A case for uniform courts

Recent victories by foreign stars emphasize an old need: surfaces that favor nobody
April 11, 1960

Neale Fraser loses to Ulf Schmidt of Sweden at San Juan and to Mike Davies of England at Caracas. A graceful Spaniard named Andres Gimeno wins the championship in Venezuela. Big Barry MacKay, whose booming service makes him king on the slick hardwood of the Seventh Regiment Armory National Indoor Championships, is a pushover in the Caribbean—beaten in the middle rounds from San Juan to Barranquila.

This is the face of amateur tennis in the winter and early spring of 1960. More specifically, it is the face of tennis on composition courts, where the ball bounces evenly and where players from countries that have no grass or indoor courts of their own are at their best.


Put Fraser, the Australian Davis Cup ace, on a turf court with his slashing, high-kicking delivery and there's probably no amateur in the world who can take him. But put him on a clay or composition court—a surface familiar to his opponent—and he is just another of the top-line contenders. Maybe he wins today, tomorrow he loses.

The same is true of his teammate Roy Emerson and of Barry MacKay and others of the grass-court school. Giants at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, they are men of lesser stature when their big weapons—the lightning speed and unpredictable bounce of grass—are denied them.

If nothing else this year, the Caribbean circuit—with virtually all the top stars of the diminishing amateur ranks in attendance—has brought an old sore spot of the game forcibly to the front again. When are the tennis fathers going to get wise and standardize the surface of the tennis court?

Suppose the world's top soccer teams came up to the Olympic Games at Rome this summer and Avery Brundage handed them a square ball, telling them, "Boys, I know you have been playing with a round ball. But this is the Olympics. So you have to play with a square ball."


This may sound ridiculous but it is no more so than holding the preliminary rounds of the Davis Cup tennis competition on clay surface, and once a team reaches the final rounds forcing it to shift to grass. On clay, tennis is a ground game. Because of slow bounces, it is difficult to put the ball away. There are more rallies and better retrieves. On grass, which is extremely fast, tennis is a game in the air, with serve and volley dominating the play.

About 30 countries compete annually for the silver bowl which symbolizes world tennis supremacy. Of these, only the U.S., Australia, Canada and England are accustomed to grass. Turf is foreign to the others. It isn't surprising, therefore, that the last 16 Challenge Rounds have been between the U.S. and Australia, and that Britain was in the four finals before those (1934-37).

Teams from Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and even Mexico give up tremendous odds in shifting to grass courts. I recall the Italians, after absorbing a beating in an interzone match on grass, complaining bitterly: "Oh, if we could only have played you in Italy. It would be very different."

It might have been, too. Nicola Pietrangeli, Orlando Sirola & Co. can be awfully tough in their own lair.

What team did Harry Hopman of Australia fear most in challenging this past year in the American Zone? It was Mexico—on Mexico's unique composition surface. Hopman, as it turned out, had reason to worry. In the most exciting of the year's series, the Mexicans came close to winning all four singles matches.

Of course, should one of the grass-poor countries wrest the title away, it would be equally hard for the Australians or Americans to get it back. Many of us remember well how the French with their celebrated "Four Horsemen," Rene Lacoste, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet and Jacques Brugnon, held the Davis Cup for six years from 1927 through 1932 on Paris clay, keeping even the great Bill Tilden at bay.

The grass tennis court is a holdover from the hoopskirt-and-bustle days. There are few remaining in the world, and those that do exist are deteriorating because of the expense of upkeep. Grass continues to represent the epitome of topflight tennis only because hard-core traditionalists refuse to change.

Tradition is wonderful. I am for it—in its place. There is no reason why smaller tournaments cannot be held on the grass at Wimbledon, at Forest Hills and at Kooyong and White City in Australia. But for the common people and the big championships, let us turn to something else.

We can't adopt clay. Like grass, it is expensive to keep up, and its slowness would take some of the speed and zing out of a game which has become jet-powered.

The ideal surface is one of those new combination asphalt jobs. With our tremendous strides in engineering and plastics, it is possible to devise a perfect court—one with the bounce of a grass court but with the sureness of clay. You would always get a true bounce—not a tricky one, as on grass, which destroys the confidence and stroking rhythm of the players accustomed to clay.

If a uniform surface were adopted, the nationals could be moved to Los Angeles, where it is prohibitively expensive to build a grass court, to Denver and Houston and Chicago. A big part of America now is playing on the combination-asphalt surfaces. Europe is swinging in that direction. Acceptance of the surface by the United States Lawn Tennis Association could be a terrific boost to the game.