A recent article in Sports Illustrated advocated that the playing surface at the U.S tennis Open be changed to clay . In the article , Andrew Lawrence gave several reasons for suggesting the change .He noted that rain disrupted last year’s Open , washing out two full days of play as drainage problems rendered Louis Armstrong unusable.Consequently , matches had to be postponed causing havoc with playing schedules and TV programming . ( Weather was also a problem at this year’s Open).As Lawrence pointed out , providing a cover over the main venue , Arthur Ashe stadium , is not an option ; the ground underneath is too soft and may not bear the added weight of a roof . He correctly said that clay is the only practical surface since it is safe to play on, whether it is wet or dry. Another reason Lawrence gave for touting a clay surface was that practicing and playing on clay might revive America’s sagging tennis fortunes because a clay surface favors patient , well-rounded players . Nadal , Federer and Djokovic , he wrote , all got their start on clay courts .
These are both very good reasons for the change but I hope it never happens . Clay courts are slow and soften the bounce making fast shots less effective . They heavily favor base-liners and result in long , long rallies and even longer matches . I watch my fair share of tennis on TV but I never watch the French Open which is played on slow clay courts ; I find the matches there to be boring , boring , boring. I still remember watching part of a match between Eddie Dibbs and Harold Solomon thirty years ago. One rally went on for 108 strokes !! 108?!! Matches at Roland Garros are wars of attrition and I do not want to see interminable baseline rallies. I want to see attacking play and a full repertoire of strokes, not defensive struggles . I want to see booming serves , crisp returns , deceptive dropshots , angled volleys, deadly overhead smashes and cunning lobs . On clay courts , with players mostly tethered to the baseline , one rarely sees dropshots , volleys or lobs . I want to see players rush the net and take a chance on being passed instead of trying to wear down opponents from the baseline . I don’t want to watch four and five-hour marathons .
If the U.S Open does change to clay , it means that all the summer tennis events will also switch along it. After all , they are preparation for the Open and it would be silly to have them continue to be played on hard courts . Disaster for the tennis watching public !! This will ultimately result in cookie cutter venues , indistinguishable from one another and destroy much of the charm of tennis .
Of all the playing surfaces , grass is the most challenging because it provides an unpredictable bounce and is slippery. It demands good footwork, rewards attacking tennis , and results in short rallies and quick points . Players often rush the net to put the ball away , instead of staying behind the baseline and trading shots . It’s exciting . Unfortunately , even the grass courts at Wimbledon , which used to be lightning fast , have been slowed down . In 2001 , rye grass was installed at Wimbledon along with harder , denser soil thus reducing the advantage that serve and volley players had . Consequently , rallies have become longer and baseliners have been more successful on these ” new ” grass courts. I understand the changes to the Wimbledon grass were necessary to make it more wear resistant , to stand up better to the pounding it takes during the two weeks of Wimbledon but I wish it had somehow been possible to keep the surface as fast as it used to be .
In golf , the most enjoyable tournaments are on difficult courses where the players struggle to make par; they are a true test of skill. Watching the pros contend with cunningly placed bunkers and other hazards , difficult pin placements and adverse weather is entertaining and memorable .When the course is easy and the top pros are 12 under par for the tournament or better , it is not as much fun . It is for similar reasons that Wimbledon is my favorite tennis tournament.
I don’t buy the argument that clay courts are essential to develop patient , well-rounded players with good ground strokes. Useful yes , essential no. One of today’s top players , Andy Murray , started out on grass courts and in the past Pete Sampras , Andy Roddick , André Agassi and Jimmy Connors did just fine . Connors in fact won the U.S Open when it was played on three different surfaces : Grass( 1974) , clay ( 1976) and hardcourts( 1978, 1982, 1983). I think the real reason for America ‘s recent lack of success is something else.
In basketball, American pros are superior athletes but are not as accomplished when it comes to passing the ball or shooting from outside . Many of today’s pros focus on crowd pleasing dunks the or spectacular blocks instead of learning the intricacies of basketball. They don’t spend time on learning to move without the ball , on foul shooting or on playing defense. In tennis , I feel that tennis players similarly lack the application to perfect their ground strokes.
Perhaps I’m wrong , perhaps clay will be beneficial to U.S tennis prospects . We’ll find out . The USTA has engaged Jose Higueras ,a Spanish player who enjoyed great success on clay courts, to coach young tennis prospects . More power to him but please, please don’t change the playing surfaces at the U.S Open to clay. If that happens , I’ll just have to wait each year for the start of the football season .
P.S. At one time , three of the Grand Slam tournaments were played on grass ; only the French Open was on clay. Winning all four Grand Slams tournaments was very difficult because it meant adjusting to two completely different styles of play. Only Donald Budge ( 1937) , Tony Trabert (1955) and Rod Laver ( 1962, 1968) accomplished the feat in a calendar year. Since then , Novak Djokovic came closest to achieving that feat in 2011 as he won three Grand Slams and was the runner-up at the French Open . On the one hand , it’s more difficult to accomplish now because the surfaces are not as disparate as they once were. On the other hand , the competition is much tougher in the Open era . In the era before WWII , the events were restricted to amateurs , many of whom were unable to afford the long trip to Australia in the days before air travel.