As we move through the clay court season and the French Open, it is worth remembering only 5 men in the Open era have won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. Laver in 69 in his Grand Slam year, Borg, Roger, Rafa and Novak the others. Interestingly, Rafa, Roger & Novak have achieved this in the last the 20 years.
Winning these back to majors has historically been a difficult accomplishment. This is largely due to the short turnaround time between the events and the disparity in the playing surfaces.
The surfaces traditionally favoured two very distinct and opposing styles. Up until the year 2000, the task was near impossible. A change of grass at this time at the All England club made the surface more durable.
The advent of poly strings and top spin as the stroke of choice has narrowed this gap. Wimbledon is now very much played from the baseline.
The great Bjorn Borg’s Wimbledon French Open double in 1978,79,80 is one of the great achievements in the sports history. Incredibly he was a whisker away from doing it again 81.
To put this in perspective, Thomas Muster, nick named the king of clay due to his dominance on the surface never won a match at Wimbledon!!! – Muster, a French Open winner who at one stage possessed a 40 and 0 winning streak on clay was a similar player to Nadal. Can you imagine Nadal never winning a match a Wimbledon? Muster, like Nadal and Courier was also a very good hard-court player reaching the semis at the Lipton ay Key Biscayne (unable to play Lendl in the final), and also reached 3 US Open QFs.
Recent studies of Federer’s serve at Wimbledon in 2003 and 2008 show both serves struck at 126mph although in 2008, the ball reached the returner at 10mph less compared to 2003.
I believe he would have been untouchable at Wimbledon much like Rafa and Novak have been in Paris and Melbourne, had the surface not been altered. Interestingly, Reilly Opelka recently said in an interview, its now easier for him to hold serve in Paris than at Wimbledon!! Being 6 foot 10 helps and the bounce on the clay court may have something to do with this.
On the opposite side of the discussion, great grass courters found it equally difficult to advance deep into the second week, let alone win in Paris. Pete Sampras never reached a final, nor did Boris Becker. John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg came close – losing 5 set finals, McEnroe famously from 2 sets up in his dominant 1984 year where he only lost 2 matches. Several other fast court players failed to advance any rounds at all.
Lately, the pace of the hard courts has been a point of discussion also due to slowing of the court speed. This has resulted in longer and more physically demanding matches. The sport has become an endurance event, especially at the majors. Younger players now find it difficult to go the distance, both physically and mentally. In 2011, US open organisers changed paint on the court surface adding sand to slow the surface. In 2020, the US changed product provider increasing court speed by 20%.
Over the last 15 years, we have seen the development of a prototype player - two handed backhand, a game played from the baseline and limited player variety. Is this due to the slowing of the courts, changes in technology, coaching or evolution? No doubt the authorities have had some say in slowing the courts. Was ‘this slowing’ of the game an overreaction to the Sampras - Ivanisavic era?
Did the authorities jump the gun and panic, or did we just come across two of the greatest servers in the history of the game, the likes we haven’t seen since? Maybe they did, but it can also be said it ushered arguably the greatest generation in the history of the game.
Potentially, times are changing once again with the drop shot being played more often in matches. Carlos Alcaraz hit over 30 in one match recently. Why not use the part of the court that resides just over the net? It is near on impossible at times to hit through the court due to court speed, heavily top spin shots and the defensive athleticism of the players. The court now needs to be opened up more than ever.
In 2016 CPI was used to measure court speed at Masters 1000 events. CPI – court pace index uses hawk eye and measures the speed of the ball just before it hits the ground and immediately after impact. It is presented as an average calculated throughout tournaments and is a useful guide for tournament organisers, especially as the courts wear through the tournament.
As always, the statistics play an important part in deciding these issues. Finding the speed of a court is a tough task and may vary due various parameters.
Comparing court speeds depends on a lot of factors: spin, bounce, ball type, strings and of course mother nature.
In the early 2000’s, the top players inclusive of Federer, Agassi and Hewitt, all possessed flatter type strokes. 10 years on Rafa, Novak and Wawrinka are hitting a different ball and natural gut strings have made way for poly. Players are now swinging aggressively, with more extreme grips and no fear of losing control.
Top spinning strokes are in the air for longer periods and anyone who has played on grass will tell you how much a top spin shot basically bounces straight up, compared to a flat shot even if its hit at a softer pace. Like hard court, it is not as responsive to top spin, so players tend to flatten out their shots.
During a Wimbledon match between Nadal and Soderling, broadcaster John McEnroe was repeatedly reporting the surface again felt like the one used in the 90's. And it does support the theory as Soderling hits a flatter forehand. The same court appears a lot slower once a heavily top spun forehand is hit.
In summary, the slowing of the court is not just the change in surface but also the change in technology and player styles. The game evolves and will continue to do so and maybe, Borg really is the King!