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Tennis.com – Steve Tignor Agrees Faster Courts are Needed

Tennis.com – Steve Tignor Agrees Faster Courts are Needed

A couple of weeks I made a post about Roger requesting faster courts in his press conference after his loss to Djokovic at the World Tour Finals. I also made a Twitition for faster courts that has been signed quite a few times which is nice to see.

The issue of court speed has spread quite widely throughout the tennis community and I was pleased to see that court speed was raised in a question over at Tennis.com yesterday.

I was even more pleased that Tennis.com writer Steve Tignor stated that he is in full agreement with Roger that faster courts are required and he doesn’t believe it’s sour grapes in the slightest. You can read the question and his answer below:

Question: Steve, after he lost to Novak at the year-end championships in London, [Roger] Federer said that he thinks the courts are too slow. He’s said that before, but this time he acted like it was a conspiracy to “protect” the guys in the Top 4 [Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Murray], because they all play good defense on slow surfaces. Doesn’t it sound like sour grapes to say that right after you lose, as if it’s the court’s fault?—Shirley C.

Steve Tignor: Federer wants faster courts, Nadal wants more clay—are either of those things a surprise?

I’ll get to the other issues you bring up, but let me start by saying that Federer is right. Not because fast courts are better than slow, but because the game would benefit from a variety of surface speeds that would, hopefully, inspire and showcase a variety of playing styles. I like the men’s game right now as much as anyone else, but I think most would agree that it could use a jolt of the attacking, net-rushing tennis that you’re more likely to get on a quicker surface. The indoor season, after the majors are over, would be a logical time for a fast-court stretch; the event in Bercy experimented with a quick surface two years ago and it produced a week of exciting tennis.

If the vast majority of hard surfaces are slow to medium-slow, there’s less reason for players to use the front court, which means that an entire element of the sport withers. If you watched the fifth rubber of the Davis Cup final between the Czech Republic and Spain a couple of weeks ago, you could see that the winner, Radek Stepanek, a natural net-rusher, was able to use the faster hard court in Prague more effectively than Nicolas Almagro. Stepanek was rewarded for having a better transition game and better net skills—for having more variety. That’s something the sport should be promoting.

Did Federer blame the court for his loss? No, he acknowledged his opponent’s good play. (Though some Federer fans I know do seem to think that when he loses, it’s not because there was something wrong with him, it’s because there was something with the sport—I guess that’s called being bigger than the game.) As far as his talk about the unstated “goal” being to keep top players in tournaments longer, that’s not impossible to imagine. At the same time, the most marquee player of all is still Roger Federer; no tournament director wants to keep him out of the final of his event.

The slow court phenomenon, of course, was not invented to help out Djokovic or Nadal or Murray. The Aussie Open went to slow, bouncy Rebound Ace in 1988. Wimbledon’s grass, which we still call “new,” was installed in 2001; I wrote a feature for Tennis Magazine in 2003 about how the hardier turf was tilting the balance of power toward the ground-stroker. Most think the new grass is slower, though the tournament’s groundskeepers say that the main difference is a higher, truer bounce, which is what makes it easier to play from the back of the court. (There’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy about the grass today: Fewer serve-and-volleyers mean fewer tears and bumps in the middle of the court, thus helping bounces stay true.) As for hard courts, I was writing about the “slow court era” in Key Biscayne as far back as seven years ago.

In other words, Federer, who has won four Aussie Opens on medium-slow hard courts and all of his Wimbledon titles on the “new” grass, has been no slouch in the slow surface era himself. Anyone who gets to five Roland Garros finals knows how to work from the baseline and play a little defense. This isn’t to say that he has done better because of slow courts; it’s just to say that he has adapted to surface changes successfully in the past. In 2003 Federer won Wimbledon at the net; in 2004 he won it from the baseline, and has ever since.

I should also mention that, to me, baseline tennis is not by definition boring. I like watching Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, del Potro, the same way I liked watching the best net-rushers of the last era, Sampras, Rafter, Edberg, Becker. While there are plenty of baseliners I don’t want to watch today, there were plenty of dull serve-and-volleyers in the 1980s and 90s. It’s individual players, not any one style, that appeal to me.

Which brings me back to the variety question. I wonder how much of a difference, in the short term, faster courts would make. Bigger racquets, better strings, Western forehands, and two-handed backhands have done more to transform the sport than surface speeds. Michael Llodra, pretty much the last living serve-and-volleyer, reached the semifinals on that quick court in Bercy in 2010. But he reached the same round on a slower version this fall, which makes me think it was the home Parisian crowd that was the important factor in both cases. Whatever the surfaces are like, Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray aren’t suddenly going to start chipping-and-charging, Paul Annacone-style.

The difference that I can see from the past is this. In the mid-1980s, a teenage Pete Sampras and his coach decided they wanted to win Wimbledon someday. At the time, there was only one way to do that, to serve and volley. So he dropped his (very good) two-handed backhand and remade his game specifically to win on bumpy grass. Today’s version of a young Sampras, if he’s targeting Wimbledon, doesn’t have to make that change.

Still, at this point I don’t think making the courts at Wimbledon, or Bercy, quicker is going to shift the men’s game back toward the net by itself. To do that, a 15-year-old prodigy will have to ignore the pro trends and make the risky decision to go the Pistol Pete route—to drop the second hand off his backhand and commit to coming forward. I think that style of play, in the right hands and with the right young legs, can succeed on any hard or grass court. But it would help if a few of them were faster.

Original article available here: Reading the Readers: Novemember 26

I have to say it’s quite refreshing for one of the mainstream voices in tennis to want and actively promote faster courts. The vast majority of them simply are too scared to voice their true opinion or just go along with the general ATP consensus.

In his answer I think Tignor makes some great points, and as Roger pointed himself, he’s not championing faster courts solely for his own benefit. Quite the opposite really, it’s to champion the sport, make it more entertaining and give the fans variety they want.

Tignor backs this up perfectly with reference to Radek Stepanek’s win in the Davis Cup – “Stepanek was rewarded for having a better transition game and better net skills — for having more variety. That’s something the sport should be promoting.”

In a nutshell I think his answer hits the nail on the head, variable courts would allow fans to see a wide range of playing styles and varying levels of success due to the method they use to play the game.

Currently we see matches following a set script, the likes of Djokovic and Nadal grind their opponents down, which I don’t have a big problem with watching as they can still play good shots but how cool would it be if we saw a young kid come onto the scene who was able to serve and volley, hit a 1 handed backhand and win some fast hard court tournaments? Very. But with the courts constantly slowing that isn’t going to happen.

My only question is; if the fans want faster courts, the big name writers want faster courts and the players themselves want faster courts (majority) then why aren’t the ATP at least trying to implement some kind of variety into the season?

Oh and please remember to sign my petition ;) Bring back faster courts to the ATP.

About Jonathan

Huge fan of Roger Federer - I'll pretty much try and watch all his matches from Grand Slam level right down to ATP 250. When I'm not watching or tweeting about tennis I play regularly myself and use this blog to share my thoughts on Fed and tennis in general.

6 comments

  1. That was a great article from Tignor and he makes some great points. Just look at what happened in Bercy a few weeks ago – Llodra made the semis, Janowicz made a name for himself with great quick-court play and a surprising use of touch with his drop shots, and we saw David Ferrer win his first ever Masters title. Variety is needed to make tennis exciting again and appealing to all fans. I know there are many out there who stopped watching or lost interest when the game became all about grinding it out from the baseline.

  2. This was an amazing comment left under the article:

    “I like serve and volley and I like baseline rallies. The best combinations to watch on either grass, hard or clay courts were when a great serve and volley player would come up against a power baseliner such as some of the classic Sampras/Agassi duels. It was like fireworks on the fourth of July.

    I think what is really unpleasing to watch is when a claycourt specialist (or slow cement specialist, if you please) like Almagro loses against a player like Stepanek in Davis Cup because he doesn’t have enough time to prepare to hit his groundstrokes on a fast surface. You could literally see that he was late on every shot.

    This was the kind of surface most players played on in the serve and volley era but if you watch those matches as I have on youtube, you see great serve and volley players like Edberg, Becker, Sampras and Rafter continue to hit good, if not great, passing shots when under pressure from their opponents at the net. They could play from the baseline just as easily as any baseliner. Why would someone like Almagro who is ranked 11th in the world play so poorly just because a medium to fast surface is put in play?

    I think this is problematic for the game and is indicative of ithe lack of diversity at the upper levels of the rankings where the most diverse and ‘artistic’ minded players should instead be residing. In short, the more creative players should be the more highly ranked players but power baseline tennis is what benefits from slower surfaces so the more homogeneous baseline styles of play are now the norm and these are the more highly ranked players we have today.”

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