Grass Tennis Courts

For some, it’s the true surface for tennis. For others, it’s better used for cows. But one thing remains true – there are few finer sights in sport than the sight of world class tennis being played on grass.

‘Lawn tennis’ was first patented in Great Britain in 1874 by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a Welsh inventor, who, like many entrepreneurs, spotted a niche in the market. Emerging from Real Tennis, which had been widely played since the 16th century, Wingfield wanted to take his game around the country – and the British Empire – and so patented a ‘New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Game of Tennis’. The court had similar markings to the courts of today but was in an hourglass design, which must have made for some fun.

 

Wingfield tested the game out on the lawns of landowners in Victorian Britain, in many cases on grass that had originally been used for croquet. As the International Tennis Hall of Fame records, Wingfield wanted to spread ‘healthy exercise and social amusement’ and so he sold his product in a box set, which included balls made of vulcanised rubber. The boxes also contained a net, poles, court markers and an instruction manual, although in 1875, the court was modified to the one we now know so well.

Two years later, the first Championships in South London were played and today, grass court tennis is still synonymous with the tournament, where for two weeks every summer, with its all-white clothing rule and strawberries and cream, it can seem almost like stepping back in time.

 

It’s hard to believe now, in an era when hard courts and clay courts dominate the tennis calendar, but you only have to go back just over 40 years to find a time when three of the four grand slam events – London, the US Open and the Australian Open – were played on grass. Rallies were short and dashing net play was the norm rather than the extreme, as the brown lines in the grass that spread from the baseline to the net used to illustrate.

The All England Club, which hosts the Slam each summer, prides itself on having the best grass courts in the world. According to its website, it takes 15 months to get a grass court ready for tournament play. Until 2001, the courts consisted of 70 percent Perennial Ryegrass and 30 per cent creeping red fescue. In response to criticism that the courts were giving the server too much of an advantage and were producing boring tennis, the AELTC adjusted it to near 100 per cent Rye, which gave a slightly higher bounce and made the surface itself slightly slower.

 

 

To the purists, that was a shame because grass court tennis at its best meant players charging the net, the perfect contest between attack and defence, between serve-volley and return. With the ball bouncing lower than on other surfaces, grass encouraged players to move forward at every opportunity.


According to the tournament, the speed of the court is also affected by weather conditions, both in the build-up to and during an event, while the bounce, it says, is actually ‘largely determined by the soil, not the grass’.


Moving well on grass requires players to get lower than on other surfaces, which places a strain on the back and ankles. Any negative is outweighed, though, by the fact that the softer surface is better on the joints, while the shorter rallies mean that on average, winning a grass-court match is not quite as physical an ordeal as doing so on clay.

 

 

Images of Rod Laver leaping the net after winning another title, of Boris Becker throwing himself around the court, and especially of Roger Federer’s dancing feet will forever be associated with grass. If the bounce is a little higher these days, it still rewards the attackers, the big servers and those who can handle themselves best at the net, where angled volleys die in the grass. It’s a surface that now tests every aspect of a player’s game, including their ability to deal with occasional bad bounces – which can’t be a bad thing.

 

WORDS BY SIMON CAMBERS

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