such interesting names?
Rye grass, though, doesn't determine the bounce of a tennis ball. The soil does. It has to be firm. It has to remain dry, too, which is why the courts are covered when they aren't in use and during rain delays.
Twenty-eight ground staff roll, reline, and mow the courts daily. They measure the height of the grass -- 8 mm -- relative to the surface. If the wear and tear from players' pimply-bottomed shoes has excessively battered the baseline, an irregular bounce results.
So why does it appear that the game might have slowed at Wimbledon? Gone are the games we saw when, for example, Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic pounded ace after ace, winning games and sets with little more than a couple rallies, if that. With denser grass, the ball is grabbed and slowed. Less aces, more rallies.
Fans should be pleased with the tough, dense grass effects. They see more tennis and get more for the ticket price.
So if the grass hasn't been tinkered with, is the ball different, continue the naysayers? There has been no change in the balls since 1995 when the compression was altered slightly.
How about the sliding roof? Even guys with big loopy groundstrokes don't adjust the path of their racquet. Doesn't that mean the court is slower? Not really.
Other elements affect the pace of play at Wimbledon. Inside Centre Court with the roof closed humidity rises, the ball collects moisture, and it slows down. Outside if the air is hot and dry, the ball will fly no matter the surface. Little needs to be changed in the length of a player's swing.
Grass, though, results in a lower ball bounce. That's always been the case no matter the seed planted. The low bounce might be tough to spot, especially when players whip up on the ball and create excessive topspin. Look closely. If you watch tactics you'll begin to see players slice more frequently. Their tall opponents must then bend to control their return shots.
"At the end, it's grass," Roger Federer said, during a recent interview. "You take little steps. The ball bounces lower than at other slams."
Kimiko Date-Krumm used her flat-ball game today, thwarting Venus Williams for almost three hours until the 5-time champion put an end to the match 8-6 in the third set. Date-Krumm used a continental grip, which made it tough to create topspin. Venus is used to topspin. Date-Krumm's compact swing disguised the ball's direction, too. And the 40-year-old Japanese woman struck balls immediately after they bounced. So a normally low grass-court bounce was struck even quicker, robbing Venus of valuable time to set up for her shots. A normally graceful and speedy Venus resembled a somewhat clumsy, flat-footed fledgling.
However, Venus secured the win. Champions do that.