THE WAY THE BALL BOUNCES

Ed Brodeur is not only the inventor of surfaces, notably Supreme Court, on which tennis is played, but he is also a prophet who can foretell who's going to win a tournament from the "dynamics of the court"
April 21, 1980

Who will be the Colgate Grand Prix champion?" asked the magazine ad for the big January showdown in Madison Square Garden. "Hmm, let's see now," muttered Edward Brodeur, studying the candidates listed in the ad. "Vilas? No. Tanner? Hardly. Solomon will be out of there early...."

Then, with an air of finality, Brodeur said, "O.K., in the semifinals you'll have Borg, Connors, McEnroe and Gerulaitis. The matches will last an average of one hour and 50 minutes. The players will average 4.8 strokes per point with 3% aces, 8% service winners, and 2% of their rallies will exceed 15 strokes. And, oh yes, to answer the question, Bjorn Borg will be the champion."

At the time, three weeks before the tournament, Brodeur was sipping a cup of coffee in a cafeteria near his home in Marietta, Ga. So there were no tea leaves to consult, no crystal balls or trick mirrors. By what magic, then, was he able to correctly predict the triumph of Borg, who had never won in New York City, the names of the four semifinalists, the average length of the matches and all the other variables to within two-tenths of a percentage point?

The answer lies not in the stars but underfoot. Ed Brodeur, 58, is not a psychic but a very down-to-earth chemist who makes tennis courts. He is the owner of Research Coatings and Plastics, Inc., an eight-man company that manufactures Supreme Court, a portable playing surface used in the major men's indoor tournaments throughout the world. And while he calls them as he foresees them strictly for fun, he does it with the uncanny accuracy of a tennis technocrat who can discourse for hours on the relationship among Newton's laws of motion, the energy absorption of vinyl-coated polypropylene and the 140-mph serves of Roscoe Tanner.

Over the past six years Brodeur has amassed reams of technical data on some 1,000 professional tennis matches. He was seeking to "engineer" the perfect court, but along the way he also became an expert on the imperfections of the players. Forget motivation, rivalries, pressure, courage and all the other intangibles that the romantics in the press box dote on. Regardless of how hard they struggle, says Brodeur, the pros are such slaves to the dictates of physics that the results of their labors are as foregone a conclusion as ball impact equals mass times velocity squared.

"You can predict exactly what will happen," says Brodeur. "It doesn't matter what kind of ball they use or what kind of racket or what kind of shoes they wear or anything else."

What really matters, he says, is the composition of the surface, and when it comes to creating courts Ed Brodeur is a cross between Nostradamus and Henry the Navigator. He can foretell the final destination because he charts the course. That is, by varying the mix of chemicals, Brodeur contends, "We can put down a court on which Tanner would win absolutely. We can keep the Eddie Dibbses in there and we can get the Brian Gottfrieds out of there. We can favor the Europeans or we can make it an ail-American event. No one is aware of the power we have. They can say what they want, but in the final analysis we are the ones who are going to say who wins."

So why play? Or more to the point, why believe such an expansive claim? Well, beyond Brodeur's demonstrated powers as a clairvoyant, there are other factors that support the basis, if not the full sweep, of his contentions.

It is no secret that certain players perform more proficiently on certain surfaces than on others. Harold Solomon, for instance, is as tough to beat on slomo clay as Pancho Gonzalez was on the lickety-split cement slabs of California. It can be argued, in fact, that playing conditions figure more crucially in the outcome of tennis than in any other professional sport.

Brodeur's credibility is also enhanced by the fact that the art of creating tennis courts has advanced to the point where he can roll out a customized surface to suit the style of any type of player. "We can make it play like grass, like clay, like cement or anything in between," he says. "We can make it as soft as a worm or as hard as rock. We can maximize the spin effect of the ball or make it play as straight as a railroad track. In short, we can make the ball do anything we want it to."

Certainly the players are hip to the importance of the surface. Because the Europeans are generally raised on clay courts and the Americans on faster surfaces, the distinctions tend to run along continental lines. The 1979 Davis Cup final in San Francisco, for example, was played on a $7,000 Supreme Court that Brodeur made for the U.S. team according to its own specifications. Would the Americans be so unsporting as to host their Italian guests on a court that heavily favored John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, et al.? Is Ilie Nastase temperamental? "The Italians screamed bloody murder, and they were right," says Brodeur. "No way they were going to win on that surface." Final score: Hustlers 5, Pigeons 0. By the same token, last month Argentina defeated the U.S. in the 1980 American Zone Davis Cup final on the oh-so-slow red clay of the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club.

As for soothsaying, Brodeur points out that the whole thrust of a pro's training—hitting ball after ball, year after year, until each shot is a machinelike reflex action—is aimed at the kind of consistency that makes prophets out of oddsmakers. Thus it is neither surprising nor denigrating that steely competitors like Borg are often likened to robots with rackets.

To be sure, tennis has its share of upsets, but those that are not attributable to what Brodeur calls the "surface phenomenon" are so few that there is very little turnover at the top. Indeed, though some 200 players competed on the Grand Prix tour last year, the fact that the major tournaments were dominated by the same four millionaires only confirms Brodeur's thesis that "tennis is a game that follows very precise patterns." In sum, given his grasp of the numbers involved, Brodeur is the first to emphasize that his predictions are not magical, merely mathematical.

What it all adds up to is suggested by Brodeur's now-it-can-be-told revelation that his experiments in the mid-1970s with courts that were alternately too fast and too slow directly paralleled the rise and fall of Stan Smith, the big hitter, as well as master ground-strokers like Guillermo Vilas. "Yes, we killed off Smith, I'm afraid," says Brodeur, "and all I can say about Vilas, Orantes and the rest is, well, that's the way the ball bounces."

There is an inclination among fans to dismiss Brodeur's claims as overblown if only because they take a lot of the fun, mystery and suspense out of the game. In fact, there are those who fancy him as something of a diabolical old sorcerer, cackling over his steamy mixing vats and tossing in bat wings and newts' eyes. Brodeur's response is that his only intention is to conjure up a court that "will provide the best tennis possible." That at least was the idea when World Championship Tennis selected him from the ranks of the plastics industry, and he set out on no less a mission than to "redesign the game of tennis."

Brodeur seemed an ideal choice. He grew up in Worcester, Mass. with a tennis racket in one hand and his trusty Gilbert chemistry set in the other. When not threatening to blow up his attic laboratory, he was haunting the local clay courts, raking and rolling the humps left by the spring thaw. "You developed your playing skills by aiming shots for the ruts," he says.

Brodeur captained the tennis team at Holy Cross, and after getting his master's degree in physical chemistry, he spent eight years in the labs of U.S. Rubber. A polyvinyl expert, he subsequently built his own mixing plant in Rome, Ga., where his developments in indoor-outdoor carpeting attracted the interest of Mike Davies, the executive director of WCT. That was in 1973, and the pro indoor circuit was in desperate need of a consistent playing surface that did something more than pose the question of who's going to break whose serve?

"Who cares?" was the reaction of most fans, and Brodeur is equally candid about precisely why he was asked to devise a more competitively balanced court. "It was for television," he says. "TV was going to drop tennis if we didn't do something to get away from the serve-and-volley game."

Trouble was, no one had the vaguest notion about how that might be accomplished within the limits of the existing technology. None of the indoor courts WCT had been using—various concoctions of vinyl, urethane, fiber glass and needle-punch materials—was specifically designed for tennis, and the results showed it. Under the hot glare of TV lights, the surfaces expanded and popped their seams, causing nettlesome delays. No two courts played the same, and there were numerous problems with slippage and dead spots. WCT's Davies, a former pro who toured on the canvas, concrete and hardwood courts of yore, likens the early artificial surfaces to "playing on a sea of ripples."

Erratic at best, the courts further alienated the TV schedule makers by defying all attempts to contain a match within a certain time frame. Davies recalls the shocked expression of the TV executive who exclaimed, "You mean this match could go on for five hours?" Some did, and while the adoption of tie-breakers helped, the matches were still too open-ended to suit the parties involved. Missed press deadlines were one thing, says Brodeur, but more troublesome was the fact that "everyone was sick and tired of going to the post-match parties at 1 a.m. They wanted to start drinking at 11 p.m."

All told, Brodeur was faced with a very demanding challenge, and he loved every perversely complex aspect of it. He explains, "It involved physics, tennis and plastics—all the things I know and care something about. I hadn't had so much fun in years."

Everyone knew that clay courts slowed down and effectively neutralized the big serve. But why? Starting from scratch pad, Brodeur juggled equations dealing with gravity, air resistance and ball spin, and while his Y=½ GT¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢¬ß (in which Y stands for the downward pull of gravity on the ball from a horizontal plane, G for gravity and T for time) is not on the order of E=mc¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢¬ß, it did prove that the fastest serve possible is 140 mph. However, because the margin of net clearance for a 140-mph zinger to land in the service box is a scant inch, in reality the serves of most male pros travel at something more like 100 mph. All of which led to Brodeur's formulation of the basic problem: "What happens when a man serves a two-ounce ball 100 mph from a height of nine feet at an 11-degree angle with a force of 60 pounds?"

Excellent tennis, he concluded, if the ball is slowed so that the receiver has an additional tenth of a second of reaction time. That meant that the surface had to slow the ball by five hundredths of a second on contact, a feat that was easier deduced than duplicated. One attempt at simulating the clay-court effect, producing a hard surface with a rough, granulated finish, failed because the ball was not in contact with the court long enough—only .0017 second—to make any appreciable difference. Brodeur's conclusion: "At high speeds the surface texture is not what slows the ball down. Something else has to happen."

Like a mystery-novel sleuth, Brodeur got down on his hands and knees and studied the ball marks on clay courts. And sure enough, there was the visual proof of what he had worked out on paper: elongated teardrop impressions made with enough force to kick up a small amount of clay in front of the ball and reduce velocity. He videotaped the ball striking the court and painstakingly analyzed the "divot effect" in slow motion. Conclusion: "There is only one way to slow a hard, flat, low-angle shot. The surface has to grab and give."

Brodeur's attempts to reproduce the divot effect chemically was like building a Dagwood sandwich. He began his four-decker with 25 different ingredients, spreading a face coat of polyvinyl chloride on a cloth of polypropylene nylon fabric that was back-coated with another layer of polyvinyl stacked on top of a waffled foam cushion that looked like the tread on a truck tire. It took 50 variations and months of trial and error under tournament conditions before—eureka!—he came up with a surface that gave or "puckered" just enough to provide the receiver that precious extra tenth of a second of reaction time.

And none too soon for Lamar Hunt, the Daddy Warbucks of WCT. Brodeur admits, "We really made some awful courts at first. I mean, we put out some real crud." That was all too apparent when Borg and Vilas met in the finals of the 1976 WCT championship and labored through one point that lasted 84 strokes. In an effort to compensate, Brodeur went too far. "In the 1977 WCT Challenge Cup final in Las Vegas, Connors and Nastase averaged about 6% aces," he recalls. "I remember Lamar came to me after that match and was really mad. He and Davies wanted the court slowed down. We knew right then that we had gone too far."

Brodeur adds that his desire to find the ideal adjustment was tinged with a strong streak of patriotism. "In slowing the courts down, we had destroyed Smith, and younger guys like Tanner and Dick Stockton were stymied. It really wasn't fair to the Americans. The U.S. has 40 million players compared to 20 million from the rest of the world. Yet for the first time, we played hell trying to get three Americans into the top 10. I thought something should be done."

By the 1978 U.S. Pro Indoors, Brodeur had fine-tuned his Supreme Court to the point where he could give not only a better break to U.S. players (six in the top 10) but also a "happy-medium pace" for the tournament. By now he could also predict results and all the tricky little particulars with a precision you could set your Accutron by.

Brodeur has since refined his stroke-by-stroke research into a handy formula whereby he can regulate the average length of a match and still assure "exciting tennis in which the best all-round player will win." His notes on crowd reaction, for example, show that fans "go bananas" over aces as well as extended rallies as long as they do not exceed the tedium levels of 3% or 4% of the points played. Keeping service winners in the 8% to 10% range and averaging 4.5 to five strokes a point produces the "ultimate in strategic tennis," he says.

The only problem with definitions of ultimate is that they are ultimately subjective. Davies, who worked closely with Brodeur and the players in fashioning Supreme Court, argues that decision by committee is impractical in such sensitive matters. "Somebody has got to take a stand," he says, "and who is as capable as myself?"

The intrusion of TV may sound sinister, says Davies, but he feels that the situation is one of those rare instances when what is best for the commercial interests is also best for the spectators, the players and the game. "That's not true at Wimbledon," Davies contends. "I have seen too many players who didn't have the quality game win the championship only because they had the big serve. On the other hand, some truly great players like Ken Rosewall never won Wimbledon because they were at such a disadvantage on the grass. I think the court that WCT has now is the best ever, because, among other things, it does away with those kinds of inequities."

Still, Brodeur for one has his reservations. "Sure, it's definitely unfair that the U.S. Davis Cup team is allowed to play on its own court, just as it's unfair that the Europeans are able to corner the Americans on their clay courts and baseline them to death. We protect our flanks by saying that the best players win on Supreme. But with so much money and so many careers at stake, we're sitting here making decisions we shouldn't be making. You keep reading that tennis needs a czar, and I agree."

If Brodeur had his way, he would bulldoze most of the tennis courts in the U.S. He declares, "The American way is to slap down a slab of asphalt, put some lines on it and say, 'That's a tennis court.' Well, it isn't. It's a painted parking lot. The ball takes off too fast on those courts for any talented youngsters to develop the solid ground strokes that you can't learn after you're 21. All they know how to do is blow the ball by the kid on the other side, and that's why, per capita, we're not producing the kind of world-class players that we should.

"Take Tanner. He learned much of his game on asphalt, and by the time he had to get the ball over the net four or five times it was too late to learn how. Right now there's a gifted young pro named John Sadri, who came off asphalt courts in North Carolina. He will thrill the crowd but, like Tanner, he'll never win consistently. And that's a damn shame."

For Brodeur, the symbol of much that is wrong with tennis in America is the new U.S. Open court complex in Flushing, N.Y., hard by LaGuardia Airport. "I hate it," he says. "Forest Hills had class, but that place is strictly honky-tonk, a concrete jungle with unruly crowds and planes roaring overhead. Coney Island with nets."

Equally distressing, says Brodeur, is that the Open's hard surface, which he views as little more than an extension of upper Broadway, is too heavily weighted in favor of the U.S. players. No Ouija board was needed, he says, to foretell that the two finalists in last year's Open would be a couple of street-savvy New Yorkers named McEnroe and Gerulaitis. "If something isn't done to correct the imbalance," he warns, "the Europeans will stop coming."

Brodeur doubts that his protestations will ever be heeded. For reasons he cannot divine, he finds that many people are cool to the scientific approach to sports. A few years ago, when he was producing the Sporteze surface for a New York City firm that supplies courts for the women's indoor circuit, he offered to make some improvements, but the ladies would not even look at his numbers, he says, for "emotional reasons."

Ah well, these days Brodeur contents himself with playing 12 sets of tennis a week, "fiddle-diddling" with his surface to compensate for the faster ball that WCT has adopted and playing the clairvoyant for local sportswriters whenever the pro tour comes to Atlanta. Otherwise, about the only prediction he will indulge in has to do with the shipping mixup that sent a massive shag carpet intended for Dubai to a tournament in Perth, Scotland. Peering though his glasses like a wide-eyed Jeane Dixon, Brodeur says, "Now there's a surface that Harold Solomon would win on for sure."

PHOTOLANE STEWARTBrodeur checks a sample of Supreme Court to determine its speed. By varying the formula he can practically determine a player's chances in a tournament. PHOTOLANE STEWARTIt took 50 variations of formulas and months of trials and errors before Brodeur settled on a surface that puckered up just enough for WCT's Lamar Hunt. PHOTOLANE STEWARTThis abrasion machine measures the effect a surface has on a ball. PHOTOLANE STEWARTBrodeur evaluates the top layer of his surface with a viscosity-measuring device.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)