If Novak Djokovic wins the French Open, he'll be the third athlete in four years to dominate on all three grand-slam surfaces—the result of subtle changes that favor long, dramatic matches between superstars.
When Andre Agassi won the French Open in 1999, he earned the distinction of being the first player in the Open Era of men's tennis (1968-2008) to win every grand-slam tournament on the sport's three different playing surfaces: grass, clay, and hard courts. Rod Laver was the first Open Era player to win each title or complete a career grand slam, but the difference between Laver and Agassi's achievements—besides the fact Laver won all four tournaments in the same calendar year—is that Laver did it when every grand slam except the French Open was played on grass, whereas Agassi won the U.S. Open and the Australian Open on the hard-court surfaces those tournaments currently employ.
Tweaks in the surfaces of grand-slam events have served their primary purpose: to make men's tennis more exciting than ever.
Agassi's accomplishment stands as a testament to his incredible talent, since tennis used to be a game that catered to different playing styles depending upon the surface on which it was played. Throughout most of the Open Era, those little yellow tennis balls bounced very differently on the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the red clay of Roland Garros, and the hard courts at the Australian and U.S. opens, and many great players failed to reach the pinnacle of their sport on every surface. Bjorn Borg, who utterly dominated Wimbledon and the French Open from the mid '70s to the early '80s, was never able to win on the hard courts at the U.S. Open. Pete Sampras won a then-record 14 grand slam titles but famously struggled on the Roland Garros' clay—his best finish at the French Open was a semi-final appearance in 1996.
But failure to master every playing service may be a thing of the past. Since 2008, two more players, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, have joined Agassi's elite company by completing their own career grand slams on three different surfaces. Federer did it by winning the French Open in 2009 and Nadal followed suit by capturing the 2010 U.S. Open, the one grand slam title that had eluded him up to that point. Novak Djokovic, the current No. 1 player, can become the third contender in the last four years to accomplish the feat if he triumphs at this year's French Open, which starts Sunday.
These stats beg the question: What has allowed the world's current top three players to display an all-surface mastery that eluded previous generations of tennis players?
The easy answer is that we are currently witnessing a golden age of tennis: that Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are three of the most talented players to ever pick up a racket, and they simply stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field no matter the playing surface. There is some truth to that argument. Federer has more grand-slam titles than any other player in the history of the sport. Nadal has already won 10 such titles and at age 25 shows no signs of stopping; he will make a run at Federer's record over the next the three seasons. Djokovic only has five grand-slam titles to his name, but his 2011 season, during which he went 70-6 and won three grand slams and five ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title, ranks as one of the single greatest tennis seasons ever. It's safe to say that each of these players possess rare talent.
But there have been previous generations of tennis players with just as much talent as these three, and talent alone cannot explain the mastery of different playing conditions displayed by Federer, Nadal, and now Djokovic. Over the last 10 years, slight changes in the playing surfaces at tennis' major tournaments have changed how the game is played, and these changes have homogenized the game and benefited the top players.
For most of the Open Era, tennis analysts and players considered Wimbledon's grass courts to be the fastest-playing surface of the grand slams, the clay courts at Roland Garros to be the slowest, and the hard courts first used at the U.S. Open and then later at the Australian Open to fall somewhere in between. But in the late 1990s, tennis fans began complaining that tournaments outside of the French Open were boring because they lacked long, suspenseful rallies. A typical point at Wimbledon in the 1990s involved one player serving and then approaching the net, where he would either hit volley for a winner or fall victim to a precisely timed passing shot.
The proprietors of the grand slam events apparently took fans' criticisms to heart because they began tweaking the surfaces. It's been well-publicized that in the early 2000s Wimbledon's organizers changed the composition of the grass courts in an effort to make them more durable, but players said the change resulted in balls bouncing higher and slower off the new grass courts. Wimbledon's lawns began to play more like clay courts. As Patrick Hruby pointed out in a previous Atlantic article about the death of serve-and-volley tennis, British player Tim Henman told reporters in 2002 that the Wimbledon lawns were the slowest non-clay surface he had played upon all season.