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Tennis

Mixed reviews for resurrection of Wimbledon grass for Olympics

WIMBLEDON, England -- If Wimbledon usually becomes an exercise in meteorology, the Olympic tennis event has proved to be a crash course in horticulture as well. Rain, cloud breaks and the generally moody British weather are always topical at the All England Club. This year it's supplemented with frequent talk of lawn care. This is the Miracle-Gro Open.

Roger Federer beat Andy Murray in the Wimbledon men's final on July 8. Since then, the grounds crew resurfaced Centre Court, as well as the other 11 "play courts," with speed and diligence to envy anyone who owns a backyard. The motto of the London Olympics is "Inspire a Generation," but it might as well be "Inspire a Re-Generation."

The crucial strategy: They pre-germinated the ryegrass seeds, soaking them in a large container of hot water. The seeds were then left for two days in a room to ferment until they germinated. Then, they were placed on the pocked areas of the courts. Fed a strict diet and coddled daily -- not unlike an Olympic athlete -- the blades grew to the standard eight millimeters by the first match on Saturday.

"We had so many test runs, so we were confident," said the aptly named Neil Stubley, soon to become the All England Club's head groundsman. "We actually had a few days of padding built in."

The results of the gardening have been mixed. Players have slipped and slid and walked off the courts with abundant grass stains on their shorts and skirts.

"I practiced in the rain the other days, and I don't think it was as slippery as [Court One]," Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic told me Sunday. "I fell twice in the first three points."

Savvier players have often tried to "wrong-foot" their opponents -- hitting the less obvious shot, making a player pay for anticipation -- using the slickness of the courts as a tactic.

On the other hand, that the pristine lawns have been restored and are even remotely playable is a true feat. Plus, to mix sports metaphors, complaints about slick grass courts is par for the course. Each year at Wimbledon, in the first days players invariably slip a bit. Then as the grass is transformed to dirt, they become more secure in their footing.

Plus, if you want to see something patchy and deprived of seeds, just check out the draws these next few days. When sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic christened Centre Court and promptly lost in straight sets to little-known Belgian Steve Darcis, it was an omen. Australia's Sam Stosur and China's Li Na, both of whom won majors in 2011, were bounced. So was No. 2 seed Aggie Radwanska, a flag-bearer from Poland, who had come within a set of winning Wimbledon just a few weeks ago.

The rash of early upsets and near-upsets is less a function of the physical playing conditions as they are the singular pressure of the Olympics. Tennis is, necessarily, a sport of narcissism. Playing with your county's name on your back is wholly different experience. And unlike Davis Cup, you lose once and you're out of contention. Players all walk from the courts through a "mix zone" before heading to the locker room. The intensity of their emotions -- ecstasy of victory, agony of defeat -- are evident.

In this way, players are like the grounds crew. The crew had an Olympic task of getting the courts prepared for play. We'll see over the next few days if the efforts were worthy of a medal, or if they'll leave disappointed.

What is the protocol for scheduling on Centre Court? Who gets first? I'd assumed it would have been Rafael Nadal, as defending gold medalist, to start up the action. But you know what they say about assuming anything.-- Tessa, Richmond, Mich.

• There is no protocol. I thought the tournament might make a nod to Wimbledon and let Nadal -- the defending gold medal winner -- christen Centre Court. But with Nadal's unfortunate withdrawal, it was a moot point. (The 2008 gold medal woman, Elena Dementieva, has retired.) The debut Centre Court match? Darcis versus Berdych.* O...kay. (Serena and Federer followed.)

* I single out Berdych: Immediately after the matches here, players are escorted to a "mix zone" where they are beseeched for interviews and autographs and can either stop or keep walking. Berdych, a former Wimbledon finalist, loses a rough match. He is surely deeply disappointed. He has come right from the court. And he stops for everyone. Does this make him worthy of, well, a medal? No. But especially for a guy not known for being personable, I thought this was very big of him.

After watching Ryan Harrison embarrass himself and the U.S. with his behavior in London, do you think it is time Mr. Harrison take a mandatory break from representing the U.S. in Davis Cup?-- Warren, Mesa, Ariz.

• Many saw Harrison behave poorly on the court. I hope a good many of you also saw him apologize profusely the next day. I think we give him the benefit of the doubt and file this in the "lesson learned" box (at least until he shows otherwise).

New rule for the next ATP/WTA board meeting: For every racket a player breaks, he or she has to donate 100 rackets to a tennis program for disadvantaged kids.

I've been trying to recall or retrieve from the web the stupid, sarcastic and disrespectful comments you made about the red of Roger Federer's clothes in his first match yesterday in the Olympics, live on Bravo TV ... but I have not been successful. Can you please refresh my memory?-- David Herrera, Tucson, Ariz.

• Stupid, sarcastic and disrespectful are subjective terms. In the context of a discussion about the suspension of the All England Club's all-white attire rules, I remarked that it was jarring to see Federer on Centre Court in a red kit adorned with a Swiss flag. We're obviously not used to that at Wimbledon and I think my line was something to the effect of, "At first, I thought he was a lifeguard." Hope that helps refresh your recollections.

Regarding Brian from San Diego's comment in last week's column about the great feeling he got from the high-five between Serena and Aga Radwanska during the trophy presentation: It was a really nice moment but why do I doubt we'd have seen this had Serena been holding the small plate? Hence the issue I and many, many others have with Serena. She's the best sport in the world when she wins and damn near the worst when she loses.-- George, New York

• Three different readers mentioned that. While I agree that it's hard to see Serena losing a final and then slapping five with the winner, I think it's a bit of an unfair comparison. The context for the two players is so different. Radwanska was an underdog in her first major final and, on balance, was thrilled with her tournament. Serena was gunning for her 14th title; she would have been devastated and in no mood for daps -- understandably, I'd say -- had she lost.

Cam Bennett's wonderful reflections on the retiring Arnaud Clement reminded me to say this to you: Please don't use your column to discuss or answer questions such as: Who is the "worst" male player to make a Slam final in the last 25 years? I respect your journalistic integrity and your balanced approach to the discussions, but I feel like entertaining a question posed in that manner is unfair and unkind to those players who undoubtedly took great joy in that singular achievement.-- Tim Johnson, New York

• I admit that I am a bit torn here. I don't disagree with the premise that it's unkind. As some of us -- I don't exempt myself -- have gotten a bit carried with the G.O.A.T. discussion it strikes me that here too we end up diminishing truly great players. Make a case for, say, Steffi Graf and by the time you're through, Martina, Chrissie and Serena sound like hacks unlikely to win a round at the Dubuque Racket Cub ladies scrambler. (And vice/vice/vice versa.)

On the other hand, "Who's the least accomplished player to reach a Slam final?" It's harsh, but it's precisely the kind of topic sports fans enjoy discussing. Sometimes the conversation is flattering. Sometimes it's unflattering. It's the rules of engagement for sports fandom. "What Academy Award winner achieved the least afterward?" "Who was the worst vice president?" "Which top draft pick was the biggest bust?" It's all fair game, no? Curious to hear your thoughts.

There is a once-in-a-lifetime break from tradition at the All England Club for the Olympic Games. Fuchsia.-- Aaron Mayfield, Chicago

• Beats the description one reader gave me: Pepto Bismol.

• Anyone wondering how Tommy Haas of Germany feels now? He's a former Olympic medalist (silver in 2000) as well as the last man to beat Roger Federer. The German Federation, inexplicably, didn't put him up for an Olympics wild card. One countryman, Florian Mayer, declined to play in London. And, a day after playing a clay event in Kitzbuehel, Phil Kohlschreiber pulled out of the Olympics as well. Huh?

• Donald Young, out in the first round, hasn't won a match since February.

• The good news for Stephanie Vogt: She carried the flag for her nation of Liechtenstein. The bad news: she mustered just two games in falling to Chris Evert protégé Anna Tatishvili.

• Dennis of Louisville, Ky.: "In addition to the Basel arena, Roger also now has a street named after him: Roger-Federer-Allee in Halle, Germany. I am a bit perplexed, though, as to why a German town would use the Frenchified, "Roger-Federer-Allee" rather something more German, like Roger-Federer-Strasse."

• European vacation Graf/Agassi style.

• Jason of Leander, Texas: "Long-lost siblings: Tsvetana Pironkova and Sarah Silverman.

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