Skip to main content

The Toss: Court speed's impact on tennis

  • Author:
  • Publish date:

Roger Federer noted the need to adjust his strategy to the change in court speed at the Paris Masters. (AP)

Another week, another Toss. Last week, Bryan Armen Graham and Courtney took on the task of casting the movie adaptation of Andre Agassi's Open. The Toss' fine readers made their wise selections in the polls: Colin Farrell should play Andre; James Gandolfini should play Andre's father, Mike; Rachel Weisz should play Brooke Shields; and Uma Thurman should play Steffi Graf.

This week, Tumaini Carayol, a London-based sportswriter and author of the FootFault blog, joins Courtney to debate another gripe recently voiced by players.

Today's Toss: Are slower tennis courts hurting the sport?

Courtney Nguyen: This is a topic that, admittedly (and rather shamefully), I haven't thought about much over the years. I hear it discussed in passing, in the press room and references on Twitter, but I haven't paid it much mind. Fans' complaints about the court speed often seem self-serving, lamenting the change because it hurts their favorite players' style of play. That's probably an unfair critique, though, as I quite like a slower surface because it yields a style of baseline tennis that I enjoy watching. I like grinding baseline battles, so count me as one who hasn't shed a tear for the demise of serve-and-volley tennis. Quick courts yield short rallies and I'm not convinced that's the type of tennis that brings in viewers and makes fans.

But, Tumaini, your article for Tennis Panorama earlier this week about the repercussions of homogenized court surfaces definitely got me thinking, particularly because I was looking forward to seeing how the men took to the quick courts at the Paris Masters. Alas, the week started with the players noting how slow the courts were playing this year, which was quite a shock. (Whether it's a change in the balls or the court surface, though, seems an open question.)

Extremes are never desirable. I wouldn't want all the courts to be slow, nor would I want them all to be quick. But when you have players complaining about having to adjust to different courts on a weekly basis, and you take into account how physically demanding the game is these days, there has to be a happy medium.

It should be noted that it's the players petitioning for homogenization. That slower courts might be detrimental to their bodies -- given that slow courts result in longer matches and rallies -- doesn't seem to faze them. If they're willing to give up their bodies in exchange for predictability, I don't see a problem with that.

But I know you have some strong feelings on this. So fire away.

Tumaini Carayol: Thanks for having me on The Toss this week, Courtney. In general, this topic is completely under the radar. Every year during Wimbledon we hear the usual comments about grass not playing like grass, but we rarely hear about the quiet change to hardcourts and indoor surfaces. (What on earth happened to the carpet surface?)

I definitely share your enthusiasm for baseline tennis and the positives that the slower courts bring. I can't deny that, for me, the most uninteresting style of play is that of the tall, big servers who knock down aces at will. Thanks to racket technology in the last decade, the influence of that style on the ATP Tour in particular would be immeasurable had no action been taken. Thus, I accept that the governing bodies of tennis had to make some changes to the courts.

However, I can't help but feel that without variety, tennis ceases to be tennis. I can't think of another major sport that caters to so many different matchups and styles of play, with conditions that differ so dramatically from week to week and month to month. Golf may be tennis' lone companion in this regard, but it obviously doesn't have the same head-to-head format of tennis.

For the last eight years, we have witnessed -- in my opinion -- the greatest male tennis player in history inflict devastation on the Tour. But even at Roger Federer's peak, as he was sweeping up Grand Slams, Masters and more, what always kept him honest was that slow, red dirt that just failed to complement his game. It's his kryptonite. There was no telling what would happen when he took to Europe for the red clay season.

It was the same with Serena Williams at a similar time of dominance. When I think of memorable rivalries, matches and specific moments in tennis, my mind always wanders back to that fateful 2003 Roland Garros semifinal between the American and her bitter rival, Justine Henin. Had all the surfaces catered to Serena's game, it's doubtful that "The Hand" would have been introduced into the tennis vocabulary.

But these days, with most surfaces playing similarly, it feels like that suspense is missing. In the last two years, first Rafael Nadal and then Novak Djokovic won three of four Slams as part of dominant years. While Roland Garros proved massive obstacles for Federer and Williams, the same should be said for Nadal on the traditionally fast decoturf of the U.S. Open, and perhaps Wimbledon too. Djokovic on the grasscourts as well. Indeed, considering their relative strengths and weaknesses, their weaker surfaces should prove even bigger obstacles compared to Federer on clay. Instead, both collected majors on their worst surfaces just as confidently as they did on their best ones.

[polldaddy poll=5659479]

You raise an interesting point in suggesting that we should respect players' decisions if they are willing to put their bodies at risk in favor of personal preferences. But after hearing Mardy Fish this week call the Bercy surface change "very disappointing" and Federer voice some qualms, the issue certainly isn't that black-and-white.

For the last two months, Andy Murray and Nadal -- two players whose games certainly benefit from surface homogenization -- criticized various Tour rules (mainly scheduling requirements) that they believe to be detrimental their health. Now, forgive me for using such a strong word, but surely demanding changes to help players' health while leaving out an issue beneficial to their specific game styles is slightly hypocritical?

Nguyen: The players may be hypocritical in their demands. Lord knows it wouldn't be the first time. I'm still a bit shocked that Bercy would agree to slow down its courts as much as it has. While I understand the players requested it (and tournaments are under pressure to keep the players happy), I also think it was tremendously shortsighted. In a time when tournaments struggle to differentiate themselves and fight to remain relevant (especially at this point in the calendar), Bercy had a prime opportunity to brand itself as the last bastion of quick-court tennis. Moreover, faster courts benefit the French players, with the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Michael Llodra in the mix. Which, of course, might explain why almost every French player fell in the first two rounds. Again, bad decision. Hopefully tournament organizers see the impact and hear enough complaints that they go back to a quicker pace next year.

So I agree that there's a lot to be said about variety, and a player's ability to dominate on different surfaces historically has been a major metric in determining his legacy and overall ability. Does a career Grand Slam (or a single-year Grand Slam, for that matter) mean as much today as it did when the gaps in speed between all four surfaces was wider? I would still argue yes.

Looking back on how Nadal was able to complete the career Grand Slam, for example, he didn't do it by playing only the game that made him dominant on clay. Instead, he was forced to adapt his game for each surface, to change tactics and style. When he won the Australian Open, he was unleashing his forehand in a way that we hadn't seen before, actually hitting winners and doing his best to hug the baseline -- two things that weren't part of his repertoire in his early days. Similarly, when he won the U.S. Open, it was all about his new serve (which seemed to come out of nowhere) that allowed him to hold relatively easily and control the rallies. And with Wimbledon, at least as it pertains to the first time he defeated Federer, in 2008, I think that's a pure matchup issue. Rafa simply has the game to bother Federer and it doesn't seem like the surface truly matters that much.

That's why even though I wouldn't mind a bit of variety in court speed (whether via the surface or the balls), I don't have a problem with the trend toward homogenization. You're right, tennis is a game that depends so much on external factors, such as wind, weather, heat, speed, balls, bounce, etc. That may make for fun barroom debates about who was better on what surface in what conditions, or allow players to blame their results on factors unrelated to their game. But in this day and age, I feel like we're getting a purer form of mano-e-mano competition. The notion that one player would (or could) have won if the court were just a little bit quicker seems antithetical to competition.

As for your example of Federer's inability to get it done on clay, isn't that more of a Nadal issue than a court-speed issue?

Carayol: You raise a great point about the benefits of surface homogenization. Mental strength now plays a more pivotal role in winning and losing than perhaps it once did. I also think homogenization has played a massive part in Federer's relative demise in recent years. For most of his career, Federer has achieved so much simply by being the more talented player. But these days, it is so much more about grit, and in those tight moments -- notably this year's French Open final and his last two U.S. Open semifinals against Djokovic -- he has crumbled. Similarly, Djokovic's superhuman 2011 comes down to his brilliant mental strength more than anything else.

The change in Bercy is an unfortunate issue. The surface speed made it unique, giving us a slight reprieve from the Nadal-Federer monopoly with a slew of surprise champions over the years. The main problem for players was the dramatic difference between the speed of the Paris courts and the speed of the courts at the O2 Arena in London a week later. That complaint is fair enough, but I find it most perverse that the decision was made to slow down the courts of Paris rather than look to speed up the courts in London. Even if speeding up a handful of tournaments is unappealing to most players, one would think that after a long, tiring year, the idea of having a couple of season-ending events played on quicker courts would be quite a relief.

In general, I think the solution to this is quite simple. In this era, slow courts will always reign supreme for all the reasons stated above. But at the same time, there will always be players, such as Federer, Fish, Llodra and Monfils, whose creativity thrives on the fast courts, and it would benefit the Tour greatly to have certain tournaments that players know will always play quicker and allow them to bring something different to the great sport of tennis.

You decide:

Vote in our poll above and sound off in the comments.