Surface tension, anyone?

LONDON -- To hear Sabine Lisicki tell it, it's as if she is discussing the beauty of cultural diversity.

Rather, it's grass, clay and hard courts, the colors of professional tennis, and Lisicki believes they should all live in harmony.

AP Photo/Sang Tan

Sabine Lisicki has found grass to be the kindest surface throughout her career.

"I think it's good that we have different surfaces, and I think it's good that there are differences," last year's Wimbledon finalist said. "You know, the game is completely different. I think that's the whole point of it."

Perhaps, but there are two flaws with her theory. One is that the grass of Wimbledon is now slower than it has ever been, and the clay of Roland Garros is quicker, closing the gap that much more among the game's three surfaces, which include the hard courts of the Australian and US Opens.

The other is that Lisicki, who won her second-round match Thursday at Wimbledon, is the closest there is to a specialist in the women's top 20, trailing only Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in career winning percentage on grass (29-10, 74.4 percent).

Lisicki has reached two quarterfinals, one semifinal and last year's final at Wimbledon, while never advancing past the fourth round at the Australian or US Opens, or the third round at the French.

Not surprisingly, she does not embrace that label.

"I love playing on grass, but I don't say I hate playing on other surfaces," she said.

That would be career suicide, something the best of the game's young talent were raised to understand, and something the old guard had to eventually learn.

"In our day," 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert said, "the Spanish players did well in Paris and the others did well on grass, and now pretty much the top rankings are true to form on any surface."

Brad Gilbert, a Wimbledon ('90) and US Open ('87) quarterfinalist, said today's players should have no excuses when it comes to playing on any surface.

"You tell yourself you're a tennis player and you can play on all surfaces because the surfaces are way closer now than ever . . . " he said. "If you tell yourself that all of a sudden, 'Geez, I hope to play better on this surface' or 'I have to change my game,' you're in trouble.

"I feel whatever you do, you should do it and play it and just think whether I'm playing on clay, grass, hard court, I can do it all."

One who is quickly proving to be just that kind of player is No. 13 seed Eugenie Bouchard, the only woman who has reached the semifinals of both Grand Slams (the Australian and French Opens) this year.

Andrew Cowie/Getty Images

Eugenie Bouchard says she focuses more on her opponent across the net than on the surface underfoot.

"I think I like all the surfaces," Bouchard said after a 7-5, 6-1 win Thursday over Silvia Soler-Espinosa in a second-rounder. "I don't feel like I can't perform on any of them, which is important, seeing as we change surfaces throughout the year.

"At the end of the day I always say to myself, 'You know what, regardless of the surface, you still have to go play how you want to play. Anything can happen on any surface. [Don't] try to make it too dependent on a surface because it's still about me against my opponent.' That's how I see it p>

Alison Riske, among the brightest American prospects and along with Madison Keys also a winner Thursday, recalled the first time she came to England four years ago.

"I had never seen a grass court, I never knew how it played, I had zero clue," she said. "And I got to the quarters of [an ITF event] and then got to the semis of Birmingham [a Wimbledon tuneup], so it was kind of love at first hit. I like to play aggressive and I feel like on the grass court either you play aggressive or you're not going to win."

All agree a certain amount of practice and experience is necessary to excel on grass. It is one reason that one extra week has been added between the French Open and Wimbledon beginning next year.

"There's an art and a skill to moving on grass, and the more time you spend on it, the more comfortable you become with it," said Darren Cahill, a US Open semifinalist in 1988 and former coach of Lleyton Hewitt. "It's a little bit why we've seen someone like [Milos] Raonic struggle a little bit on grass because he hasn't quite mastered the art of moving on it yet.

"Genie [Bouchard] is a good mover on all surfaces. She has a game that's well suited to grass because she's a flat ball-striker, so the ball's going to skip through the court pretty quickly. More than anything, though, it's a mental thing for her. She's a gamer and she finds ways to win tennis matches that she probably shouldn't win."

Pam Shriver, a 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion (all but one with Martina Navratilova) and an eight-time Grand Slam singles semifinalist and a US Open finalist, ticked off several players who should be better on grass, including five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams.

"I look at Venus," she said, "and I think, 'Does she remember the plays that got her to five Wimbledon championships?' Sometimes I think even great players, even veterans, need a reminder. Like [Wednesday], she pulled out a 118 mph serve down the middle on a game point. Does she remember how many times in the glory years she relied on a big, flat serve? Or sometimes the slice out wide?"

Shriver said there also are opportunities on grass in which even the best players fail to capitalize.

"When time is taken away and the opponent has to stretch, back in the day that was a green light to move forward and take the ball in the air," she said. "And people are not aware of that play enough today . . . Even though grass plays more like a hard court, some of those plays are right there if you're willing to recognize them."

Top 20 players Jelena Jankovic and Samantha Stosur both have struggled on grass and both were first-round Wimbledon casualties.

"Someone like Jankovic, who stays low and hits pretty flat on the backhand, she's comfortable moving forward, you'd think she'd do well on grass and she doesn't," former player Mary Joe Fernandez said. "Stosur is another great example of someone who on grass, with her kind of serve, the way she can slice, you'd think she would do well, but she struggles."

Fernandez, a three-time runner-up combined at the Australian and French and a three-time semifinalist combined at Wimbledon and the Australian Open in the early '90s, recalled Spanish players repeating the old Guillermo Vilas line -- "grass is for cows" -- when electing to skip Wimbledon.

"It's different now, but it's still the mentality of accepting the challenge of playing on different surfaces," Fernandez said. "Bouchard is mentally so tough that she steps on court and it doesn't matter what surface it is, she plays her game and she's such a good return-of-server, gets the ball early, and those qualities transfer over to every surface.

"I enjoyed [grass] but it was a surface so different than any other, it was more of a challenge footwork-wise, and back then it didn't bounce very high. Now the ball bounces much higher. I'd be much happier playing now than I did back then. And it skidded, so I just remember the first couple of days it was very stressful because it was like, 'Uh-oh, am I going to be able to catch it on time?' "

Not coincidentally, Williams and Sharapova are the top two in winning percentage on all surfaces among the top 20.

"Those players separate themselves from the pack no matter where they're playing," Cahill said. "They could be playing on Mount Everest in snowy conditions and they'd still be great. ... The greats will always be great."

Which is why Evert, a classic baseliner in an era of serve-and-volleyers, counts three Wimbledon titles among her lot.

"You have to make adjustments," she said. "It's not even psyching yourself up, you have to physically be flexible and make small adjustments. And that's why, when you look at [Monica] Seles, she never won Wimbledon. It was harder for her to make those. They're subtle. They're getting down lower for the ball, they're hitting with more topspin, they're learning how to move on the grass. It's not changing your game.

"I had to play out of the box. And I had to force myself to play more aggressive because more than any other surface, you do not want to be on the defense on grass."

Evert recalled her first Wimbledon, in 1972.

"All I remember is that the courts were wet and it was hard to move and the bounces were so low," she said. "I just had to will myself to win because it was so uncomfortable for me. And everybody was serve-and-volleying and coming to net but me. I was a baseliner, so I had to adjust my game to be able to pass and lob and do other things."

She paused, then smiled.

"But I got to the semis, so I guess I did something right."

Related Content