Sport May 2002

Tennis on the Green

The game is still best when played as it was originally: on grass
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Last July, at the grass-court Hall of Fame Championships, in Newport, Rhode Island, I watched Kenneth Carlsen, a towering, blond-ponytailed Dane, approach the net behind a backhand sidespin shot. The ball launched off his racket, spinning furiously at an oblique angle, and bounced low near the baseline. Carlsen's opponent, the compact South African Neville Godwin, could only look on helplessly as the ball skidded past him.

This took me back—it seemed years since I'd seen a sidespin approach shot. When I learned tennis, in the early 1970s, pros and amateurs alike knew that the proper way to get to the net was behind a slice, which produces backspin, causing the ball to bounce low and making a passing shot more difficult. The more advanced technique of sidespin was even better, because the ball would not only stay low but also angle away from the opponent. Today's pros, mostly "power baseliners," tend to approach the net, if at all, behind topspin shots—a strategy considered misguided as recently as twenty years ago. They assume, correctly, that the potency of topspin on a hard or clay court, along with the sheer force exerted by modern players with modern rackets, is likely to set up an easy volley, if it doesn't win the point outright. But on grass, where the ball stays low and topspin is dampened, a slice or a sidespin is still the best way to get to the net. Carlsen relearned this maxim on the next point, when he apparently forgot what the playing surface was and came to the net on a topspin forehand; the ball bounced comfortably up to Godwin, who dispatched it down the line.

The Hall of Fame Championships reminded me why I much prefer grass courts, both as spectator and as player, to hard or clay courts. Because they cause the ball to bounce low, fast, and erratically, grass courts encourage a greater emphasis on net play—in which the ball is hit before it bounces—and thus make for a more diversified game. Instead of simply blasting the ball back and forth from the baseline, players must strive to get to the net themselves and to keep their opponents away from it. The result, unlike the action typically seen on other surfaces, is a smorgasbord of ground strokes, approach shots, lobs, and retrievals, with a variety of spins and angles.

The Hall of Fame tournament, held each July at the historic Newport Casino, home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, is a wonderful opportunity to glimpse this version of the game. Of course, even grass-court tennis today is a far cry from the game as it was played before big rackets came into use, in the 1980s. The players are too big and strong, the rackets too powerful, for the old rhythm of chip, lob, and retrieve ever to return.

Nonetheless, in the quaint confines of the Casino spectators get a feeling for the history of the game. At one point in the Carlsen-Godwin match a ripple of laughter in the crowd caused Carlsen to halt his service motion. He turned to see a rabbit grazing in the grass behind the baseline. A few linesmen and ball boys tried to corner the interloper and finally settled for chasing it under the bandstand. For a moment one could imagine it was 1901, not 2001.

In 1874 Mary Ewing Outerbridge, a Staten Island socialite, was vacationing in Bermuda when she saw some Englishmen knocking a white ball around an hourglass-shaped court on a lawn. A British army officer, Major Walter Wingfield, had invented sphairistiké (Greek for "playing at ball") the previous year, adapting it from court tennis (a more complex, indoor game that dates back to the Middle Ages) and "squash rackets." Outerbridge may or may not have been the first, but she brought some equipment for "lawn tennis" (as most people were calling it) back home, and soon members of the American leisure class were whacking balls around mansion grounds and in places like the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club.

In 1881 the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (a name later shortened to the United States Lawn Tennis Association) was formed to standardize rules and equipment, and the first U.S. singles championship for men was held at the brand-new Newport Casino. The club hosted the tournament until 1915, when play was moved to the West Side Tennis Club, in Forest Hills, New York. The women's championship, which began in 1887 at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, was moved to Forest Hills in 1921. In 1968, when all the major tournaments worldwide began to allow professionals to play, the combined U.S. championships became the U.S. Open.

As recently as 1974 three of the four major championships in the world were played on grass, and in the United States an entire grass-court season led up to the U.S. Open. But a tennis craze in the early 1970s brought the game to the masses, and from then on, grass-court tennis seemed less and less representative of the popular game. Only expensive country clubs could afford to build and maintain grass courts. The USLTA dropped its grassy L and switched the U.S. Open to clay courts at Forest Hills in 1975 and then to the hard courts of the National Tennis Center, in Queens, in 1978.

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