Why is grass dying? Why hard slow down? All about tennis on different surfaces
History and modernity.
Tennis is a very versatile sport. And one of the foundations of its diversity is the different surfaces that are played throughout the year.
For 2022, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) has officially licensed almost 300 different surfaces from different manufacturers. But these are all shades. The most important classification of surfaces is the division into grass, clay and hard.
The key to this conversation will be the concept of court speed. In tennis, it is understood as a combination of two factors: what percentage of the speed the ball retains after contact with the surface and at what angle it bounces off it. In order to assess the speed of the surface, the ITF performs the following procedure: the ball is launched into the court with little or no spin at a certain speed and at a certain angle, and then the rebound is evaluated.
Tennis was born on the grass, but now it is almost not played on it. She’s expensive, naughty and very fast
Grass is the oldest tennis surface, it was on it that the game called lawn tennis (tennis on the lawns) was born. And until the 1970s, grass was the main surface on which most of the professional tournaments took place. And it was replaced by the fact that other courts turned out to be easier to prepare and operate.
Now the ATP and WTA play on grass for only five weeks at the beginning of the summer. There were eight grass tournaments on the men’s tour in 2022, and seven on the women’s tour. The main one, of course, is Wimbledon, the oldest tennis tournament in the world. And this is the only big grass tournament on the calendar.
Grass is considered the fastest of the modern ones. That is, the ball bounces from it faster and lower than from other courts: flying at a speed of 100 km / h after contact with grass, it retains 73 km / h of speed and, when hit at an angle of 30 degrees, bounces at an angle of 36 degrees. As a result, the ball arrives at the back line at an average height of 134 cm.
This means that tennis on grass is also fast and most of the draws take place in one or two strokes, players perform a lot of innings right through. And on the grass, hits without rotation or undercuts with reverse rotation are most effective, after which the ball seems to slip along it without any rebound at all.
And until now, the grass remains a surface that is most suitable for exits to the net – including directly from the feed. In the past, serving and walling was not a tactical choice, but a necessity – especially in the 1990s. Back then, the grass was especially soft and rough, so the ball bounced crookedly or didn’t bounce at all. For example, Patrick McEnroe said that before serving he did not hit the ball on the court because it simply did not return to his hand.
Now agronomists have selected a combination of grass varieties so that the courts are as hard and even as possible. But this has led to the fact that the coating has become a little slower – the ball bounces off it a little higher than in the 90s. But the rebound is still low, so you still need to attack on the grass – otherwise you simply won’t survive on it. In addition, running around on the back line is also hampered by the fact that it is slippery, especially in the early days of tournaments.
In general, even after the agronomic revolution of the mid-2000s, the grass court remains a living organism, and it is very difficult and expensive to prepare a good site. And since it is alive, its properties are greatly influenced by external factors. For example, if it was wet during growth, the grass will become succulent and slippery. If it’s hot outside, it will wear out faster and get faster. Therefore, at Wimbledon, for example, a whole department is responsible for preparing the courts, which includes several dozen scientists. Every day they inspect and examine the courts to make them of the highest quality and comfortable for tennis.
You can read more about their work and the work it takes to maintain grass courts here .
Clay is the slowest surface, and it is believed that tennis is the fairest on it. Because it’s all about tactics
After grass, tennis began to be played on clay.
The emergence of a new surface was the result of the expansion of the geography of tennis. In 1878, the multiple champions of Wimbledon, the brothers William and Ernest Renshaw, built a grass court in Cannes, where they were very fond of relaxing. However, they soon realized that it was too sunny in the hot south, so the grass quickly deteriorated.
It took several years to come up with a solution, but they ended up dusting the courts with powder from crushed terracotta pots. The solution turned out to be very popular, and within five years more than 100 clay courts appeared in Cannes alone.
They were ideal for the heat, but the problem arose after the rains – the terracotta powder easily absorbed moisture and dried for a very long time. However, by that time, not only private individuals, but also commercial firms were interested in clay courts, and in 1909 an English company developed a quick-drying mixture of crushed bricks and sand for tennis.
The new development spread to Italy and Spain, and then conquered the whole world. By the 1970s, clay had become the main tennis surface, and even the US Open was played on it for several years.
Now clay has lost its role. For example, in 2022, out of 68 ATP tournaments, only 31% were held on clay (21 tournaments). In the WTA, the share is even smaller: 15 clay tournaments out of 55 competitions on the calendar – 27%. Of the 13 major tournaments of the year, men play only four on clay, and women play only three.
The clay season is the end of spring and the beginning of summer, culminating in Roland Garros, which ends in the first week of June. And there are still small stretches of soil in Latin America in February and in Europe in the middle of summer.
Soil is the slowest coating. It absorbs the most ball speed – a hit delivered at 100 km/h saves only 57 km/h. In addition, the bounce angle is also the largest – if the ball flies at an angle of 30 degrees, it will bounce at 44 degrees. As a result, he will fly to the back line at a height of 170 cm.
Since the surface is slow, the serve plays a lesser role on it – more precisely, a strong serve is not as effective as a shot that will immediately score points. They need to be won in draws, and this requires special mobility (and the ability to slide on clay), patience and a good tactical arsenal.
Because of this, Andrey Rublev, for example, considers clay to be the fairest tennis surface: “But I consider clay tennis to be real tennis, because it requires endurance and physical training, tactical thinking. If you do everything right on clay, you usually win.
On grass, you can play right and still lose, because the opponent serves incredibly and in a couple of key moments he has insane tricks. On the clay it also sometimes happens, but in general the results on the clay seem to me the most fair.
And, of course, the ground is the realm of top rotation. A hit with a powerful top spin flies in a special arc and falls sharper due to rotation, so the contact angle is blunter. In addition, due to the interaction of the spinning ball with the coating particles, the rebound is more explosive. As a result, the ball flies very high and jumps out of the zone from which it is comfortable for the player to strike, flies above the shoulder.
There are three solutions to this problem:
1. Greet the ball early before it has time to take off – but this is a risk that leads to more errors.
2. On the contrary, pull deeper and wait for the ball to go down – but this is how the player gives up the initiative.
3. Trying to cope with a high ball – but it is purely physically and technically very difficult.
Rafael Nadal, who took Roland Garros 14 times, and Iga Sventek, who won two of the last three tournaments in Paris, turn the ball the hardest in rounds. This, of course, is not a coincidence.
At the same time, it should be borne in mind that the soil is the same living covering as grass, which is very sensitive to external conditions. For example, on dry days it becomes a little faster, and when the humidity rises, on the contrary, it becomes viscous. In 2022, at Roland Garros, Nadal and Alexander Zverev played the semi-final on a rainy day and in a closed stadium, where there was very high humidity. As a result, they spent incomplete two sets in three hours – after all, both move so well that they practically could not break through each other.
In addition, the calendar has a tournament in Madrid, which takes place on a hill. Due to the thinner air, the conditions there are a little more like a hard court – and it is probably no coincidence that this is the clay top tournament that Nadal has won the least.
It is also very important what the court is laid on – for example, at Roland Garros it consists of five layers, and the ground itself lies only on the very top. And under it are four more layers of different stones. Their combination creates the unique Parisian rebound that Nadal loves so much.
Naturally, the role is also played by how much soil is poured onto the court – the more, the slower it will be.
And we must not forget that the composition of this soil can be different. The most striking example: in the USA they play on green clay, the cut is based on the local amphibolite rock. Due to its physical properties, the courts turn out faster than regular reds.
Nowadays, synthetic hard drives rule in tours – it is cheap, diverse and very stressful on the joints.
Now the main tennis surface at the top level has become artificial hard, which hosts approximately 60% of all ATP and WTA tournaments, including the vast majority of major competitions. In addition, hard is the only surface on which two Grand Slams are held: the Australian Open and the US Open.
Hard consists of only two components: a hard backing and a synthetic top layer. As a substrate, asphalt or concrete is usually used, and in indoor courts are sometimes laid on a tree – parquet or a wooden frame.
The top layer is usually a mixture of acrylic and sand.
Laying the top layer on the courts of the Australian Open. Specialists, in fact, apply several thick layers of paint
The speed of the court depends on the state of these two components. The softer the pad under the court, the more ball speed it absorbs, so the surface is slower. You don’t have to look far for an illustration: both the Australian Open and the US Open are played on hard courts, but in Australia the mat is traditionally softer, so the courts there are on average not as fast as in New York.
But there are also extreme examples of softness. At some tournaments in the halls, the courts are laid on wooden beams, and voids appear under some areas – in these places the ball practically does not bounce at all.
And in the upper layer, much depends on the amount of sand in the mixture. The more it is, the more granular the coating turns out, the more friction between it and the ball, the more speed the blows lose. As the surface wears, it gets faster because there are fewer sand grains in it and there is nothing for the ball to cling to.
Before the start of big tournaments, fresh courts are always laid, and the organizers usually have a program on how to bring them up to the right speed. For example, at the US Open, they are specially worn out by washing with a high-pressure stream of water – so that they are faster.
In addition, hard, of course, is synthetic, but it also reacts to external conditions. For example, part players say they have to adapt if they play a few matches during the day and then have to play in the evening – because the heat makes the courts expand and they get faster. And if it’s cooler in the evening, they slow down.
Sometimes this is noticeable even during matches that start in the afternoon and end in the evening – for example, in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open-2021, Stefanos Tsitsipas went 0-2 in sets against Rafael Nadal, and his comeback began just after the sun went down, and Nadal’s punches became less of a problem for him.
In general, hard is very diverse – it can be phenomenally fast or extremely slow. But in general, in terms of speed, it is between ground and grass: if in a standard test the ball is launched at a speed of 100 km/h at an angle of 30 degrees, then it will bounce at a speed of 67 km/h and at an angle of 41 degrees, and it will fly to the back line at height 162 cm.
Therefore, playing on hard is something between clay and grass. In principle, the surface is suitable for all playing styles: both for fighting on the back line and for reaching the net. It is the most versatile, and since it has now become basic, the basic game of most tennis players is hard.
At the same time, this surface is not the best for the health of the players, because it is hard – unlike natural and soft ground and grass. For example, Rafael Nadal talked about the dominance of hard on the tour:
“It will be difficult to change the situation, because tournaments on this surface are probably easier to run and probably cheaper for the organizers. But at the same time, this is the most aggressive coating for the body. It hits very hard on the hips, on the knees, on the ankles, on the back.”
The thing is that tennis is constant jerking and constant braking. The researchers calculated that players go through around 500 acceleration-deceleration cycles per match. And since the surface is hard, sudden stops on it are accompanied by additional stress on the joints and muscles. Especially considering the fact that many tennis players now glide not only on soft and suitable ground, but also on hard and tenacious hard.
Previously, they also played on the carpet, but tennis on it has become boring, and even dangerous.
Until the early 2000s, there was another common covering on tours: carpet. For example, it hosted the Masters in Paris and the Kremlin Cup. And sometimes the final ATP tournament.
Boris Becker and Pete Sampras play on the mat of the 1996 Finals
The ITF described the coating as follows: “It is a textile coating of woven or non-woven nylon, or polymer, or rubber material.” In general, carpets were considered something like artificial grass because they were very fast.
In principle, their speed killed them. As the players became more powerful and the new racquet technology made the serves ever stronger, the matches became rather boring – everything was decided in one or two strokes, there were practically no draws, and such tennis did not particularly attract television audiences and spectators to the stands.
And since the carpet did not have the sacred status that grass has, it was easier to abandon it in favor of hard.
In addition, players complained that they get more injuries on the carpet – for example, scientists have found that knee ligaments are much easier to injure on this surface than on any other tennis courts. And there were also reports that the synthetic coating made from recycled materials was also dangerous in terms of chemical effects on the body.
As a result, top competitions on the carpet have not been held in the men’s round since 2009, and in the women’s round he lived a little longer – in 2018, Pauline Parmentier in Quebec became the last person to win the title of the main round level on this surface.
In general, tennis can be played on anything – on parquet, asphalt, tile or bare ground. But the most suitable surfaces were grass, clay and hard.
There are complaints that now all coatings are the same. This is true?
In recent years, in both rounds, there has been a process of slowing down surfaces – extremely fast courts disappear, and everyone comes to about the same speed. Many fans believe that this is killing tennis because the game becomes a repetitive pounding on the back line, without variability and interesting decisions.
There is some truth in this, the courts are indeed becoming more or less unified. However, there is still a certain spread of speeds – for example, grass can never be made as slow as the ground.
And the rebound features are still preserved. Yes, the grass has become slower as its quality has grown, but you still can’t win on clay tennis on it. Yes, incredibly fast hard is no more, but even on slow or moderately fast topspin will not be as effective as on clay.
And there is also an opinion that the courts have slowed down for specific players – primarily Nadal and Djokovic. But in fact, this is most likely not the case. It’s more likely that it’s due to the demands of TV people who don’t want to show one or two punch plays and who need long (and sometimes dramatic) exchanges.
But the most important thing is that even taking into account the standardization of the courts, the features of the surfaces are still preserved. And this is confirmed by concrete examples. For example, Nadal still has a hard time in the halls (too fast), Medvedev still has a hard time on clay (problems with rotation), and Schwentek still has a hard time on grass (her spin does not work there).