Grass is what gives Wimbledon its bounce

June 25, 1991|By Melissa Isaacson | Melissa Isaacson,Chicago Tribune

For years, Ivan Lendl claimed allergies made him stay away from Wimbledon, and judging from his subsequent difficulties there, no one will dispute the fact that grass courts made him ill.

Whether or not it was a case of hay fever though, well, that's a different story.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the young Spaniard who won the French Open title at age 17, once was asked how she felt about the surface and spouted, "Grass is for cows."

Word has it she stole that line from Lendl.

Love it or hate it, there is no in between when talking about both the oldest and most infuriating court surface in tennis.

For every Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova who extol its virtues, there are those, like Lendl, who merely shake their heads.

All year, the courts of the All-England Lawn Tennis Club are meticulously manicured in anticipation of the third Grand Slam tournament of the year. Its famed Centre Court is not played on at all save for the Wimbledon fortnight and a game of doubles following the tournament between the Duke and Dutchess of Kent and Wimbledon officials.

Soft, green and lush, the beauty lasts all of about one day and declines rapidly until it is practically all dirt in the second week. And therein lies part of the mystery and misery of grass courts.

For Lendl, who doesn't agonize much over the surface anymore -- at least not publicly -- grass is the unknown, the "X" factor. Unpredictable and never precise, it plays havoc with a player like Lendl, who prides himself on timing and preparation.

In all weather, grass toys with a player's concentration and tests his patience. On rainy days, footing is slippery and shots are often too slick to handle. In the sun, there are dead spots that even the best cannot anticipate.

It's the fastest surface in the game next to indoor carpeted courts, but it's fast in a different way. The quickness on grass comes from the skidding serve -- in the case of Becker, upward of 140 mph -- and the short bounces off volleys that make long rallies obsolete.

At the beginning of the tournament, traction is poorest, serves fastest and points quickest. At the end, depending somewhat on the weather during the two-week period, Centre Court at Wimbledon can play almost like a pseudo hardcourt with bounces higher, but often untrue.

"As a player, you become prepared for anything and everything because each point is unpredictable," said two-time champion Stefan Edberg. "The pressure and frustration can ruin a player in one set."

It can also elevate the most athletic of those -- like Edberg and Becker and Navratilova -- who thrive on the challenge and excel by virtue of their quick reactions.

Becker, who has become famous for his belly-flopping saves at Wimbledon, calls the grass courts there "my second home."

Zina Garrison, one of the most athletic women on tour, has had some of her best results at Wimbledon, including a berth in the finals last year.

"I love grass," Garrison said on a recent stop in Chicago. "It's always a total natural for me. As soon as I step on it, my confidence level goes way up and I feel I'm the one to beat.

"I like the little bounces. I like the feeling of attacking. It feels so good under your feet."

Even Sanchez Vicario has warmed to the surface, after reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year. "I know I can play on different surfaces and I can serve and volley," she said.

Wimbledon has caused players such as Lendl to retool their games while prompting other, younger players such as Monica Seles to consider complete overhauls to incorporate the big serve and quick volley necessary to win.

Former champions and classic baseliners such as Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert were the exceptions, possessing such great all-around skill -- particularly on passing shots -- that they were able to win Wimbledon from the baseline.

"There is no court like Centre Court as far as the atmosphere, feeling of anticipation and nerves," Evert said. "As for playing on grass, people think it wasn't my favorite surface, but I loved it. I always relished the challenge of grass courts.

"Wimbledon is a one-of-a-kind tournament, different from any other in the world."

Lendl certainly realizes that by now. But as the only Grand Slam tournament to elude him, Wimbledon will not, he now promises, destroy him. "I've gotten to the point," he said, "where I walk on a court and I don't say, 'This is a grass court.' I say, 'This is a tennis court.' "

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