Turf tourney trips Grand Slam hopes

Gustavo Kuerten, the French Open champion and No. 1 men's player in the world, won't be playing on the grass this week. Neither will Alex Corretja, the French Open runner-up. Pete Sampras, the favorite, doesn't seem to be able to win anywhere else, at least not in recent years.

So what's going on at Wimbledon, the most hallowed of all tennis tournaments?

It's the surface - grass - that makes the event so unique. And it's also the grass that, at least for a week, throws the tennis pecking order into a state of disarray.

Wimbledon has the fastest style of play imaginable, with low, irregular bounces and an overwhelming advantage for the first player who can make his or her way to the net. The points rarely last more than one or two touches.

It comes just two weeks after the French Open is played on the super-slow red clay of Roland Garros. Players get whiplash going between the two, and no man has won both events since Bjorn Borg did so in 1980.

In today's age of the surface specialist, there doesn't seem to be anyone who can master both surfaces - something that would be necessary to win the Grand Slam, which also includes the Australian and United States opens. (The last slam won in a single year - when all courts were grass - was in 1969 by Aussie Rod Laver.) Different surfaces favor different racquet grips, different positioning at the baseline, and, perhaps most important, different mentalities.

Andre Agassi, who has won both tournaments but never in the same year, recently called going from clay to grass "the toughest adjustment to make" in tennis. Players simply don't have time to prepare for both, and often are left to choose one or the other.

A Grand Slam is 'ridiculously hard'

"The problem [for players] these days is that the field is so much stronger," says Miki Singh, an Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) official. "In Borg's day, there were a handful of players who could win a tournament. Now there are 10 to 20 players who can win. "It would be ridiculously hard to win the Grand Slam," he adds (sounding eerily like the pundits who said the same thing about golf, before Tiger Woods came along).

If anyone could come close, however, it would take someone with a strong serve, incredible versatility, and the mental strength of, say, Bjorn Borg, the silent Swede. Players whose names pop up in such discussions are Agassi, Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Australian Lleyton Hewitt. Kuerten, who withdrew from Wimbledon because of injury and dissatisfaction with the seeding system, is also a logical candidate. No one other than Agassi has come close.

On the women's side, Singh says, winning a Grand Slam would be much easier. There is less variety in the female game, with most top players thriving on the baseline, or even a few feet behind it. Gone are the days when Martina Navratilova charged the net on nearly every point. Grass or clay, it makes little difference.

Already this year Jennifer Capriati has won the Australian Open (on a hardcourt) and the French (on clay), raising speculation that she could be the first woman to sweep the majors since Steffi Graf did it in 1988. Yet, she still has two more tournaments to go - and has shown little evidence so far that she has the consistency or dominance that Graf had in the '80s.

The problem with grass is that there's too little of it. It is expensive to maintain, vulnerable to bad weather, and it needs about a week of rest for each week that it's in use. Furthermore, some fans complain that the grass game is too fast, characterized by booming serves, mis-hits, and one-touch points. It doesn't evoke the grit and exhaustion that seem to come with clay.

The US Open and Australian Open used to be played on grass, but they switched to hardcourt in 1975 and 1987 respectively. Of the 72 ATP events this year, only six are on grass. Four of them are considered Wimbledon warmups.

The US has only a handful of public grass-court facilities remaining. Most have gone the way of the wooden racquet. One is in Newport, R.I., at the International Hall of Fame. It hosts an ATP event every year in July, after Wimbledon.

"There are a variety of surfaces, and they're all part of the same game," says Mark Stenning, who runs the Newport tournament and directs the Hall of Fame. "I think purists see grass as the original surface. We're proud to maintain it."

Fast grass, strawberries, and history

Officials there say it costs them about $10,000 a year to care for each of their 13 courts. "It's pretty much like maintaining a golf course green - except people are running around on it," says turf specialist Dan Robillard.

Despite the naysayers, grass - and Wimbledon - will remain a prominent part of tennis. Only Wimbledon has royalty in the stands, strawberries and cream for breakfast, and rain that comes and goes with an exuberance rivaled only by the British tabloid press. It's still the mother of all tennis tournaments.

"Wimbledon doesn't necessarily prove who's the best player in the world," says Stephen Tignor, the managing editor of Tennis Magazine. "But it does keep a sense of history - and a link to the past."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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