Why You Should Experience the Beauty (and Agony) of Grass Court Tennis
Bend your knees. This is the first commandment of playing tennis on grass, according to Boris Becker, the three-time Wimbledon champion, who preferred it to all other surfaces.
On this summery day on the grass courts at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, my hamstrings begin to ache as I struggle to get low and stay low. And without the traditional hard surface for my sneakers to grip, I slip on the turf. I charge forward only to dump volley after off-balance volley into my side of the net.
But here I am, in the shadow of the timeworn, horseshoe-shaped stadium where the U.S. Open finals of my youth were won by the likes of Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, and Stan Smith. Here, finally, is tennis the way it was meant to be played. I have plush, forgiving turf beneath my feet and a surround of close-cut green, just like the players I’ve been watching forever on TV. As my young tennis pro and I hit back and forth in the honeyed light of early evening, I think, What’s not to love about this?
The lawn is an English invention. In the 17th century, these vast green expanses, cultivated and close-cut, began sprouting up on the estates of the wealthy as a landscape of leisure, a signal the owner was so rich he didn’t need to grow food on all of his property. The lawn, which could be strolled, picnicked upon, and bowled on, was eventually adopted by an emerging bourgeoisie. The craze for croquet emerged in the mid-19th century; not long after, in 1874, a British major named Walter Clopton Wingfield took a centuries-old racket sport and adapted it to be played on the tended grass that Victorians had devoted to croquet. It was called “lawn tennis.”
The game reached America not long after, and you can still play on the grass courts at the Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass., the first U.S. club to introduce tennis, in 1878. Grass court tennis tends to bring out the sport’s purists—the equivalent of fans who trek to Wrigley Field for a baseball game or St. Andrews for a round of golf—and when tennis fanatics think of the best players ever, they mention Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, and Martina Navratilova, those who excelled at Wimbledon.
The grass court season is short. Lines aren’t usually painted until after Memorial Day, and the high point comes only six weeks later. It arrives this year on Monday, July 3, at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, where serious, competitive matches began 130 years ago. Today, Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam tournament played on grass, and for players and fans it remains the game’s peak—the one European sporting event for which Americans will reliably wake up early or set their DVR.
Most courts in the Northeast are made of clay, often the pulverized green-gray surface known as Har-Tru. Nationwide, and on the pro tour, concrete hard courts dominate. DecoTurf (used at the U.S. Open) and Plexicushion (used at the Australian Open and Indian Wells) are the best-known sealants. The ball skids faster on the smoother surfaces, while those with more sand play slower, giving the ball a predictably “fat,” or higher, bounce.
Today’s top players strike the ball with high-velocity topspin, which they generate with windshield-wiper forehands using carbon-fiber rackets with polyester strings. Such spin can keep players pinned behind the baseline, making them rally for 10, 12, or more shots as they slowly grind out points.
But topspin doesn’t help much on grass. The ball doesn’t bounce very high to begin with. Soon enough, the surface gets flattened and pocked with divots; at the baselines, it wears away to cracked dirt. Those nonbounces grow untrue. Long rallies become almost impossible to sustain.
Howard Moore, program director for the Harry Hopman Tennis Academy at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, knows about playing on grass. Seven-time Wimbledon champion Sampras trained there, and the young men’s phenom Alexander “Sascha” Zverev Jr. does now. There are 45 courts, four of them grass.
“Players have to place more importance on the first two shots of the rally—serve and return—as the point will generally be shorter,” Moore told me during a weekend session several years ago, as we worked happily but rather hopelessly on my one-handed-drive backhand. “The perfect blend of serve, return, and movement has won Wimbledon every time.”
In 2001 the All England Club changed the surface to 100 percent ryegrass, called aberelf, from the earlier mix of creeping red fescue, so the ball would sit up a little higher, getting closer to a hard-court bounce. Remember the epic five-set quarterfinal in 2001, when a 19-year-old Roger Federer announced his presence by defeating reigning champ Sampras? They came to the net more than 100 times in that match. It’s doubtful Federer made that move that many times combined in the next five years there.
Throughout the tournament, the courts at Wimbledon are treated like the crown jewels. Twenty-nine groundskeepers are responsible for watering the grass, and at the end of the first week of play, the courts are completely closed to let the ground rest. The workers tidy up, vacuuming bits and clumps of grass and filling in along the baselines, worn down by the back-and-forth hard stops, as best they can.
A week after the final match, the show courts—which are used only for the championships—are skimmed of whatever is still growing there. New ryeseed is planted, the ground fertilized, and the courts covered. The grass will grow over the winter to a height of 13 millimeters (about a half-inch), then it’s gradually trimmed through the spring. By the time the championships begin next year, it will have been cut to precisely 8 millimeters.
This remarkable care is why there are so few lawn courts: They’re just too expensive for most clubs to maintain. A hard court can be installed for $4,000 and needs only an occasional hosing down; clay needs raking, watering, and a bit of infilling each spring. A grass court can cost $200,000; then it requires the upkeep of a putting green—one that players run on every day. Very few tennis clubs have the resources for that kind of maintenance. In 2014, when the Wessen Lawn Tennis Club opened with 24 grass courts outside Pontiac, Mich., it was the first all-grass-court club to open in the U.S. in 124 years.
One place that’s still willing to go to these lengths is the Queen’s Club in West Kensington in London. For years it’s hosted the most prestigious of the Wimbledon men’s warm-ups, now called the Aegon Championships, and for this devotee, it’s the best place to watch grass court tennis in person. Board the District or Piccadilly line in central London, get off at the Barons Court stop in West Kensington, walk a few blocks past the terraced houses on Palliser Road, and suddenly, tucked into this bustling, multiethnic neighborhood, you’ll find a jewel of a bandbox stadium and a throng of avid, informed fans.
At Queen’s Club you get to watch top players up close as they adjust their games to grass. Sit in the early summer sun—is there any better time to be in London than June?—and soak up the English scene: ruddy-faced men in blazers and women in wide-brimmed sun hats eating strawberries and cream.
But if you really want to experience grass court tennis, nothing beats playing on the surface yourself. As members of the United States Tennis Association, my doubles partner and I sign up for the Senior Grass Court Championships at West Side Tennis Club in New York as unseeded qualifiers. (The USTA organizes grass tournaments for all levels in the summer.) Our first match is against a pair of regional champions from Massachusetts, one of whom was a club pro. The lure for us is that we’ll get to play on grass, a rarity for recreational players. The problem is that neither of us has ever competed on the surface.
As our three-set match begins, it takes a while for me to figure out how to scramble in a bent-knee run, how to stay balanced when changing directions on a surface with next-to-no grab, and how to get my racket forward more quickly to meet balls that aren’t going to sit up for me.
I find myself forgoing my forehand, my best shot, as is typical for players. Instead, I start taking groundstrokes on my backhand side. I slice low with as much backspin as I can muster, and the setup and follow-through of the shot carry me naturally forward toward the net for a volley: chip and charge.
Our opponents, veterans of the senior tour and highly skilled players, are unfazed and strategic. We lose the first set in a hurry, 6-2. But the second set is close from start to finish. My partner hits his first serve with depth and pace and wins lots of cheap points, and my forehand, when I hit it, flattens out, barely clearing the net and landing at our opponents’ feet.
We drop our serve for the first time in the second set in the 10th and final game, losing 6-4. But not before I’ve fallen in love with the sound of the ball as it slithers off the grass, the spongy give so kind to my aging knees, the scent of the lawn, and the way the light shadows it as the afternoon lengthens. Grass is alive, and it has its way of making you feel alive, too.
Gerald Marzorati’s tennis memoir, Late to the Ball, is out now in paperback.