At its roots, Wimbledon is about the grass

WIMBLEDON, England – Roger Federer, the regal two-time defending singles champion, and Paul-Henri Mathieu, the first-round sacrificial lamb from France, set sneakered feet on Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club Monday, the first players to do so since the final day last year.

Save, that is, for four female club members who Saturday engaged in one of Wimbledon's sensibly useful rituals.

Four ladies are invited annually to play "one set of gentle doubles" on Centre and No. 1 courts, 48 hours before the reigning king takes the court to play the tournament's official overture. For the record, this prestigious perk went to Allison Denly, Sally Holloway, Toni Thompsen and Karen Whishaw this year. Their exercise is a final dress rehearsal for scoreboard operators, ballpersons and technicians testing everything from the Cyclops electronic line-calling devices to the microphones on the umpires' chairs.

But the club ladies' light-hearted and light-footed prelude serves another practical purpose, as most Wimbledon traditions do: to get the "juiciness" out of the world's most famous two grass courts, which are used only for the championship tournament.

Grass is the original surface of the game the British still call "lawn tennis." Formally, Wimbledon was long known as "The Lawn Tennis Championships on Grass," but now that has been shortened, with a succinct and justified sense of superiority, to simply "The Championships."

Three of the four traditional Grand Slam tournaments used to be contested on turf. The U.S. Open shifted first to artificial clay (in 1975) and then to cushioned hard courts (in 1978), and the Australian Open switched to a similar rubberized asphalt in 1988. The French Open has always been on slow, red clay. Wimbledon remains the last bastion of lawn tennis.

Gordon Bottomley, an English poet and playwright in the early 20th century, wrote: "When you destroy a blade of grass, you poison England at her roots." The sun long ago set on the British empire, but growing grass is something the Brits still do better than just about anybody in the world, and Wimbledon is duly proud of how it has restored the quality of the 19 courts now used for The Championships. The singular stage that is Centre Court now not only looks like a rectangle of flawless emerald but also plays like a gem.

"It's much slower, the bounce is much truer, and the subsurface is much harder," says Cliff Drysdale, a singles semifinalist here in 1965 who is now an ESPN commentator. "The ball bounces up, so you can hit it, which did not used to be the case. It's so much more like playing on a hard court now, it's unbelievable. I didn't think it was possible, but they have done it."

All the courts are spongier on the surface, which probably makes them slower, although an official statement from the All England Club states: "There has been no intention either this year or in previous years to produce slower courts or ones suited for a particular type of game."

There has been a diligent effort, however, to make the courts sure if not slow, with firmer soil and subsurface that make the ball bounce higher and more reliably. This has been accomplished by marrying the art and science of groundskeeping, as practiced by Eddie Seaward, head groundsman since 1991. Seaward has a staff of 14 and another 14 employed just for The Championships, including fellows from The Sports Turf Research Institute in Yorkshire. (Yorkshire is fittingly the old stomping grounds of the poet Bottomley, born there in 1874.)

"Wimbledon has always striven to provide the players with the best possible grass courts on which to display their considerable talents," said Tim Phillips, Chairman of the All England Club and The Championships. "Just as the game of tennis does not stand still, neither do we, and we continue to prepare our courts using all our experience and the latest technology. Ultimately, we aim to produce the best possible playing surface."

To that end, Wimbledon's courts the past five years have been sown entirely with perennial ryegrass, replacing the mixture of 70 percent rye and 30 percent creeping red fescue that was the norm through 2000. The All England Club would have gone with rye and ginger if that could have guaranteed the durability and "enhanced presentation and performance" it was seeking in the new millennium, but independent research by the experts in Yorkshire confirmed that 100 proof rye was preferable to any blend.

It was also determined scientifically, confirming generations of intuition, that the height and consistency of a tennis ball's bounce is governed more by what lies beneath than the grass itself. Wimbledon's courts are rolled hard, and the grass is cut to 8 millimeters – the optimum to thrive in the proper soil conditions. All this is monitored daily with sophisticated instruments. As a club spokesman said Monday, "They have a machine that measures the greenness of the grass."

Along with high-tech rackets and fundamental shifts in technique and tactics preferred by professionals, the refurbished courts have decidedly altered the style of play at Wimbledon for the better.

Federer, a shot maker of the first order, almost never followed his serve to net in his tidy 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Mathieu on Monday. Likewise, Australian Lleyton Hewitt – the champion in 2002 after ascending Federer toppled seven-time champion Pete Sampras – seldom serve-and-volleyed in the traditional Aussie style in dispatching Christophe Rochus of Belgium, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.

"All grass is different, but today it was pretty slow – very slow – and it felt very soft," said Hewitt, who played on Court 1. "I've got no doubt, though, it's going to quicken up over the next two weeks, the more play it gets, because the show courts haven't had any play at all. Today, they're very green. Both of us were playing from the back of the court, and where we were serving, we were leaving imprints in the court. It was that soft. I've never seen that before."

Hewitt did serve 19 aces, Federer 18. A morning thundershower, which prompted one English pessimist to declare prematurely that "summer has ended," had given way to warm sunshine by the time Federer and Hewitt took to the courts.

"Because of the rain this morning, it definitely played a littler quicker than the last few days, where it was extremely hot and there was quite a high bounce," Federer said. "I even thought you could kick serve, which I was quite surprised to see the last few days."

All around the grounds, men and women alike were winning with aggressive, attacking tennis from the back of the court, occasionally paving their way to the net with good approach shots. Indiscriminate advances were discouraged by punishing passing shots.

High-powered serves will still play a major role in crowning the men's singles champion. That opinion was shared by Phil Dent, the former Australian Davis Cup player, who watched son Taylor Dent win a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-7 (7), 6-1 decision over Dick Norman on Monday.

"If you've got guys serving cannons 2 inches from the lines all the time," Dent said, "you could be playing on water and the ball isn't coming back."

But gone are the days when a huge-serving but one-dimensional Paul Bunyan could bludgeon a more complete player into a grassy grave at Wimbledon. Both the men's and women's singles can be won largely from the baseline, which used to be unthinkable.

The changing styles are writ large on the lawns.

"If you look at aerial photos in all the annuals, you can see how the pattern of wear on the courts has changed in recent years," said Mark Cox, a Cambridge-educated top English player in the 1960s and '70s. "Now you get this path worn along the baseline, and some mild discoloration on the path to the net. You used to have these great furrows into the net, but there are very few serve-volleyers anymore.

"I don't think the courts are actually slower, but the most noticeable thing is that the return of serve is regularly between the waist and the shoulder rather than between the waist and the knee. That alters the whole perspective of the game. Now the players with extreme grips can get a crack at the ball, whereas in my day you had to use a continental grip to get low and underneath the ball. The ball doesn't skid as much off this grass, either. You're not always lunging for a low volley or half-volley, and you don't have the bad bounces that made players not want to risk letting the ball bounce at all. We had to serve-and-volley. Players have other options now."

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.