With Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic set to contest the French Open Final on Sunday one cannot help but wonder how four players (Federer and Murray) have consistently featured in the Grand Slam finals for the past eight years.
In the previous 32 finals (including the 2014 French Open) 22 of the finals have featured two of these players. Only two other players have won a Grand Slam since Rafa Nadal won his first French Open in 2005, Stanislas Wawrinka (2014 Australian Open) and Juan Martin Del Potro (2009 US Open). Since the 2006 Wimbledon final only Wawrinka, Del Potro, Roddick, Gonzalez, Tsonga, Soderling, Berdych and Ferrer have even contested a Grand Slam final.
The women’s game is not quite as one sided although the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova and Justin Henin have been quite dominant in the past decade. The question is, in a game with four (apparently) different surfaces (clay, grass, fast hard and slow hard), how can such a small group of players dominate? There have been dominant players before, but rarely over such a time span, and rarely on all four surfaces.
How is it that Rafa Nadal, the King of Clay, has adapted to have success on grass? Where have all the serve and volleyers gone? Are the clay court specialists a thing of the past? The answers to these questions lie in the surfaces.
Roland Garros – Famous Red Clay
The French Open at Roland Garros is the most famous clay court tournament in the world. There are many high profile clay court tournaments held in Rome, Madrid or Barcelona but Roland Garros is the mecca. What are the characteristics of a clay court? Is there that much difference between clay and other surfaces?
Clay courts are traditionally much slower than other surfaces with a much higher bounce of the ball. It is more difficult to hit clean winners on a clay court and rallies are expected to be longer than other surfaces. Clay courts suit defensive players who like to play from behind the baseline with a lot of topspin. Matches on clay courts tend to take much longer than on grass or fast hard court.
In years gone past there were numerous players who excelled on clay courts, but struggled on other surfaces, particularly grass courts. Sergi Bruguera won 2 French Opens, but never got past the 4th round at Wimbledon. Albert Costa won one French Open, 12 clay titles overall and never got past the 2nd round at Wimbledon. Gaston Gaudio won the French Open, and never progressed past the 2nd round at Wimbledon. Thomas Muster won the French Open, won 40 titles on clay, reached world number one and never won a match at Wimbledon. How is it that these clearly talented players never succeeded on grass courts?
Before we look at the second question (Is there that much difference between clay and other surfaces?), let’s take a look at the characteristics of grass courts.
Wimbledon – Grass Surface
Wimbledon is probably the most famous tennis venue of them all. The history of the tournament is unparalleled. Every year the courts are perfectly presented for day one of the tournament. By finals weekend the baselines and net areas are usually worn away from the players. In recent years however the net areas are less and less worn. Why is this? Why are players shying away from coming to the net?
Grass courts are traditionally very fast surfaces, with a very low bounce of the ball. At Wimbledon the ball rarely bounces above knee height. Players are required to react faster on grass than other surfaces. Rallies are much shorter as grass courts suit flatter shots or a serve and volley approach. Similar to clay specialist there are some players who would be considered grass court specialists.
Pat Cash reached two finals on grass and never got past the 4th round at the French Open. Tim Henman reached 3 grass finals, and reached zero clay court finals. Other than a semi finals appearance in 2004 Henman never progressed past the 3rd round at the French Open. Pat Rafter won 4 titles on grass surfaces, and never won any on clay. These are all excellent players, so how come they couldn’t have success on all surfaces like the players of today’s generation? To answer that question we must discuss the question is there that much of a difference between clay and other surfaces? In this instance we will focus on clay and grass courts.
The Modern Era
The descriptions of clay and grass surfaces from above would have been accurate in the early and mid 1990’s. At this time there were significant differences in the style of play required to be successful on each surface. There are players who had success on all surfaces at this time (Rod Laver, Andre Agassi). Even great players like John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras could not win on both the grass and the clay.
How can Rafa Nadal, whose style is so clearly suited to the clay courts, have such success on grass? How can Roger Federer, who was created by tennis gods to compete on grass and fast hard courts, win on clay? Taking nothing away from these two great players (arguably the two greatest players ever), it’s hard to picture them winning the career grand slam in the 1990’s. How can they achieve it now if they could not achieve it then?
When Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2005 at his first attempt tennis fans the world over saw a player who would dominate the clay court season for years to come, but who would have limited success on other surfaces. Rafa was a defensive player, who played from 6 foot behind the baseline with a lot of topspin. The fast, low bouncing style of Wimbledon would not allow this brand of tennis to succeed.
However, since the turn of the millennium, Wimbledon’s courts are not quite as fast, and the ball does not bounce quite so low. Where before the ball would bounce as high as your knee, now it bounces up to your waist. Credit to Rafa, he worked very hard and adapted his game to be successful on grass, but without these changes to the surface he may not have had success at Wimbledon.
According to players such as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Martina Navratilova, Mardy Fish and others the balls bounce higher, and the courts are much slower and harder than 15 or 20 years ago. The serve and volley style of Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic is now a distant memory, a ghost that haunts the Wimbledon Centre court.
Matches that were once determined by big servers are now replaced with tactical baseline battles. This is due in some part to improvements in returning of serve. Players approach the net with more caution in the modern game due to the ability of players like Murray and Djokovic to hit return winners off the serve. The slowing down of courts plays into the hands of these players, and certainly the biggest winner is Rafa Nadal.
In a similar vein the clay courts at Roland Garros have changed, although not as severely. The courts have been made quicker and the ball does not bounce as high. Roland Garros courts play more like a slow hard court (Australian Open) than a clay court of the past.
In the days of Agassi, Sampras, Becker and Bjorg each of the four surfaces provided a completely different test and required a totally different skill set. The surfaces have changed so much in recent years that watching (and I’m sure playing although I have no first-hand experience) the different surfaces yields very little difference in style of play.
Why did the powers that be change the surfaces so much? Around the turn of the millennium tennis fans were becoming increasingly bored watching the style of tennis that was dominating Wimbledon. Rallies rarely lasted more than 4 shots and the ace counts in certain matches were becoming absurd. In an attempt to boost ratings, and the popularity of the sport Wimbledon decided to create a surface which encouraged rallies.
It must be noted that changes in equipment such as rackets and balls has played a part in this evolution, as has the development of players into superior physical athletes.
Similarly, viewers were getting tired of the long, defensive matches being played at the French Open. French Open viewers wanted to see the likes of Pete Sampras succeed. The Roland Garros tournament committee adopted the approach to speed up the surfaces and encourage a more aggressive style of tennis. In terms of viewership I guess both tournaments made a good decision as men’s tennis is currently in the middle of a golden era.
Although there are still significant differences between grass and clay, the gap between the two has decreased significantly. As much respect as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have around the tennis world, there are still numerous tennis purists who feel that these players should not be allowed to dominate on all surfaces.
While the French Open final promises to be another thrilling encounter between the two best players in the world at the moment, there is a part of this tennis fan who longs to see Ivo Karlovic take on John Isner in next month’s Wimbledon final in a return of the serve and volley.
Eoin Purcell, Pundit Arena.