Beneath the surface

Roger Federer noticed a difference in speed on a fast court in Paris. AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau

This story appears in the March 7 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

Grass is slick, clay is slow and hardcourt is hardcourt, right? Wrong. Not all hardcourts are created equal, and the surface speed varies from court to court, often for strategic reasons.

At last November's Paris Masters, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray agreed the court was faster than any they'd played in ages. That's because the French laid an ultraquick surface to favor countrymen Michael Llodra and Gael Monfils, who are both comfortable playing serve-and-volley. On a faster surface, the ball skids and stays low. Serves must be handled defensively, and opponents have less time to set up passing shots, which allows net-chargers to attack. In Paris, the strategy worked: Both French players reached the semis, where Llodra lost to eventual champ Robin Soderling and Monfils beat Federer.

In Davis Cup, host countries push even harder for homecourt advantage. At last season's final in Belgrade, the Serbs built a slow court to better serve sluggers Djokovic and Viktor Troicki against France. The Serbs won. In fact, since 2009 host countries have won 11 of 14 events on hardcourts.

The secret to manipulating surface speed lies in a thin layer of acrylic and silica sand that's applied just below a court's final coat of paint (see diagram). Sand grabs the ball and causes higher bounce, giving baseliners more time to set up heavy ground strokes. To make courts slower, more sand is added. To speed play, court techs use less sand, or even none. Tournaments typically resurface courts once a year, at a cost of up to $20,000 per court.

The International Tennis Federation measures surface speed with a metric called court pace rating (CPR). Category 1 is the slowest, 5 the fastest. The Paris Masters court earned a 5, a rating that used to be shared by many hardcourt surfaces. But baseliners have taken over top spots on both the men's and women's tours, so tournament directors have slowed the game. Medium-paced, Category 3 and 4 courts are so common today that only the best players can adjust to Category 5 speeds.

"Shanghai was brutally slow, Toronto was very slow and Miami and Indian Wells have been slowed drastically," says Federer. "Paris was fast. But that's okay. Otherwise, things can get boring."

And we wouldn't want that -- at any speed.

Lindsay Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.