Now that the long and grueling clay court season, owned by one man, is done, we’ve now entered not only the midpoint of the season but for some tennis purists the only part of the season that matters. And although it’s probably premature to start analyzing the recent early exits by top seeds at the Queen’s Club event while Roger Federer cruises to what looks like another trophy at Halle, it’s probably more fascinating to try and analyze why this time of year, always so brief and almost overdrenched with tradition, becomes the focal point of the entire sport each year.
It’s not necessarily that the best tennis all year is played on grass, but the fact that more people, especially those who don’t follow the sport on a regular basis, follow Wimbledon than any other tennis tournament amplifies the results regardless of the quality of play. That’s what makes it and the grass court season such a dichotomy. For those on the professional tour and those who follow the game on a consistent basis, we know that this time of year, although special, is rather unique because of the court surface. Causal sports fans who know who Roger Federer and the Williams sisters are but struggle to name Rafael Nadal, will say that since Federer won Wimbledon last year he’s still the best and greatest. Or to put it another way, if Francesca Schiavone won Wimbledon, most would assume she is the best women’s tennis player on the planet. Wimbledon is the Super Bowl, World Cup and NBA Finals of our sport for the outside world. When us in the know try to explain that other Grand Slams rank in importance, we are given strange looks as if we don’t know our sport.
There’s also this sense that players, justified or not, somehow raise their level this time of year. After his first round win at Queens, Richard Gasquet, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2007, said this after being asked the French seemed to excel on the grass more so than on the red clay of Paris. “A lot of French players are playing good because we have a good technique, good serves. It’s a talented game on grass, more than on clay.” Now I’m not going to define Gasquet’s definition of talent since Rafael Nadal has one more Wimbledon title that he does, but I get what Gasquet means. It’s like we expect those with a little flair to relish the grass since it evokes memories of when the game was played with wood racquets and slice forehands. But that nostalgia shouldn’t make us forget the mid 1990’s when that same grass rewarded heavy serving shootouts from the likes of Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic until Wimbledon officials changed the very fiber itself in 2001 allowing Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian to reach the final in 2002 by staying firmly on the baseline. The slower surface has given fans more rallies and dramatic points since then, but you have a feeling that a pure serve and volleyer will never win the event again.
So what can we look forward to this year? The headlines for sure will weigh in on what both Andy Roddick and Andy Murray will do, considering both players’ chances to win the big “W” seem to be slipping further and further out their reach. For Roger Federer, despite winning Australia earlier in the year, many will see his Wimbledon campaign as the real indicator of how his second career, now back at No. 2, will turn out. For the women, well, it’s probably going to be another all-Williams finale unless someone else finds their best tennis at the right moment. Of all the surfaces, grass rewards the power and speed of Serena and Venus and it’s probably fitting that the older sister, who turns 30 next week, goes in with a real chance of taking her sixth title.
Tradition and nostalgia may magnify the next few weeks results, especially when top players crash out like they did at Queens, but the rarest of surfaces always seems to bring out the best in every player. Grass changes how the sport is played, and even if its moment, is fleeting, that change always feels the most real and the most satisfying for all of us.