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Tennis is becoming a more homogeneous game

But matches played on Wimbledon’s grass retain some distinctiveness

 

WIMBLEDON HAS always been distinctive. Rules, such as one obliging players to wear only white, give the world’s oldest tennis tournament a style of its own. All this will be on display this weekend at the south London venue (full name: the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club) when the 135th championship concludes with the women’s and men’s finals. But Wimbledon is also unusual in modern tennis for the surfaces of its courts and the type of play they encourage (see chart).

In tennis, playing style is dictated by both the players and by the surface on which they play. For much of its history, tennis was played on grass. Nowadays, since grass is tricky to maintain and often seasonal, only a handful of tournaments on the professional tour are played on it. And of them, only Wimbledon is a grand slam. Of the other grand slams, the Australian Open and US Open are played on hard courts, an acrylic surface, and the French Open is played on clay.

On clay courts balls bounce higher, giving players more time to strike. On grass, the action is faster, with balls tending to stay low and often skidding. Hard courts lie in between. A direct manifestation of the speed and bounce of the ball is the length of a rally (the number of times the ball is struck before the point is won). Slower courts engender longer rallies.

The variation across surfaces should produce different types of tennis—and for a long time, they did. But rally lengths at grand-slam finals, tracked by the Tennis Abstract Match Charting Project, an initiative led by Jeff Sackmann, a tennis analyst, are converging. In this year’s French Open final, when Rafael Nadal beat Casper Ruud on clay, the average rally lasted 5.8 shots, just marginally longer than the 5.6 during Mr Nadal’s victory over Daniil Medvedev a few months earlier in the Australian Open on a hard court. Thirty years ago the difference between these tournaments was much greater. Data from the women’s game are patchier but reveal a similar convergence.

Wimbledon remains an outlier. Last year’s final, in which Novak Djokovic won his sixth title, featured 3.7 shots per point, less than in other grand slams in 2021. But that was more than in previous years at Wimbledon. In the 1990s the tennis zeitgeist was to follow the serve to the net and volley the return (ie, strike the ball before it lands). Pete Sampras, a master of the technique, won seven Wimbledon titles in the 1990s. Since then, serve-and-volley, which results in shorter rallies, has lost its appeal. Points at Wimbledon now, like elsewhere, are slugfests from the back of the court.

One reason is official intervention. In 2001 Wimbledon changed the variety of grass on its courts (the club now uses only perennial ryegrass cut daily to 8mm) but it insists that had no impact on the speed of play. The data suggest that it did: rallies have since got longer. Racquet technology and players’ fitness have also improved, allowing serves to be returned with more zest, imperilling any attempt by players to approach the net. And since a predominant baseline game has proven so effective for Mr Djokovic, Mr Nadal and Roger Federer, who have dominated the men’s sport for nearly two decades, most upcoming players try to emulate them, hastening the convergence of style.

Has this convergence made tennis less interesting? Perhaps. In Sunday’s men’s final, though, fans will be treated to something different. Nick Kyrgios, who will take on Mr Djokovic, has scant regard for convention. He regularly hits outrageous shots, including a trademark underarm serve through his legs. This week he has even violated Wimbledon’s sacred dress code, by sporting a red cap and red trainers on the hallowed grass.

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