By Tumaini Carayol
(November 8, 2011) PARIS – Over the last three months, we have watched as Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal have go on the warpath against the various tennis governing bodies. It all started at the US Open when Nadal, Murray and company were put on-court in New York while the conditions were still damp. Following that incident, the pair both threatened strike action as they listed off all the ATP, ITF and USTA’s policies they deemed detrimental to the tour and the players – from the length of the season to the amount of mandatory tournaments, and so on. Interestingly however, neither player mentioned perhaps tennis’ biggest issue in 2011 – surface homogenization and the slowing down of all playing surfaces in sight.
The slowing down of certain surfaces is hardly a new issue. For the past ten years, Wimbledon and other grass tournaments have all taken steps to reduce the speed of their courts. The ATP and WTA recognized the All England Club’s steps to slow down their treasured grass courts and followed suit, annexing the carpet surface to nothing but a memory of a distant past. None of the organizations have ever given a concrete reason for the dramatic change we have seen over the years and it has been left up to the masses to speculate – many believe it was to dilute the Federer and Williams dominance of the early-mid 2000s and/or in order to promote the defense-based baseline style of play that is all the rage in 2011.
This year in Paris, Bercy, the same has happened. In recent years Bercy has always been the anomaly in the ATP tour, with its super-fast indoor courts often producing surprise champions. But after last year saw Robin Soderling crowned as champion, the organizers made the deliberate decision to slow down the surface allegedly based on complaints from players that the courts were too fast. And not just a little bit either. In his pre-tournament news conference, second seeded Andy Murray described the courts as “very, very slow” with Fernando Verdasco later echoing those thoughts. Moreover, it’s also plain for spectators to see, with the ball bouncing high and moving painfully slowly through the Bercy courts.
Of course, many will automatically ask what the problem is. Since most of the players are said to have specifically asked for the courts to be slowed down, surely there’s nothing else to discuss, right? Wrong. Instead, the tour is becoming increasingly backwards as the ATP’s own decision to slow down the courts cripple their very sport.
First, there are issues from a purely entertainment and traditional point of view. What makes tennis so unique is the variety of surfaces and the way in which the surfaces compare and contrast against each other. It forces players to come up with different game-plans on different surfaces against different players and means that total domination is next to impossible due to the rigors and difficulty of adapting to each and every surface. Even Federer at his very best was routinely beaten by many a player on his least favorite surface. And it comes as no surprise that Novak Djokovicâ€™s spectacular year â€“ arguably one of the best and most consistent seasons in history – has come in 2011 as most major surfaces have become almost identical.
But it is far from just an aesthetic and cosmetic problem. Traditionally, clay is by far the most grueling and toughest surface on the body, and the faster surfaces have always provided a heavy contrast to the red dirt – allowing players to shorten points, attack and somewhat protect and preserve the body. The slowing down of the courts has taken this away, with most courts coming glorified clay court. It means that players are having to put their bodies under immense pressure day in and day out and it’s leading to increasingly more injuries. Again, it’s no surprise that after a long and grueling season, this US Open broke the record for most withdrawals and retirements in a single tournament.
Thus, that the players specifically demanded the court surface to be changed is where the biggest problem lies. While many are hailing Murray and Nadal’s decision to speak up against the ATP tour and calling for the players to bond together to have a bigger say in the goings-ons of their tour, the problem is that even those players don’t always make the decision that will best-benefit their bodies and their sport. With the grinding baseliner style of play dominating tennis in 2011, when given the choice – as they were here in Bercy – players will naturally pick the decision that will benefit their own games and tennis results over anything else. And backwards the tour goes.
Tumaini Carayol is in Paris/Bercy covering the BNP ParIbas Masters for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his BNP Paribas Masters coverage here and on our twitter account @TennisNewsTPN. Follow his personal twitter at @FootFault_.