Clay, Grass, Hard Court? For Tennis's Top Players, It Doesn't Matter Anymore

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.

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Rafael is one of three players in history to racked up grand-slam wins on all three court surfaces. (AP Images)

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.

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.

What's received less attention is that organizers at the U.S. Open began slowing down the courts at Flushing Meadows in 2002 and 2003 by adding more sand to the paint that covers the DecoTurf courts. And at last year's U.S. Open, Roger Federer said that the courts were noticeably slower than they had been in previous years.

One of the side effects of these slower playing conditions has been the elimination of stylistic diversity. In years past, players like Sampras and John McEnroe favored aggressive, attacking tennis, while others like Borg and Ivan Lendl preferred a defensive game that relied on long rallies and powerful, grand strokes. Some of tennis' most historic matches and storied rivalries involved clashes between offensive- and defensive-oriented players. It used to also be somewhat common for a player to be referred to as a clay-court specialist or grass-court specialist. But as the conditions at major tournaments began to all resemble one another, specialization started to go extinct. Former player and coach Darren Cahill recently told USA Today that the surfaces at the major tournaments are now quite similar and noted that advances in racket technology have also played a role in this homogenization.

All of the top players today employ the power-baseline style that Jimmy Connors and Lendl pioneered and Agassi perfected. It is the most effective style given the slower playing conditions that are now the norm. This new homogeneity benefits top players like Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, because their skills easily translate to all the major tournaments. If a top player can perfect the power-baseline game, he can put himself in position to compete at every grand slam and does not need to worry about making wild adjustments depending on the surface. For most of the Open Era, top players struggled with the transition from the clay-court season to the grass-court season because the surfaces were so drastically different and specialist players like grass-court maestro Pat Cash and clay-court specialist Sergi Bruguera could challenge them. From 1969 through 2007, Laver and Bjorg were the only two players to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. Federer and Nadal have both accomplished that feat since 2008, and Djokovic could easily do it in the near future.

So while Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic continue their assault on the record books, it's important to note that tennis' evolution to a sport where all tournaments favor the same style has helped these three become so dominant. If the conditions at all the grand slam tournaments had been slower when Andre Agassi played, it's safe to assume that he would have won a lot more majors. It's a testament to his incredible skill that he was the only power-baseline player to win Wimbledon in the 1990s when the playing conditions were very fast and serve-and-volley players like Sampras were dominant.

The good news is that the tweaks in the surfaces of grand slam events have served their primary purpose: They have made men's tennis more exciting than ever. Some sports, like professional football, benefit from parity. Others, like college basketball, are more exciting when underdogs make deep runs in the postseason. Tennis is not one of these sports. Tennis is at its best when the top players regularly play against one another at all of the major events. Few tennis enthusiasts and casual sports fans would get excited at the prospect of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga facing Tomas Berdych in the French Open final. We want to see Nadal-Djokovic or Nadal-Federer at every single major.

There's no indication that the proprietors of tennis' grand slam events intended for surface changes to make it easier for the top players to excel, but this unintended consequence has made the sport more exciting than it's been since the early 1980s. As Brian Philips pointed out in a Grantland article about this year's record-setting Australian Open final, men's tennis currently "feels almost epic." The rallies are long, the matches are competitive, and at every grand slam we are almost guaranteed at least one match-up between two of the top three players. The ATP tour deserves some credit for tinkering with the stages of the top events, a strategy that has given the brightest stars a better chance of being there for the grand finales.