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Whatever Happened to Grass-Court Tennis?

As the pros gear up for the big "W" by playing grass-court tournaments in England and Germany, I have an important question, one that's been nagging me for a few years:

Why isn't grass-court tennis like it used to be? Vote here and let your feelings be known if you're like me and you miss the good old days or if you think it's fine how it is now!

Remember, though, 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 Lleyton Hewitt won in 2001, 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 Roger Federer guy, he plays a pretty nice game of grass-court tennis, and so does Andy 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.

(Photo: Getty Images)

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Comment by Van Sias on June 12, 2008 at 2:37pm
Hi Patrick. I think also the Wimbledon organizers began to feel like the tournament was just becoming a serve-fest, but I don't think that was really the case. I think those big servers also had solid all-around grass-court games. It's a shame to see that's become such a thing of the past.

Even with all of his game, Roger Federer is winning Wimbledon pretty much from the baseline. I can see why you hear about Pete Sampras wishing he could have played against these guys since they all stay back nowadays.
Comment by Patrick on June 12, 2008 at 11:35am
I'd like to see that return as well. Grass-court tennis caters to baseliners lately, and I have begun to miss the days when clay and grass really were different seasons dominated by very different types of players. It made for interesting tennis, really. Just like the idea of a serve-and-volleyer getting to the French final, if a defender/baseliner made it into the big show in a grass tournament like Wimbledon, it was a big deal. Then, later in the year, the odds were evened on hard courts and you could see who really had it in those opposing match-ups. Now there isn't a serve-and-volleyer to be seen on tour and that makes for very little variety. Don't get me wrong, I like seeing a couple guys bash around the long ball for a while. But at some point, I want to see something different. Maybe a Boris Becker vs. Stefan Edberg type of match with oftentimes quicker, but more exciting individual points.

Why did the All England Club change that? I have some speculative reasons. I think the most likely is that the US Open was fast becoming the focal event of the year, since no player had a distinct advantage on hard courts (the Australian being the off-season event). The organizers at Wimby wanted to maintain their status as the most important tournament, by playing halfway between the speed of the other two surfaces. Unfortunately.

Where have gone the days of variety in professional tennis? I guess if you want to see some S&V, you'll have to watch doubles.

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