The lowdown: how to play tennis on grass
The All England Club's grass courts may have slowed down in recent years, but the surface remains a quick-fire, quick-witted challenge
The days of Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic – serve-volley exponents of the highest calibre – reigning supreme on the lightning quick lawns of SW19 have passed. In 2002, just a year on from Ivanisevic’s epic victory over fellow net-rusher Pat Rafter, baseline battlers Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian barely set foot inside the court in the final. It was evident that something had changed at the world’s most famous tennis tournament.
The grass had slowed down, a result of the All England Club’s decision to dispense with their trademark lawns in 2001 and lay a new variety of grass seeds made up of 100% perennial rye. The switch created more durable lawns and helped maintain the undersoil to keep it firmer and drier than before. But it also represented a sea change for the tactics employed on grass.
"I remember sitting at a change-over in 2002 in utter frustration and thinking 'What on earth is going on here? I'm on a grass court and it's the slowest court I've played on this year,” remarked Tim Henman after noticing a difference on his favourite surface that far from favoured his natural game.
So when veteran followers of the Championships tell you that things ain’t what they used to be, they have a point. Roger Federer can be called many things – six-time Wimbledon champion for one, ahead of this year’s Championships – but a natural serve-volleyer he is not. Nor is Rafael Nadal, the only other man to have lifted the Challenge Cup since 2003.
But while modifications to the surface may have sounded the death-knell for the classic serve-volley player, the fundamentals of grass court play remain the same.
Rallies are far shorter on grass than on any other surface, and balls stay lower and skid through as they bounce. Sliced strokes and serve-and-volley tactics therefore remain particularly effective, but be ready to bend your knees more than usual to get down to the ball. Flat, powerful serves can generate easy points, while the body serve is a handy weapon that exposes those players who are still coming to terms with the move away from a season spent on the slow, high-bouncing clay.
Despite the move to increase the durability of the surface, wear and tear inevitably takes place over the course of a tournament and a bad bounce is not uncommon. Quick feet and good movement allows a player to arrive at the ball early enough to make adjustments after the ball has kicked up off the turf or kept low after hitting a soft spot.
Since points tend to be shorter – at times points average no more than four strokes – what truly separates players on grass is their mental fortitude for the shootout. A momentary lapse in concentration can lead to a break of serve – as Andy Roddick eventually found out in last year’s Wimbledon final, when the iron-willed Roger Federer finally triumphed after converting his first break point of the match – to win 16-14 in the fifth set.