Ground Control

The reigning Wimbledon champions won from the baseline, challenging conventional wisdom about what makes a grass-court game. And there's little reason to think 2003 will be any different. BY STEPHEN TIGNOR.

IS Wimbledon on its way to becoming, dare we say it, relevant? Can an event held at a place called the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club — known for its anachronistic surface, all-white dress code, and deadening, one-shot slugfests — matter to the pro game in 2003?

"If I'm serving well and have a chance to break, I can play on it. I think last year was somewhat special, the draw opened up," says Lleyton Hewitt. — PIC. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES-

If last year's tournament is any indication, well, yes. On the men's side, it was the long-delayed baseliner breakout. Having spent the past decade conquering the rest of the tennis world, ground strokers at last stormed All England's gates. Not only was the final, between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, the first baseline-to-baseline title match since Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors faced off in 1978, but six of the eight 2002 quarterfinalists played from the backcourt. For the women, it was the same story, only writ larger Venus and Serena Williams played the second of their three straight 2002 Grand Slam finals, and they dominated more thoroughly than anywhere else — between them, they dropped just one set before the final. If the results weren't exactly surprising, the women's draw as a whole confirmed that baseline bashing is as firmly entrenched at Wimbledon, where Jana Novotna's 1998 win was the only one for a serve-and-volleyer in the last 12 years, as it is everywhere else on the WTA tour. All eight women quarterfinalists in 2002 were baseliners.

So how did the sport's great anomaly among the men, where even the inventor of the modern baseline game, Ivan Lendl, felt he had to serve and volley, get so normal so quickly? First of all, there was the court speed, which by most accounts was slower in 2002 than in years past. Eddie Seaward, Wimbledon's head groundsman, told The Observer last year, "We've got the courts harder these days. As a result, you're getting a higher bounce, which may slow the game down." He said the turf was now comparable to the surface at London's Queen's Club, where Hewitt is the three-time defending champion.

While spectators were entertained with longer rallies, the harder surface may have hurt the chances of England's favourite son, serve-and-volleyer Tim Henman. "It was a bit worrying last year," Henman says. "Grass is meant to be a serve-and-volley surface. It was amazing how slow and high-bouncing the courts were. It was emphasized in the results." He should get used to it — the Club doesn't plan any groundskeeping changes for 2003.

But Henman also knows he can't blame the grass alone. Power-baseline tennis is everywhere, and it was only a matter of time before the few remaining serve-and-volley contenders — Patrick Rafter, Goran Ivanisevic, and Pete Sampras (who won't be playing this year) — faded from the scene. The question now is, has Hewitt's game, which is based on quickness, consistency, and a rock-solid return of serve, replaced theirs as the blueprint for grass-court success?

Hewitt doesn't think so. "I don't see a changing of the guard," he says. "Guys like Henman, Sampras, Federer are going to be as tough as ever on grass. If I'm serving well and have a chance to break, I can play on it. I think last year was somewhat special, the draw opened up."

Opinions on whether Wimbledon has changed irrevocably vary among the young baseline-roaming contenders. "I don't think you ever had to be a serve-and-volleyer to win it, going back to Borg and Connors," Andy Roddick says. "I think {lcub}last year's Wimbledon{rcub} opened people's eyes to the fact that even if I don't play a grass-court game, I can still win matches." Roger Federer adds, "If you can move well on grass and return well, it's a huge advantage, better than having a big serve and a good volley."

James Blake, on the other hand, agrees with Hewitt. "I don't think (the 2002 final) changed anything," Blake says. "Lleyton won because he's No. 1 in the world and he can win on any surface. The serve-and-volleyers still have a very good chance."

Either way, it's unlikely that today's young guns will overhaul their games just for Wimbledon, the way backcourters like Lendl and Borg did. But then, Lendl and Borg had a common rival, John McEnroe, who took their second serves and used his return to get into the front court as quickly as possible. That chip-and-charge style is out of fashion these days — not to mention nearly impossible to play with the two-handed backhands now so common.

But components of the classic grass-court game remain in play, at least at Wimbledon. Last year, Greg Rusedski used his chip backhand and varied shot selection to counter Roddick's pace, dismantling him in straight sets. And as well as Blake played against 1996 champion Richard Krajicek, the Dutchman's relentless net-rushing won out. "If you serve well and volley well," Rusedski says about playing at Wimbledon, "the surface doesn't matter. The most important thing is having a complete game." Even Marat Safin, a power-baseliner not known for his resourcefulness on court, realises that a one-dimensional style won't get it done on grass. "A player like me cannot win on the baseline like Lleyton did," Safin says. "I'll have to go to the net, maybe serve and volley twice (a game), so the guy is a bit confused."

So the serve-and-volleyer isn't dead yet. Still, it was the dirt-ballers who were the surprise success story last year. Through the middle rounds, the All England Club looked like it was hosting a second-tier clay-court event, with Nalbandian joined by two other relatively unknown South Americans, Andre S� and Nicolas Lapentti, in the quarterfinals. Will this spur the top rank of clay-courters to finally take the tournament seriously?

Last year, Albert Costa won at Roland Garros and went on his boneymoon rather than go to London, Gustavo Kuerten, always focussed on Paris in springtime, also skipped the Big W. Juan Carlos Ferrero, though, seems a bit more hopeful this time around. "Who knows? Hewitt won from the baseline," he says. "I'm going to give it the same level of effort I do for any Grand Slam." But Alex Corretja, who hasn't played Wimbledon since 1998, is still skeptical. "There's just not enough time to prepare," he says. "You can't play for three months on clay and then do well on grass the next week. It's a pity, but that's the way the schedule is. There are exceptions, like Agassi, but he's something special."

What about Andre, anyway? He's one of the few other baseliners to win here, and his titles in Melbourne and Key Biscayne this year have kept him near the top of the rankings. He's always believed you can succeed with ground strokes on grass and has a 41-11 Wimbledon record to prove it. "There are fewer traditional grass-court players now than there used to be," Agassi says. "That opens the possibility of somebody getting through who might not normally, and once you're into the second week, the court starts playing differently, the ball starts bouncing up more. A lot can happen."

Rhythm is everything for Agassi, and he can be vulnerable to someone who hits big enough to take him out of it — Paradorn Srichaphan made his name by doing just that on Centre Court last year. Still, Agassi's compact strokes separate him from the clay-courters and make him a threat to dethrone Hewitt.

Are there any others? Younes El Aynaoui outhit Hewitt at the Australian Open this year; and in 2001 Nicolas Escude did the same at Wimbledon. Both are streaky, athletic shotmakers who can finish points at the net. Look for someone similar to give Hewitt a run — Federer, Blake, Carlos Moya, perhaps Safin, if his head is together. The key will be producing enough power to get Hewitt scrambling and then being consistent enough to do it for three sets. Look for Henman, who's had shoulder trouble, to beat anyone but Hewitt — he's 0-6 against the Aussie.

Of course, there's another guy who has been to the final of this event four times. In fact, his record ace totals are as responsible as anything else for giving the men's event its reputation for dullness. Could that old-school grass specialist Ivanisevic turn Wimbledon back into its normal abnormal self? He's had shoulder problems and a piece of a seashell stuck in his foot, but nobody will want to face him.

While the men's draw was opened wide in 2002, the women provided few surprises, and the WTA's top tier has grown even tighter since. For the last year, in fact, it has consisted of one person. That's Serena Williams, and if you want a prototypical modern grass-courter, look no further — she may be even more fearsome than the woman who brought power-baseline tennis here, Steffi Graf. Where Hewitt wins with steadiness, Serena and her sister Venus, winners of the last three Wimbledons, over-power the rest of the field. And the rest of the field knows it.

Lindsay Davenport: "On grass, it's very hard to control their shots with the pace they hit at."

Jennifer Capriati: "Grass makes everything faster, so it's an advantage (for the Williamses)."

Kim Clijsters: "Their serves are tougher on grass and their power strokes are tough."

Whether the surface has been slowed down or not (few of the women talked about it last year, while virtually all of the men did), Serena and Venus are daunting on grass because they combine all the attributes needed to win on it. Their big serves and offensive two-handed returns give them first-strike capability; they're quick and athletic; and they've always had the desire — Venus' ambition growing up was to win Wimbledon, and Serena copied her when she set her goals for 2002.

Each of them can crank her serve 115 m.p.h. and, like Graf or Sampras, use it to get out of trouble. But like Agassi, the Williamses can also take control of a point with their returns — at the Australian Open this year Serena was clocked hitting balls back faster than her opponents served them. Plus, grass rewards their aggressive shotmaking without demanding consistency the way clay does. As Serena says, "I like grass because you can hit one hard shot and come to the net and finish the point. With clay, you need three or four more."

Should we book an all-Williams final? There are five players with a plausible chance of beating them, and none has a complete grass-court game. Davenport has won here, and she can equal the Williamses' power, but she can't match their quickness. Clijsters has the athleticism, but her serve isn't a weapon. Ditto Capriati. Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo have played well in 2003, but their one-handed backhands keep them from taking control of points with their returns. The two were blown out by the Williamses in the semifinals here last year and had the same response afterward: "She didn't let me do anything."

These women have reason to feel demoralised. As of this spring, the five had a 23-65 record against the Williams sisters (factor out Davenport's 10-11 record against Venus and the percentage gets even worse).

So what will separate the sisters here? While Venus has won the title twice, grass favours the attacker, and Serena is more aggressive from the ground.

She also has shorter strokes, a more consistent serve, and the knowledge that she can beat her sister in the big events. And she still wants it.

"Of course, the U.S. Open pays more," Serena said this spring when she was asked about her favourite tournament to win, "but Wimbledon has more history."

From Tennis Magazine c 2003 By Miller Sports Group LLC. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International