Currently we are in what is considered the “grass court season”. Ever since Andre Agassi captured the Wimbledon crown in 1992 people have been asking how baseline players have been able to succeed on grass courts. This debate has resurfaced with the success of Raphael Nadal over the last few years.
Typically clay court specialist (baseliners) have had a more difficult time adjusting to the grass as the ball stayed significantly lower on the grass vs. clay. This is why it is so difficult winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. Additionally, the predominate grip of the last two decades, the semi-western, lends itself to striking the ball at a higher point.
One of my favorite players of all time, and arguably the greatest grass court player of all time, Pete Sampras, had tremendous success on grass for two reasons: 1. He had a terrific serve and 2. He would serve and volley almost exclusively. This put a great deal of pressure on his opponents serve because Pete held so routinely. When you don’t get too many looks at break points and your opponent seems to always be hanging around your service games it can be an unnerving test deep in a match. Those who watched a lot of Pete’s matches, as I did, will remember he wasn’t necessarily one to blow you off the court, he would just hang around long enough to break you at 4-4 and close it out on his serve.
So why is the game different today?
In my opinion, TV wins. I believe the television viewing audience was tired of seeing too many aces and not enough returns and the powers that be took the only approach they could, they made the court harder. By making the surface firmer, the ball bounces higher and slower giving the baseliner (or returner) a greater chance of getting the ball back in play.
While this has done a lot to broaden the field on grass courts it has destroyed the history of what grass court tennis was. I have always believed that to be considered a great tennis player you had to master all the different surfaces and styles of play. This means knowing how to play on the slow, high bouncing surfaces of Roland Garros or the fast paced ball of Wimbledon grass. By changing the speed and bounce of the ball they have in essence neutralized the impact of the different surfaces.
I for one enjoyed seeing the true grass court players getting their revenge on those dirt ballers. Maybe this is why I consider Roger Federer to be the greatest player of all time.