Australian Open: A Fresh Reprieve from Surface Homogeny

“Tennis is like playing chess with an oxygen deprivation mask”

-BenBen circa, 2016

In 2016, my fiancée and I attended the Swedish embassy’s gala for the benefit of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Washington D.C . The evening was a bit of a fog, but I can admit, rather proudly, after lubricating myself with a 2000 Chateau Haute Brion , I outbid my competition for Washington Kastle’s owner Marc Ein’s President Box tickets for that year’s U.S. Open. First, about the wine, I found the lovely vintage after eschewing of the mouthwash that was being served to ‘honored’ guests and stumbling into the ambassador’s private collection. Nota Buena, I don’t recall ever meeting said demagogue, but I am thankful for the fellow oenophile’s blind hospitality, nonetheless. As for the auction, well, the auctioneer, not being a professional adjudicator of auctions remarked to me sometime later in the evening that she was overjoyed by my unbridled enthusiasm to “give” being that I overbid not only the competition but myself, THREE TIMES, according to her recollection. It was my intention once sober to immediately alert the National Association of Auctions and Auctioneers, NAAA, of this hobgoblin’s violations. If you ask moi, said hobgoblin was guilty of multiple felonious acts the most egregious of which is allowing a gentleman mid-inebriation to overbid HIMSELF! Alas, upon further reflection, namely reconciling with my new reality as an incredibly charitable benefactor to junior USA Tennis, any thought of censure against said goblin subsided. Forgive me dear reader, I’ve strayed afar, what was my reason for this correspondence? Oh yes, that tennis tournament in the penal colony!

The 2021 Australian open culminated last Sunday with Naomi Osaka, ladies first, and Novak Djokovic being crowned as champions. For those weekend warriors among you that take up the sport due to a stringent anathema to the Baffie , the Australian Open is one of four major championships in the tennis world, the outcome of which came as no surprise to the more astute purveyors of the game. What was surprising, however, was just how fast the courts played this year. ‘How fast the courts played? ‘What is this drunken imbecile speaking of.’ Firstly, I am not drunk, I am nursing only my third Kentucky Bourbon of the morning, I like to get up early on Sundays. Second, the court speed is merely how fast that fuzzy little yellow ball moves through the court after making contact with the surface. Since the early 2000s, homogenization of court surface speeds have turned the once storied variety of the 4 championships into a predictable baseline slugfest. Powerful forehand shots that once bid the death blow to any point in progress now have the same force as molasses flowing against a dam. (Speaking of which, ask your local barkeep to make you a high noon old fashioned, molasses isn’t just for steak sauce and bourbon, it also has antioxidants! )The slow conversion to today’s tennis homogeny has been achieved on hard courts by adding sand to the acrylic, on grass via hybrids strains and the length of cut thus creating more friction, and as for the red clay of Phillippe Chatrier at Roland Garros,French Open’s center court, well, it’s a composite of five layers each around 80 centimetres in depth. The first is made up of stones, followed by gravel, clinker (volcanic residue), limestone and finally a thin layer of crushed brick about two millimetres thick, giving the courts their ochre hue. Parisian engineering at its finest, a shame they could never defend themselves as a country, a bloody Spaniard has won their own tournament 13 times for heaven sakes[1]. Probably a drawn out probing of their defenses before he brings the rest of the Armada. Sadly dear reader, and hopefully fellow lover of the game, my sublime tennis glean has surmised that slow courts and surface homogeny overall have severely hurt the game on multiple fronts. For men’s tennis, frankly,its become a bore. The ATP players no longer have variety to their game, for the WTA the courts have created too much parody. Perhaps most vital to the future of the game itself, junior player development has been stifled. The younglings, or next gen as they are commonly referred, lack the means to develop a panoply of skills without a rich of array of surfaces to nurture such varietals.

Why have the courts slowed so? Homosexuality and the fashion that is plaid, the Gods are punishing us! Now, now,surely, I jest. Longer rallies extend the length of matches naturally encouraging more fan engagement thus culminating in more TV ad revenue, simple. We have become a society of immediate gratification and short attention spans with our limbic system resonance doped up on cell phones and other ghastly electronica (another reason the juniors have not passed the octogenarians that are still dominating the game. I blame that Persian spinoff sect of Al Qaeda commonly referred to as the Kardashians. ) The ATP and ITF believe the growth of the sport in this new millenia requires 30 shot rallies and marathon matches; such effectual displays of athleticism deriving simply from changing the court surface seems counter intuitive no? Less is more! Is the running forehand winner from Pete Sampras but a home run in the NFL or a touchdown in bowling?”Those pesky advertisers want more exposure so let’s completely change the game of tennis so Budweiser is happy”said the President of the ATP to the head of the WTA seated at a bar. Suddenly, in walks a Rabbi, a talking horse, Saddam’s ghostly apparition looking sullen that the 47 virgins were all boys……

C.S. Lewis once replied to the question of why God allows babies to fall from windows with, “God is not a Clapton fan, also if you remove all the pawns from a game of chess, is it still chess?” Ok, aside from the distasteful Clapton smear, he had a point no? I am of the belief that had the originators of the Jeu de Paume been alive to witness the grass courts at Wimbledon play identically to the red clay on Philippe Chartier, the they surely would have cried out, “Sacrebleu L’imposteur” before heading a philistine, all those in favor of Nick Kyrgios as the sacrificial lamb say I.

At Wimbledon in 2019, Milos Raonic said of the court speed “From the first years I have played here, I think it’s made that gradual decline in speed of the court,” Milos Raonic said. “And I don’t think it plays any faster than any of the other Slams that’s for sure [2]. Affirming the Canadian ogre’s position on the matter, nine time Wimbledon champion Martina Navritolova remarked, “Slow, very slow just look who is in the round of 16 for the men….So many clay court players”[3]. Indulging the conspiratorial palette of today’s public, what if the mimicking of Roland Garros by Wimbledon personnel was done with the explicit purpose of setting up a Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal showdown some ten years after their last meeting at the All England Club? To put this in perspective, according to Nielsen ratings 92 million viewers tuned in to CBS for this past super bowl, by comparison about 13.1 million viewers watched the BBC broadcast of the 2008 Federer Nadal match, not bad.[4] But all of this change in the name of capitalism? Is it worth it? And what of the fairer sex,besides Serena Williams, the slowing of courts has been a disaster for the WTA, both in terms of money and viewership.

In the name of sexual equality, Ronan Farrow and I insist you endure these statistical mentions. Serve velocity is measured as the ball comes off the strings of the racquet, well before it reaches one’s opponent on the other side of the net. That MPH number you see on tv doesnt tell the whole story, however. In fact it completely ignores everything that happens after the server makes contact, including the surface’s impact on the ball. [5] Since 2014, first serve points won to match wins for the WTA and ATP, show correlations coefficients of .439 and .594 respectively. This arbitrary measure alone means nothing as the game includes a second chance, the second serve. Second service points won to match wins has a correlation coefficient of .35, which in summation with first servers offers a correlation to match wins of .789 and .95 for the WTA and ATP respectively. This is the strongest correlation to match wins in tennis, PERIOD. Why do I mention this? Well, it is presumed that service offers an advantage but I believe this advantage has been negated by the slowing of court speeds, specifically for the WTA. The average first serve speed in women’s tennis from 2014–2020 Australian Open was 98.49 mph, close to the average forehand speed ,70–80 mph, in the same period. On the ATP tour however, the average first serve speed from 2014- 2020 at the Australian open was 114.333 mph compared to a forehand speed of 71–83 miles per hour for the men. This is approximately equivalent to a 75 mile per hour change up compared to 105 mph fastball. Point being, the inherent advantage of service games is directly correlated to the disparity in serve speed to the average groundstroke. This is why the WTA’s correlation coefficient of service points won to match wins is lagging at 78.9 compared to the astounding .95 for the ATP. Moreover, the relative slow play of the court surfaces hurts the woman’s game more than the men’s as the relative advantage to serving is diminished even further by the slowing of the court. If you don’t believe me, by all means go to your nearest sportsbook and look at the line for a top ten player on the WTA playing someone ranked outside of the top 10 compared to that of the men. The implied odds with or without juice are so close to 50/50 it mimics Baccarat. P.S. who do you like for the ponies tonight, lay down 100 quid on pokeahotass to place for me will you, thank you kindly!

The top ten of the WTA has become a revolving door, where break of serve happens more often the defilement of a debutante in a Bronte novela. Ifthat wasnt bad enough, the women have adopted the baseline game even more fervently than the men. The WTA used to offer so much variety,more than the ATP, I miss Martina Hingis, the baseline slugfest is so dull. Now imagine what would happen if the star players of today Federer etc, had developed their craft on these monotonous, slow courts, would Fed have the same variety in his game? I think not, what a tragedy, and this brings me to the plague on junior tennis.

The American Bollettieri baseline slugfest is as much a bore from an aesthetic perspective as it is ineffectual tactically. Sadly, the virus is nowcreeping into the European ranks as well, Rublev, Tsitsipas, Thiem all prefab baseline junkies. Slowing courts for television to increase rallies is destroying the development and potential variety of these younger players. You cannot fault them for not knowing how to serve and volley, it is exceedingly difficult to practice such tactics on courts that by their vary nature neutralize the service advantage. Moreover, a groundstroke approach has to be nearly perfect to avoid being passed when approaching the net as the court speeds offer more time for an opponent to reciprocate ad infinitum. Federer’s time on red clay as a junior and his exposure to a variety of court speeds, GOD I miss carpet, nurtured the development of his arsenal of variety. It is also forced him to adopt a racquet with a swingweight much higher than the racquets the next generation of players use today. Swingweight unlike the static weight you measure from simply placing a racquet on the scale is the weight at impact, its plow through. It is this weight of force on the tennis ball that enables a player to turn defense into offense when they are under duress. Put another way, swingweight provides the recoil to use an opponents weight of shot against them. When you play on fast courts you are going to be in defensive positions more often almost necessitating a higher swingweight to stay competitive. Slow courts give the illusion swingweight is less important because players have more time to chase down balls due to the slower ball flight. Sadly, time and time again, the younger generation of players fail to overcome the elder statesman of the game due to this factor. The lighter racquets of today’s generation also encourage violent swing arcs to offset this lack of swingweight thus culminating in more variance, and more errors. This is a philosophical precipitate as a result of court surfaces becoming so slow. A travesty incarnate!

If I have come across just a tad haughty in these scribblings, let me assure you that after watching a video of yours truly playing tennis some years ago, my ego was forever shattered. In my case, the video was so abominable I had to be sedated as I began writhing and thrashing around; (some say I levitated momentarily before going into convulsions).I am currently in therapy with a bio-feedback ‘doctor’ if you wish to call Dr. Stevens anything more than a back-alley abortionist with rampant halitosis. He is supposed to help me forget; make it go away. But I will never forget! It haunts my days, my dreams, and consumes my nightmares, it is the alpha and the omega, the beginning, and my end. I am now on my fifth old fashioned dear reader and my attention keeps drifting to something my paramour whispered in my ear only a few minutes ago. Something about a quaking desire for afternoon ‘horizontal refreshment’; perhaps she will elaborate upon me her wishes. It has been a pleasure as always, bye for now.

[1]’Clay, the hallowed Red Dirt’, RolandGarros.com, 2021, http:// www.rolandgarros.com/en-us/page/roland-garros-tournament-clay-the-hallowed-red-dirt, (February 2021)

2.‘Is 2019 Wimbledon the slowest ever’,Tennis Nerd, 2019, https://tennishead.net/is-wimbledon-2019-the-slowest-ever/, (February 2021)

3.‘Titans of Tennis Grinding to a Hault,Tennis Magazine, 2019, https://tennismagazine.com/fsds2., (February 2021)

4.‘Wimbledon Launches Drive to be as Big as the SuperBowl’. Telegraph, 2016. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tennis/2016/06/21/wimbledon-launches-drive-to-become-as-big-as-the-superbowl/ (February 2021)

[5] Kurtz, Martino, Grazer.Correlation Coefficients of tennis-specific characteristics with player performance, 2021, https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Correlation-Coefficients-of-tennis-specific-characteristics-with-player-performance-UTR_tbl2_337821771 (february 2021)

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BenBen

BenBen

Writer, Filmmaker, Comedian, Perambulator, Podcaster,