BOSTON — For 50 weeks every year, the grounds men at Wimbledon work assiduously to prepare the most infuriating surface in tennis: grass. Then in two weeks, rain and games give the emerald courts an erratic bounce, bald spots, and a bad name.
"Playing on grass definitely is an opportunity," two-time Wimbledon winner Jack Kramer once said. "It's a chance to find out how lousy grass really is."
Some players like grass, others don't. Boris Becker and Pete Sampras are among the few who thrive on sod. Not Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who once said grass is better left for grazing cows. (She has since warmed up to grass while many still haven't.) But whatever their depth of devotion or detestation, players simply shake their heads.
"Grass is a much quicker surface [which makes it] more difficult to read the ball," says Joe Lynch, spokesman of the Association of Tennis Professionals. "It tests a player's concentration."
The greens behave quite differently from the salmon-hued clay of Roland Garros, site of the French Open. Clay slows the ball to a more leisurely pace. The bounce is consistent. The rallies are long.
Comparatively, grass does not put enough brakes on a ball's velocity. The serves come faster off the ground. Rallies are brief. Whack! "Fifteen-love." Whack! Thwack! "Fifteen-all." Whack! "Thirty-fifteen." It's a serve-and-volleyer's delight.
Last week at London's Queen's Club grass tournament, Mark Philippoussis blasted 15 aces to beat Goran Ivanisevic for the title. The longest rally of that game was less than six strokes. That's grass.
"To win on grass a player needs a big serve and volleying skills," says Mr. Lynch. "He should [get in] a high percentage of first serves and must make the first volley."
Weather brings more worries. On rainy days the pasture is slippery. The ball can skid and the bounce keeps low. Finally, shoe friction works like sunshine. It turns grass into hay. In the second week, the surface resembles a Dalmatian from Mars; brown spots on a faded green coat.
Little wonder that grass is an anomaly in professional tennis. Of the 80-plus ATP tournaments only six are played on grass, including the one in Newport, R.I.
Except for the Wimbledon fortnight, followed by a game of doubles between the Duke and Dutchess of Kent and Wimbledon officials, the storied center court sits unused for 50 weeks.
During that time, grounds men completely reseed the courts. The seed is a salsa of 55 percent rye grass, 20 percent chewing fescue, 20 percent creeping red fescue, and 5 percent Agrostis Castillana. Turf is not laid because it might leave seams. The lawns then are manicured to 3/4-inch in height. Soft, green, and lush the beauty lasts just a few games before it returns to dust. And there lies the trouble. Nine-time Wimbledon winner Martina Navratilova put it best: "Playing on clay and playing on grass - you might as well play golf on cobblestones, it's so different."