Grass and the ATP

For the average recreational tennis player, a tennis court and a hard court are one and the same. The ubiquitous red and green paint, the fading white lines, and the rough, concrete-like playing surface are all characteristics of the court that dominates both the ATP World Tour and the vast majority of recreational and club tennis courts the world over.

Of the 65 professional events on the ATP World Tour, including Grand Slams, the ATP World Tour Finals, Masters 1000 events, ATP 500 events and ATP 250 events, 37 of these are held on some variation of hard court, made of either acrylic or synthetic material. Comparatively, only 22 events are held on clay, and a mere six are held on grass. Since 2009, no professional events have been held on carpet courts.

Over the years, some players have complained of the seemingly unequal distribution of tournaments and surface types. Some have bemoaned the fact that many injuries on the Tour occur because of the damage that hard courts often cause on players’ knees. Others have stated that the Tour panders to those players who perform best on the medium speed surface.

Rafael Nadal, current World No. 2 and a player often dubbed the “King of Clay” for his Roland Garros pedigree, has often spoken publicly about the hard court bias that exists in the ATP World Tour, and has offered a number of suggestions aimed at fixing the issue. Following his record 2013 season, Nadal suggested that the ATP World Tour Finals, historically held on indoor hard courts following the close of the August-October hard court season, be held on clay, grass, and hard court on a rotating basis every few years.

Other players have suggested a reduction of the redundant ATP 250 hard and clay court events that litter the road between Wimbledon in June and the US Open in August. Such a change would not only offer a slight reduction in hard court events but also would offer athletes a break from the grueling 11 month World Tour, allowing them to physically prepare for the US Open Series and the hard court season to follow.

The current “grass court season”

While the lengthy hard court season will likely remain a fixture of the sport for some time, as players and officials debate the likelihood of reduction, changes to the other surface seasons are far more feasible. As it stands, starting with the 2015 ATP World Tour, an additional week will be added between the end of the French Open and the beginning of the Wimbledon Championships, extending the so-called “grass court season” from two to three weeks.

In the past, athletes have complained about the abrupt change from the high-bouncing, slow-playing clay courts of Roland Garros to the low-bouncing, fast-playing courts of Wimbledon, citing a need for additional “warm-up” events and time to adjust to the distinctly different surfaces. Only four ATP 250 events currently precede Wimbledon, with two occurring simultaneously each week. For players, this means that they only have two shots at best to adjust to the grass before Wimbledon, assuming that they manage to qualify for the main draw of these events.

For some athletes, this abrupt change is too much, resulting in many sub-par performances at the Championships. The proposed addition of a third week to the grass court season, aided by the possible addition of another grass court event or two, could help players get better acclimated to the surface switch, but the problems inherent in the World Tour surface distribution continue to exist.

Creating a real grass court season

The month of July is arguably the most boring month on the World Tour. This stretch between the close of Wimbledon and the beginning of the US Open Series is filled by a high volume of ATP 250 events and two ATP 500 events. Six of the events are held on clay, three on hard court, and one on grass. This motley assortment of rag-tag tournaments scattered across the world is generally considered the proving ground for lesser ranked players attempting to gain easy titles and higher rankings while the Top Ten players relax and cool off for a month.

July offers neither coherent preparation for the hard court US Open Series in August nor any real tournaments of interest. In the past, officials have debated the merits of scrapping the existing tournaments altogether. The establishment of a number of hard court tournaments, with courts composed of the same acrylic materials used in the construction of the US Open Flushing Meadows courts, was an initial idea. However, as previously shown, the ATP World Tour has an overabundance of hard court tournaments already.

I believe that the extension of the grass court season into July would be a wise decision on the part of the ATP. By extending the season two weeks, grass court-oriented players would have more chances to win tournaments, the confusing mess that is the month of July would be better organized and the larger player base would be able to more easily switch from grass to hard court for the US Open Series, resulting in better matches.

Immediately following Wimbledon, according to the current schedule, is the Hall of Fame Tennis Championship in Newport, an ATP 250 event and the last grass court event of the year. The addition of a second, simultaneous grass court event for that week would enable more players to “cool down” after the rat race of Wimbledon. The inclusion of two more grass court events in the following week, perhaps culminating in an ATP 500 event, would allow for a more gradual progression from grass courts to hard courts. The rest of July would be used as space for hard court warm-up events prior to the commencement of the US Open Series.

While the ATP is unlikely to make any such changes in the coming years, the Association has listened to players’ qualms in the past, removing the largely-disliked carpet courts in 2009, and shortening parts of the season to allow for more rest between events. The extension of the grass court season into July would likely not be first on the list of priorities for officials, but debate on the matter has occurred in the past. The decision to add a week between Roland Garros and Wimbledon is an example of such a player-minded change.

Grass is the lifeblood of tennis, regardless of the plethora of hard court and clay court championships that exist today. The sport started on grass; the first Majors — including Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open — were played on grass. Today, the grass court season is viewed almost as an unwelcome interruption, a four week blip that is here and then gone on the Tour calendar. Perhaps in the future, grass may once again occupy a larger role on the Tour.

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