Wimbledon’s Grass Leaving Some Players Feeling ‘Bad at Tennis’

Casper Ruud, the three-time Grand Slam tournament finalist, took a nontraditional approach to getting ready for Wimbledon, which is widely considered the most prestigious tournament in tennis.

It included attending more concerts featuring his favorite singer, the Weeknd, than playing actual tennis matches on grass.

Unsurprisingly, Liam Broady, a 29-year-old journeyman from Britain who is ranked 142nd in the world, knocked Ruud out in the second round on Thursday. Ruud, ranked No. 4 in the world, was OK with that. “He’s a much better grass court player than myself,” Ruud said of Broady.

There was a time when many of the best tennis players made succeeding at Wimbledon the focus of their seasons, and some considered their careers incomplete unless they had won in the cradle of the sport. Everyone from Rod Laver to Martina Navratilova has said they came to Wimbledon to connect with the roots of the sport.

Nowadays, with the growth in prominence of the other three Grand Slam tournaments and the grass court season evolving into a quirky, roughly one-month detour from the rest of the tennis calendar, many top players can’t find the time or the head space to make being good on grass a priority. If it costs them tennis immortality, so be it.

Grass flew from under Andy Murray’s feet during his match with Stefanos Tsitsipas on Centre Court.Credit…Jane Stockdale for The New York Times

Blasphemous as it is to say, to plenty of players, even great ones, Wimbledon has become just another Grand Slam tournament.

“I don’t know if winning Wimbledon is, in my view, more bigger than winning the U.S. Open or winning the Australian Open,” said Victoria Azarenka, the former world No. 1. “They’re all very important tournaments.”

In part, Wimbledon has itself to blame. In the early 2000s, with ever-improving racket and string technology helping players hit the ball with newfound power, Wimbledon began to sow its courts entirely with perennial ryegrass instead of the mix of ryegrass and red fescue it had used. The switch made the courts more durable and delivered cleaner, higher bounces, allowing the surfaces to play a lot more like a hard court than a ruddy ice rink.

Around the same time, the French Open made its courts harder and faster, which basically caused the extinction of the clay court specialist who won in Paris but nowhere else. Within a few years, play at the four Grand Slam tournaments had become more similar than different. The same players starting winning nearly all of them, and the accumulation of Grand Slam tournament titles over the course of a career became the dominant tennis narrative, rather than who could win that august title in front of members of the British royal family in their courtside box.

Still, it remains true that grass court tennis is different from all other tennis, and the All England Club continues to have plenty of fans.

They include nearly all of the British players, many of whom grew up chasing tennis balls on grass at their local clubs, and Novak Djokovic, now considered the greatest player of the Open Era, which began in 1968. He marks the beginning of his tennis life with watching Wimbledon on television as a small boy. Frances Tiafoe and Sebastian Korda, both top Americans, said they wished the grass court season were longer, because it suited their styles and had a purity to it.

Bob Bryan, the U.S. Davis Cup captain and the winner of four Wimbledon doubles titles, said nothing raised goose bumps like walking through the wrought-iron gates of the All England Club.

Murray and Tsitsipas had to finish their second-round match, interrupted by Wimbledon’s curfew, on Friday.Credit…Jane Stockdale for The New York Times

“It is the sport’s Holy Grail,” Bryan said. “There is nothing like it.”

Yes, but that darn grass — that classic surface on which three of the four Grand Slam tournaments used to be contested — has virtually disappeared from the sport.

Daniil Medvedev of Russia said he had always appreciated so much about Wimbledon — the flowers, all a perfect color and in just the right spot; the food; the plush locker rooms. But then you have to play on grass, which can make even the best of the best feel as if they are terrible at tennis.

“You lose, you go crazy,” Medvedev said. “You’re like, ‘No, I played so bad.’”

Stefanos Tsitsipas spent a chunk of the interregnum between the French Open and Wimbledon posting on social media from luxurious locales with his new “soul mate,” Paula Badosa of Spain, a star of the women’s tour, rather than practicing on grass.

He said a win on clay, especially at the French Open, left him feeling gritty and dirty and spent in the best way. On grass, he said, it can feel clean and a bit empty, though he looked far from that Friday after he had beaten Andy Murray, one of the game’s great grass court players, on Centre Court.

For the men, there is another issue. Djokovic has been so good here for so long, having won the last four Wimbledon men’s singles titles, seven overall and 31 consecutive matches — that the rest of the field sometimes figures, what’s the point?

“He seems like he’s getting better,” said Lorenzo Musetti, the rising Italian, who only recently started winning on grass — somewhat to his surprise. He said he had struggled there because everywhere else he could stand up and whale away on the ball. At Wimbledon, even with the new grass, the ball stays low enough to make players essentially hold a squat for three hours and use their feet and their calf and thigh muscles to drive their movements, like ski racers coming down a slope. That may be one reason Djokovic excels — he was a standout skier before he went all in on tennis — and many tall players have no use for the demands of grass.

Women struggle, too. Iga Swiatek — the world No. 1, who has never made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon — said her deep runs at the French Open, which she has won the past two years, prevented her from having enough time to rest and play enough matches to acclimate to the unpredictable bounces on grass. She said she had considered training on grass in the off-season in November and December but had decided it would leave her unprepared for the Australian Open in January.

Iga Swiatek slipped during her first-round match against China’s Zhu Lin on Monday.Credit…Hannah Mckay/Reuters

“Throughout the whole year, I’m not really thinking about that,” she said of grass prep.

Alexander Davidovich Fokina, a Spaniard who is promising and dangerous on clay and hardcourts, said he struggled with his confidence as soon as he stepped on grass.

“Just very, very hard,” he said.

Then there is Andrey Rublev, another Russian, who described grass as a maddening, anxiety-provoking form of tennis, with short rallies and results that could seem illogical.

“You feel so confident, and then you go on court and the guy, he makes four aces, two returns, unreal — out of nowhere, he breaks you, and the set is over,” Rublev said. “And maybe sometimes you feel super tight, like, I cannot move, I cannot put one ball in the court. And then the guy does two double faults, and the ball hits the frame of your racket and goes in, you break him, and then you win a set.”

Medvedev doesn’t even think playing the preparatory grass tournaments makes much of a difference, because grass is different in Germany, the Netherlands and the various locales in England. He said that the field courts at the All England Club played extremely fast and that the stadium courts were slow.

Will he ever feel at home on the grass? After his second-round win on Friday, he said he might be getting closer.

“Maybe at the door,” he said. “Not inside, but at the door.”

As for Ruud, he said after his loss that he would keep trying but that winning Wimbledon might not be in the cards. Every time he cuts loose on his lethal forehand, he feels as if he is going to tumble and get injured because of how he lands and then has to push off to chase the next shot.

He did enter the men’s doubles tournament, which allows him to stick around for a bit before he gets back to some clay court tennis in Europe later this month.

He may have a motivation outside tennis. The Weeknd was scheduled to play in London this weekend.

A worn patch of grass near the center of the baseline at Centre Court.Credit…Jane Stockdale for The New York Times
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