Over the past month, we have seen tennis courts change from orange to green, and witnessed players adapt to the changing hues much like chameleons. After brilliant performances at Roland Garros, the ultimate clay tournament, these players have shown equal intensity at Wimbledon.
This is a sign of the changing times when the two surfaces are no longer two extremes of a player, having found convergence in their skills, as fans have come to adore the tournaments with equal passion.
I experienced the ‘switch’ rather early in my career. In 1973, my first year at the slams, I played at the clay tournament at Bretton Woods in July. Almost a month later I had to play at the South Orange open in New Jersey. The contrast between the two surfaces was heavy. The grass courts, though faster than today, were comparatively slower than clays at that time.
The adjustment in speed, power in shots and efforts put on the court had to be made fast, requiring rigorous training. Next came the more difficult part of mentally tuning oneself to the change from clay to grass. It is interesting to see how players have evolved to adapt to physical and mental challenges of the game with such different requirements.
With sights set on Wimbledon right after Roland Garros, players knew they were looking at one of the biggest tournaments in the game but on a different surface. They played at the Gerry Weber Open and some went to the Queen’s Club in London to acclimatize with grass, again, and prepare for the impending Wimbledon.
There were upsets at Gerry Weber, testifying to the differences in the game and strategies between clay and grass. While Federer won the final at Gerry Weber, it wasn’t an easy start for him. His first match was a rather tough one against Joao Sousa where he lost the first set to a tie break, but his persistence paid off and he won the match. The effort he had to put in at his favourite turf after playing on clay was fairly visible as the recovery became more difficult as compared to grass.
Nadal, known as the ‘King of clay’ is a classic example of the upsets during the transition from one surface to another. After winning Roland Garros in style, he entered Gerry Weber directly into the second round.
In his very first match in the tournament, Nadal’s comfort was conspicuous by its absence. Used to balls bouncing higher and slipping at clay, he wasn’t ready for the low balls and the stricter turf which made him exit the tournament after losing to Dustin Brown, becoming a part of history nonetheless as World No. 85, Brown, became the lowest ranked player to beat a top ranker since 2008.
The duration of change was clearly not enough for him, as it isn’t for most players. He couldn’t adjust to the change in pace of grass from clay which resulted in his loss. At Queens, Andy Murray, the defending champion of Wimbledon, lost to Stepanek. As the World No. 5 struggled with the switch, the No.42 won the match in under two hours, sending Murray packing, while Britain watched in horror, hoping the show would not repeat at Wimbledon.
Despite the upsets, top players are of the opinion that the two surfaces have come closer than ever in terms of style and play. However, the fact that only four men have achieved this feat clearly suggests that, while physically it may not be perceived as a big challenge, mentally it certainly remains one.
Among the veterans, Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg have won both tournaments in the same year, as have Nadal and Federer more recently. Nadal has won both twice, in 2008 and 2010, while also winning Roland Garros and reaching Wimbledon finals on three occasions, 2006, 2007 and 2011.
Federer has had lesser success with both the tournaments successively. He has won both in 2009, reached the finals of the French Open in 2006 and won Wimbledon the same year, repeated it in 2007, and reached the finals of both in 2008.
These players are evidence to the physical and mental test of shifting between perfection on grass and on clay courts and the fact that it can be overcome with the right training and attitude.
As we watch these players try their best to register a win at the Wimbledon regardless of their fate at Roland Garros or Gerry Weber or Queens, the battle with their own style and comfort is very visible. I hope that the transition is as smooth for them as it is for us sitting in the commentary box.