The common misconception that widespread grass court tennis is on the wane couldn’t be further from the truth. STRI research manager, Mark Ferguson, discusses the endearing ‘bouncebackability’ of grass court tennis.
Grass at the Grand Slam
Tennis, or Lawn Tennis, to give it its correct title, became popular in the late 19th century. It derived from other racquet sports played over the years, but primarily from ‘real tennis’.
‘Real tennis’ was an indoor game, a mix of squash and tennis, and a favoured passtime of the Tudor gentry. Henry XIII was a big fan, and the court he built at his home venue is still played on today and can be visited at Hampton Court.
As ‘Real Tennis’ declined in popularity ‘lawn tennis’ began to rise. The first club was formed in 1872 in Leamington Spa, and other clubs began popping up including the most famous of them all, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which held the inaugural Wimbledon Championships in 1877.
It was so successful it outgrew its original Worple Road site and moved to its current site on Church Road in 1922.
For most of the 20th century the default surface on which to play tennis was grass. The exception to this rule were the clay courts of mainland Europe. For many years the French Open, staged at Roland Garros since 1928, was the only Grand Slam not played on grass.
The first US Open, then called the US National Championships, was played on the lawns of Newport Casino in Rhode Island in 1881. This venue still holds the Dell Technologies Tennis Hall of Fame Open, the week after Wimbledon, now the only ATP/WTA event held on grass in the USA.
The US Open continued to be played on grass until 1975 when it switched to clay, before moving onto the hard court (Pro Deco Turf) at the National Tennis Centre in Flushing Meadows in 1978.
The story of the fourth Grand Slam, the Australian Open is like that of the US Open. It was first played as the ‘Australasian Championships’ in 1905 at The Warehouseman’s Cricket Club in Melbourne and the surface was grass.
The Australian Open was hosted by all the major cities in Australia, always on grass, until it found a permanent home on the lawns of Kooyong Lawn Tennis club in Melbourne in 1972.
The Australian Open was, for many years, considered to be the poor relation of the other three larger Grand Slam events. It was difficult to get to (the sea voyage from Europe in the 1920s took 45 days), the prize money was low and inconvenient dates around Christmas and the New Year meant that top players seldom played in the event.
In the 1980s the tournament became more ambitious. It was moved to January, became the first Grand Slam of the year and, more importantly for our story, moved venue. Kooyong was too small, the Open moved to Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park) and from grass to hard courts.
Wimbledon was now the only Grand Slam played on grass. At the same time many of the smaller events moved from grass to one of the wide variety of new surfaces that were developed in the late 20th century.
The death of grass court tournaments?
Grass court tournaments were becoming scarce. The new surfaces were easy to install and relatively maintenance free. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) now recognised 10 different types of tennis surface: clay, hybrid clay, artificial clay, artificial grass, asphalt, concrete, carpet, acrylic/polyurythane, other (includes wood, canvas, tiles, modular systems) and, of course, grass.
Within these categories there are hundreds of different versions of acrylics, hybrid clays and artificial grass to choose from.
By the 2000s fewer people were playing on grass than ever before and the professional grass court season had been squeezed into a six-week gap between the French Open and the US hard court season.
Part of the problem was the way grass courts were playing in the late 1980s and 1990s. Racquet technology had turned tennis into a power game.
When players had wooden racquets the inconsistencies of a grass court surface made for hugely interesting matches. With the power generated by the new racquets, the grass court game became one-dimensional.
Inconsistent surfaces dominated by annual meadow-grass meant that serve and volley was the most effective tactic, rallies were short and favoured the server and the grass court game was losing its lustre. Carlos Moya, a Spanish clay court specialist, once famously remarked that ‘grass is for cows to eat, not to play tennis on!’ The clay court specialists were starting to avoid grass court events.
The Wimbledon fightback
Wimbledon realised it could have a problem and with the forethought and planning for which the club is famous, it did something about it.
A grass testing programme designed to evaluate the new, finer perennial ryegrasses alongside grasses that were currently used on grass courts was undertaken at STRI. It quickly became apparent that these new cultivars of ryegrass could provide a more resilient surface.
It would still wear out over the course of the Championships, but the deep-rooted perennial ryegrass gradually eroded, rather than kicking out in chunks, like the annual meadow-grass that had preceded it.
The advent of the ‘Koro’ and the ability to re-surface courts at the end of a season meant that spongy annual meadow-grass surfaces were a thing of the past. The interaction of the ball with the surface became more consistent as the quality of the courts improved.
The style of play changed, grass was still the fastest surface, but the bounce was consistent and predictable, and players were playing from the baseline again. Even Rafa Nadal, the ‘King of Clay’ came to love the lawns of SW19 and collected two men’s singles Championships in the process.
The grass court renaissance
Grass courts were back on track. New venues started to be built in the 2010s in Majorca, Stuttgart, Antalya and elsewhere. New grass court tournaments have been introduced to the ATP and WTA tours at these venues and others in England, Holland and Germany.
At STRI we continue to work with the Lawn Tennis Association to improve the infrastructure at all the venues where grass court events are staged, whether they are pre-Wimbledon events such as the Nature Valley open at Nottingham or County Championship matches at small regional venues such as Frinton-on Sea or Tonbridge.
The Wimbledon Championships were moved back by one week in 2015 to lengthen the grass court season and give players more opportunity to adjust from the European clay court season to playing on grass and preparing for Wimbledon, the biggest tournament of the season.
Fusion 100 events, formerly known as Challengers, have been set up at Ilkley Lawn Tennis Club, The Northern, Manchester and Surbiton Lawn Tennis Club, to give players outside the top 100 an opportunity to play events on grass in preparation for playing the qualifying event for Wimbledon.
The grass court game has turned a corner. With the advent of new grasses, new technologies and new techniques the quality of grass court surfaces is constantly improving.
More clubs are looking to install grass courts. The LTA and the All England Club are supporting smaller clubs to ensure that smaller tournaments and junior tournaments are played on grass.
Grass court tennis is on the rise again.
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