Looking at the beautifully manicured lawns of in South London, Stuttgart and other grass court venues, it’s hard to think tennis on grass could ever have had a crisis. But it did, and you could say it’s celebrating 25 years of getting through it.
The crisis probably began in the early 1970s. At that time, three of the four Grand Slam tournaments were played on grass, and there was a thriving grass season both before and after the London Slam, with British coastal venues such as Frinton, Felixtowe and Hoylake all attracting the leading players before they headed across the Atlantic for the US grass court swing.
But then the US Tennis Association announced that from 1975 it would be moving the US Open onto North American clay. With the sport newly professionalised, the idea of tolerating sub-standard courts with bad bounces as just part of the rough and tumble of tennis was no longer acceptable, and as the USTA could see no chance of the necessary improvement given the New York climate and soil, they opted for a more reliable surface.
That established the principle that grass was either good enough or it would not be used, and the grass season gradually dwindled. In 1988 the Australian Open moved from grass to hard courts, and by 1990 the only tour-level grass court fixtures were five tournaments in England (men in Manchester and Queen’s, women in Birmingham and Eastbourne, both at London), with one residual American event the week after that at Newport, Rhode Island. What’s more, there were mutterings about the grass in London, even if the tradition of the venerated venue tended to override the bad bounces.
Then in 1990 a new grass court tournament emerged in the Netherlands. Promoted by the district of Rosmalen, it never aspired to be more than a casual warm-up event for the London Slam, but it had a good slot in the calendar, and gained a reasonable array of players. The tournament exists today, but following local government reorganisation it’s now known by the name of its nearby city, s’Hertogenbosch.
It was in 1993 that big changes happened. Into the picture came the tournament in Halle, Germany. It came as something of an accident – a small-town entrepreneur Gerhard Weber made a fortune designing clothes for the middle-aged woman under the brand Gerry Weber, and as he was a tennis fan he applied for a slot to run a clay event on the ATP Tour. He was given the week before London, and after cursing his luck (who could possibly make a clay tournament work the week before?) he decided to embrace grass. Signalling he was a serious player, he built a 12,300-seater stadium in his home town of Halle-in-Westfalia (population 20,000).
Yet even millionaires can’t control the weather, and Weber lost a full day to rain in his first year. So later that year, he astonished the tennis press at the ATP World Championships in Frankfurt by announcing he would build a roof over his centre court for the 1994 event. Tennis on grass under a roof had never been done before, but he did it.
So in 1994 people turned up to a grass court tennis tournament hoping for the first time in history that it would rain! And on the Thursday it did. Visitors to the tournament were greeted by the sight of a closed roof, a grass court, and a dozen or so hair dryers placed on the baseline – the roof had leaked, and there was a damp patch which the ground staff were frantically trying to get dry.
But Halle survived that minor leak to become the only grass court tournament on the calendar which guaranteed play. It took another seven years before top-level tennis was played under a roof again, when Tennis Australia took another leaf out of Halle’s book by growing its court on palettes and shipping them into the Rod Laver Arena for the 2001 Davis Cup Final. When Lleyton Hewitt beat Sebastien Grosjean on the final day, it was history-making tennis on grass under a closed roof.
So when the London Slam decided in 2004 to build a roof over Centre Court in time for the 2009 Championships, it had the knowhow of Halle and Melbourne to draw on, along with experience from other sports that had pioneered grass under a roof. And in 2015 the grass court season was expanded from five weeks to six in the tour calendar with an extra week between the French Open and London.
This year the Gerry Weber Open in Halle celebrates its 25th staging. It would be wrong to give it excessive prominence in the history of tennis, but there’s no question it played its part in reviving tennis’s original surface as a viable feature of the annual tennis calendar.