Indian tennis has generally loved the smell of grass. According to the AITA (All India Tennis Association), when the game was first imported into the country in the 1880s by the British Army and civilian officers, it was played on grass. India has had more success on the pristine lawns of Wimbledon — the only grass court major — than in the other Grand Slam tournaments. For the yesteryear tennis fans, who would have watched many a Wimbledon final on the Doordarshan, the major is likely to be their most cherished tennis tournament.
When asked to comment on the surface, Akhtar Ali, 76, who has coached some of the biggest names in Indian tennis that include Ramesh Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Anand Amritraj and Leander Paes, without pausing to deliberate, says: “Grass court tennis is dying in India.”
According to him, there are hardly any grass court tournaments in India. “There used to be a National grass court championship in the South Club in Kolkata, home to one of the best grass courts in the country, but they are also not holding any tournaments,” says Ali.
The National grass court championship was not held last year; it is not slated for this year too, because of the unavailability of grass courts, according to the AITA’s executive director of tournaments, P. F. Montes.
A WHIFF OF NOSTALGIA
There was a time when tennis legends such as Roy Emerson and Ilie Nastase participated in the National grass court championship in South Club, Kolkata (then Calcutta). The tournament was a stepping stone for young players to make a mark. Ramanathan Krishnan, a two-time semifinalist (in singles) at Wimbledon, has won the National tournament a record eight times. His son Ramesh, who made it to the quarters at Wimbledon, won it twice.
According to Ramesh, top-ranked international players such as Nastase stopped coming to India around 1968 when the ‘open era’ began. “Indoor tennis came into existence and the players stopped coming to India,” says Ramesh, 56, who won the Wimbledon boys’ singles title in 1979.
He calls for a revival of the National grass court championship. “When I was coming up, that was the tournament to win to make a mark… You learnt to like it (playing on grass) as you went along,” Ramesh says. His affinity for grass courts made him set up one in the Krishnans’ Oliver Road residence in Chennai. And it is one of the few grass courts in the country today.
“The number of grass courts has declined and also the competitions on it,” says Ramesh.
According to India’s former Davis Cup coach Nandan Bal, Dibrugarh, Digboi, Jaipur, Lucknow, Patna, Allahabad, Kanpur, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Delhi and Pune used to have state-level and zonal grass court tournaments apart from Kolkata.
Today, besides the South Club in Kolkata, Chandigarh and Delhi are the only places that have grass courts used for national tournaments. Even South Club’s grass courts have been reduced, from 12 to six, according to its president Enrico Piperno. The primary reason for the dwindling number of grass courts is that they are hard to maintain.
Some of the grass courts, according to former national champion Gaurav Natekar, “are there in old clubs like Delhi Gymkhana and Tollygunge only because of their charm and history. None of these courts hold any major tournament.”
Though the cost of laying grass courts is less, they are very expensive to maintain, according to Ameet Malhotra, the founder of Sports Turf and Golf enterprises, a sports turf construction and maintenance company. Tending a grass court is more complex than clay or hard courts. “Growing grass is a technical thing,” he says. “It’s difficult if you are not a good agronomist (an expert in soil management and field-crop production), as grass involves insecticides and can cause some disease to the players.”
According to Ameet, grass courts (used for training) can only be used for three to four hours a day after which, maintenance work should be carried out. But clay and synthetic courts, he says, can be used for eight to ten hours.
At the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the maintenance work on its grass courts is done almost throughout the year barring during the winter. Even during winters, grow lights are installed on the Centre Court at Wimbledon to keep the grass growing.
CONSTRUCTION AND MAINTENANCE
The construction of a grass court has to be planned carefully. It is a time-consuming and labour-intensive procedure. According to Bradley H Young, a scholar on turf management, the turf, the soil and the base make the main elements of a grass court and only when all three are in synergy can it play well.
After excavating 18 inches (with an additional trench for the drainage lines) of the chosen piece of land, the drainage layer (comprising washed hard stones between 0.31 inches and 0.37 inches), approximately six inches thick, is laid. Then, a two-inch thick binding layer, which brings together the base and the top soil, is laid. It consists of compacted sand, which is porous. The sand should be lime-free to prevent altering the pH of the top soil.
The final layer — the thickest of the three — consists of 10 inches of soil that will be conducive for grass growth and will tighten, enabling a firm playing surface.
And, of course, the type of grass plays an important role in influencing the play. Wimbledon used moist grass (a mixture of hard ryegrass and fine fescue) until 2001 that supported the ‘serve and volley’ style of play. Then, starting in 2001, the club used exclusively a hard ryegrass that aided more rallies.
The grass can either be seeded or sodded (laying a mat of grass). Sodding, albeit being a quicker process, has a few risks. For instance, it can create an uneven playing surface if it is not done properly. On the other hand, seeding might take up to a year to establish fully but will reduce the risks.
THE RISE OF HARD COURTS
These complexities might have enabled the rise of hard courts over the years. Until 1975, three of the four Grand Slam tournaments were played on grass and there were strong grass court circuits in the United States and Australia. Today, the grass court season is almost like a guest appearance in the tennis calendar.
This global trend affects Indian tennis as well. “Coaches prefer teaching hard and clay court tennis to their wards because that’s where they can earn most of the money,” says Ali.
According to Ali, “Our (Indian) players are not grass court players now.”
He says, “Vijay Amritraj was a fine serve and volley player and so was Ramesh Krishnan. We now don’t have a player who is good enough to play in grass court tournaments.”
After playing all its home Davis Cup matches between 1983 to 2008 on grass courts, India abandoned the surface until this year, when the AITA announced that India will play South Korea on grass in Chandigarh in July.
“Back then, we had players who preferred grass,” says Nandan Bal. “We had Leander and Mahesh who preferred grass. Earlier, we had Vijay and Anand, who were very comfortable playing on grass.
“If we played any European or African countries, we were playing players who were not comfortable on grass,” he adds. The strategy was to capitalise on the team’s strengths and the opposition’s weakness.
“When I was with the team, I was sure that the surface had to suit the number one player (who plays the singles tie) in your team, as he is the one who will be playing two out of the five matches,” says Bal.
According to him, the current singles players like Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri are not comfortable on grass.
India’s number one singles player, Yuki, concurs with him. “Even though it’s fun playing on grass, I would prefer playing on hard courts. I’ve played on it all my life. I am more comfortable on it. Most of the matches over the world are played on hard courts,” he says.
Bal, however, is not disappointed by the disappearance of grass courts in the country. He says hard courts are the future and that we should “learn to live with it.”
“Grass is a good surface to play on only when it’s maintained well. Otherwise, with bad bounce, it is a pain to play on it. On the other hand, hard courts will give you even bounce every single time you play on them,” says Bal.
RESURRECTING GRASS COURTS
But there are attempts to resurrect grass. In 2015, the pre-Wimbledon grass court window was increased from two to three weeks. It has enabled new grass court events in Stuttgart (for men) and Nottingham (for women) in the week following the French Open. Two men’s tournaments — Halle and Queen’s Club in London — have been upgraded from ATP 250 to 500 points.
“I definitely think that there’s going to be more players that are going to be better prepared because before there were some guys that didn’t play any tournaments on grass,” Roger Federer had said, reacting to the decision.
“I think, especially in five years, we will see more better grass court players.”
“It was a very good decision for the players,” two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova had said, supporting the move. “Of course I’m preferring to have more grass tournaments,” she added.
Even fans seem to be in favour of watching more grass court tennis. Bleacherreport.com conducted an online poll asking its readers if they were in favour of adding a Masters 1000 tournament on grass. Of the 1,113 who voted, 95.6% of them said ‘Yes’.
The Road to Wimbledon programme in India, which gives a chance for players under 14 years to play at the All England Club, might help in the revival of grass courts in India. The programme has five rounds — four qualifying and a Masters — in India before the HSBC Road to Wimbledon under-14 tennis championship finals at the All England Club. However, not all matches in India are played on grass. This year, apart from the Masters in Kolkata, the rest of the matches were played on hard courts.
Former Great Britain No. 1 Tim Henman, who is closely affiliated with the programme, said in January: “Both grass courts and grassroots should be developed in India. The courts here are great to play on and well maintained and it gives budding talents scope to enhance their skills on grass.”
India earned international recognition in tennis after its players — Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan — did well at Wimbledon, the game’s premier grass court tournament. Indian tennis will have to set up new grass courts and develop the existing ones if it wants to keep grass court tennis alive in the country.
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