The Pleasures of Tennis on Grass
A signal that the cold, depressing months of an Irish winter were coming to an end, was the smell of newly-cut grass from the lawns of the prep school of my Irish youth. It is an inspiring smell (if smells can be inspiring!) that can still press positive buttons in me in the months of May and June. Visions of the tennis matches to come in the summer team were stimulated by that grassy aroma.
Not much tennis is played on grass any more – only a few tournaments including the showcase, Wimbledon, remain. At a more amateur level, with the exception of some clubs in England, grass has virtually disappeared. In my youth, it was still a major playing surface, but holding its own with some difficulty against the surge in popularity of hard courts. Grass, although a Rolls Royce surface at its best, suffered from the constraints of bad weather, that eternal feature of life in Britain and Ireland. It could never be entirely relied upon. Speed of reaction was vital on grass, as the ball could shoot off the surface mercilessly, particularly in damp weather.
All that said, the game of tennis was first played on grass and the official name of the game is ‘lawn tennis’. To this day, many clubs refer to themselves as ‘lawn tennis’ clubs despite the fact that a blade of grass is nowhere to be seen. Tradition matters a lot to the custodians of tennis. There was nothing better than to tread on the soft, springy surface of a grass court. Movement across the court was easy (as long as the surface was dry and you had good shoes) and the reduced pressure on the feet compared with hard surfaces, meant you could play on for longer periods.
All the best players in the world could play on grass. It was a ‘sine qua non’ to be able to master the surface. Even today, no one could call themselves the best in the world without a victory at Wimbledon. The Czech star of the 1980’s, Ivan Lendl, on the other hand, maintained that ‘grass was for cows’. This comment, I think, said more about Lendl than anything else. He never won at Wimbledon. Others tutored as young players on hard courts, like Bjorn Borg, recognised the reality of grass play and adapted their game accordingly. Borg managed to win Wimbledon five times in a row. Grass was made for certain types of player: those with big serves and volley games. Such a player was Boris Becker who displayed his talent on Wimbledon grass from the tender age of 17.
Grass also brought out the acrobat in Boris. Legendary are the heroic dives on the Centre Court, often in desperation, by the ebullient German. It also brought out the grace and delicacy in many women players, exemplified by Maria Bueno and Evonne Goolagong in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Grass is steeped in tradition. It has long been the tradition that on the Sunday before the start of Wimbledon, a Ladies Doubles match is played on the Centre Court to ‘break the Court’ in after months of non-use.
Grass also had a capacity to inspire reverence. I will never forget the horrified reaction of the great Dan Maskell as he witnessed from the BBC commentary box, the invasion of the Centre Court by scores of young female admirers of Bjorn Borg. It was their platform shoes and heels that most offended him as they dug into the sacred turf. The end of civilisation as we know it! I also have seen some woeful grass courts in my time. These were usually courts situated along the seaside coast of Ireland with sandy underlays. Bounces were erratic and the baselines resembled the trenches of the First World War!
In my own club, a long tradition of grass play was fostered until the club had to face the inevitability of grass’s increasing impracticality. In its old premises on Lad Lane in Dublin, it had several fine grass courts, the turf of which was transferred over in the move in 1973 to Appian Way. Grass struggled on for many years at the new premises, but eventually, pressure on space in favour of hard courts prevailed. Fitzwilliam once was able to attract the best in the world to its annual tournament (a week following Wimbledon), but with the rise in the professional game and the decline in grass in the 1970’s, the tournament slid deep into the second division.
Tennis on grass summons up so many nostalgic memories. It is all about civilised Home Counties tennis clubs, afternoon teas, the chatter of pretty young English Roses, bottles of Robinson’s Barley Water and the rich voice of Dan Maskell. It is symbolic of an era before professionalism and technology, both of which transformed the game utterly.
Date published :
05 Jul 2011 - 14:33:55