The changing face of SW19

The baseliners, once considered the outliers, are now equal claimants to fame and glory at Wimbledon. This shift has had much to do with how tennis evolved from the 1970s and 1980s to the 1990s

Surface tension at SW19... On the opening Monday, the grass is still green and lush, but by the second week, the baseline runs rugged. The areas near the net appear like oases in the midst of a desert.   -  Getty Images

The traditionalists never miss an opportunity to show the mirror to the world. In the tennis universe, those duties have seemingly been usurped by Wimbledon. The tone is sometimes even mocking, as if to say that in a world bereft of values, ‘The Championships’ stands for something.

There are dress codes for players and fans. The all-white attire for the competitors is so rigid that even Roger Federer, the All-England club’s most endearing of champions, was once hauled off the courts for sporting a non-white shoe sole. The formality in names — Miss Serena Williams they say — is striking. The on-court advertisements are near-zero.

Wimbledon’s favourite player... There’s never a dull moment when Roger Federer, with his aesthetically pleasing style, is on the court.   -  Getty Images


The organisers still don’t believe the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) computer rankings entirely; seedings are rearranged based on previous grass-court results. While matches worldwide are slotted with prime-time television in mind, the middle Sunday at Wimbledon is a holiday. And there are strawberries and cream which date back to the tournament’s first edition in 1877 and the matches are still played on grass.

READ: Fresh Federer ready for Wimbledon history bid

In this setting, how is it that the hallowed surface, once so slick and full of pace, on which the likes of John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras showcased the finest forms of attacking, net-rushing tennis, no longer lives up to its reputation? On the opening Monday, the grass is still green and lush, but by the second week, the baseline runs rugged. The areas near the net appear like oases in the midst of a desert. So much so that the baseliners, once considered the outliers, are now equal claimants to fame and glory.

This shift has had much to do with how tennis evolved from the 1970s and 1980s to the 1990s. The ’70s and ’80s are often considered the golden eras of tennis. It isn’t tough to see why. For every McEnroe, there was a Bjorn Borg. For every Stefan Edberg, there was an Ivan Lendl. The clashes were between styles — a serve-and-volley game pitted against one from the back of the court. This made tennis engaging and not one bit monotonous.

When brute power reigned... Goran Ivanisevic served a record 213 aces to defeat Patrick Rafter in the men’s final of the 2001 Wimbledon championship.   -  Getty Images


The subsequent decade was when brute power made its presence felt. The improvement in racquet and string technology meant a booming serve was the surest way to success. “Aces were once that single unanswerable assertion of dominance or defiance, and were remarkable for the surprise and thrill of their appearance,” wrote Paul Fein in his book Tennis Confidential. “These days, if they were a golf stroke, they’d be a tap-in.”

The nadir came in the 1994 season, when in the Wimbledon final between Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic, only three of 206 points lasted more than four shots. In fact matches between the two were described as ‘three hours of serve and ten minutes of tennis.’ Incidentally in 2001, Ivanisevic, then ranked 125, served a record 213 aces to win the Wimbledon title.

This prompted the first of the changes effected by the All-England club. Following the 2001 championship, Wimbledon ripped up all of its courts and sowed new ones made of 100% perennial rye grass as against the old courts which were a 70-30 split of rye grass and creeping red fescue. The rye grass is taller and the underlying soil drier and firmer. This resulted in the ball bouncing higher and slower.

In an article in the New York Times, Eddie Seaward, the head groundskeeper for more than two decades, was quoted as saying that the ball, after the re-laying, was about one-tenth of a second slower. To the naked eye, it is negligible. But a split-second more to read a serve can make a world of difference.

The second change which happened post 2001 was when the International Tennis Federation (ITF) introduced new balls which were surface-dependent. The Type 1 ball was fast-paced and was identical in size to the standard ball except that it was manufactured with harder rubber. Type 2 was with medium speed and is the standard ball while Type 3 was 6% larger in diameter than the standard ball and moved slower in flight.

The ITF said that while a Type 3 ball flew off the racket at the same speed as a standard ball, it slowed down when it came off the ground to give the receiver about 10% more reaction time. It was this ball which was adopted at Wimbledon and the effect was immediately visible. The 2002 final was between David Nalbandian and Lleyton Hewitt, two out-and-out baseliners, who didn’t bother to venture towards the net even as a surprise tactic.

Ramesh Krishnan on Wimbledon

It was perhaps best captured during the classic Federer-Rafael Nadal final in 2008 in a video that the BBC broadcast. It compared identical serves by Federer from 2003 and 2008. Both zipped through the air at 200 kmph, but the 2008 serve lost 16 kmph after it struck the surface.

Even as this curbed the chances of those who were called ‘serve bots’, it practically made the serve-and-volley technique extinct. The extra time which a player could gain, both as a result of standing behind and because of the aforementioned changes, helped impart more power and place the ball better. As the bounce was higher and truer, rushing to the net wasn’t a risk worth taking.

To the purist, who had demanded changes to arrest the one-dimensional nature of grass-court tennis in the ’90s, it proved a double whammy, as the game tended to veer towards the other extreme with seemingly endless rallies. But it cannot be denied that it helped democratise the sport. Even those clay court specialists, who once shunned Wimbledon, were won over.

“You’re getting the longer rallies,” Seaward said. “You’re getting different people winning the championship and you’re getting different players coming through, which is good, I think.”

To be fair, Wimbledon still has the fastest surface. It still favours those who attack more than it does the defensive-minded. Players still go to the net, not as instinctively as before but behind aggressive groundstrokes. In recent times, the only final which sort of bordered on boredom was the 2013 match between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, more a result of their similar games rather than the surface. And as long one Mr. Federer and his aesthetically pleasing style is still around, it might just be the best of both worlds.

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