‘Everything’s so different’: Wimbledon and the future of grass-court tennis

Filip Krajinovic has been a professional tennis player nearly half his life. He knows himself on the tennis court as well as he knows anything else and after 14 years on the tour he was so sure grass-court tennis was not for him that he barely even tried: “Every year I find a way to skip the tournaments, just coming to Wimbledon, losing first round,” he said last week. “It’s been the last 10 years like that.”

And yet, it turns out, he was completely wrong. This year, at 30, he arrived at Queen’s for his long-awaited first main-draw match on a grass court at an ATP event, and briskly reached the final. He did not turn into a serve and volley player overnight, nor did he develop a wicked backhand slice. He simply embraced the surface for the first time.

The events at Queen’s were a reminder of the absurdity of the grass-court season. Most tennis players spend their lives building their games and growing on hard courts and clay, then all of a sudden they must adjust to a completely new surface with only five weeks each year to do so. “Everything’s so different on the grass,” says Britain’s Dan Evans.

Most of those early days are spent on the floor. The American Tommy Paul recalls a match in the qualifying draw at Queen’s in 2019 against Alexander Bublik, who predictably spent the afternoon peppering him with drop shots and underarm serves: “I fell, I don’t know, 10 times. I was on the ground so much. It was pretty embarrassing,” he says. Alejandro Davidovich Fokina had a similar experience from his first junior Wimbledon: “I fell down like 30 times.”

Even playing on grass as a junior is a privilege that some pros don’t have. Botic van de Zandschulp, the world No 26, had never even stepped on to a grass court until Wimbledon qualifying last year. He is still just trying to mentally move on from clay: “You try to slide in corners and you try to move like you normally do on hard court and clay but it’s impossible,” he sighs.

Only a special few players truly take to grass immediately: “It was good. Everybody told me that I could play well on the grass so I was like, “OK, maybe!” says Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, of her first time on grass at a junior event in Roehampton. Then she casually shrugs. “I won Roehampton, actually.”

With experience on grass essential to success on the surface, many of the new generation of players have struggled to adapt. The cancellation of Wimbledon in 2020 has not helped. Novak Djokovic is at his ultimate level on hard courts, but these days he is an even bigger favourite at Wimbledon. Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev and Casper Ruud have not made a Wimbledon quarter-final between them.

Even now, as technology has improved and the bounces have become truer, precise serving on grass is still a dream. Serving dominance often means that, in some matches, just a few points make the difference: “The movement is a massive part, finishing your shot is a massive part, the ball is always very heavy, the Slazenger ball. They’re so quick – the games. It’s small margins and keeping mentally pretty sound throughout the whole matches,” says Evans.

Then there are the sore hamstrings, glutes and lower backs as players incessantly bend their knees to counter the skidding bounce: “You’d think that playing a long clay-court match would be the toughest on your legs, but a long grass match… I played a three-hour grass-court match last week, and I was so sore. I couldn’t believe it. I thought they were gonna be quick and easy matches,” says Paul.

Numerous British players have produced career-best results during this grass season, with Ryan Peniston, Katie Boulter and Jodie Burrage all beating top-10 opponents. Even British players hardly grow up on grass, but they often have their first contact with the surface at a younger age. They essentially have the biggest home advantage in the sport.

“I do know some of them who probably haven’t hit a ball on grass for 15 years and then go out and play really well on it,” says Boulter, who first played on the surface at an under-9 tournament in Roehampton. “But then someone else, like Harriet [Dart], she played at a club with her mum from a young age and I think it gives us the upper hand with that.”

Until 1974, Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open were all played on grass. While it was phased out in Melbourne and New York, and at times it seemed that only the tradition of Wimbledon was keeping it alive, today the grass-court swing is as strong as it has ever been since the ATP tour began in 1990. Since the addition of a week between the French Open and Wimbledon in 2016, somehow grass-court tournaments have blossomed in continental Europe.

Whether it can ever play an even more significant role in the calendar is a different question. For those charged with holding events, the costs are a big obstacle: “It is quite a lot more expensive,” says Edwin Weindorfer, tournament director in Stuttgart, a grass event. “I would say it’s probably two to three times more expensive than a clay-court tournament.

“The maintenance is a huge difference because grass is living material and you need to maintain that the whole year.”

Marcel Hunze, the tournament director at the Libema Open in the Netherlands, the first grass-court event in continental Europe, is even more specific: “For the maintenance of a grass court is at least about €25,000 (£21,450) per court, per year.”

The popular discussion point now is whether there will ever be an ATP or WTA 1000 event on grass. The ATP CEO, Andrea Gaudenzi, has spent the last few years attempting to reshape the ATP and he has spoken of his hope for one. “Yeah, why not? I think there could be a 1000 behind the ATP and a 1000 behind the WTA,” says Hunze.

Weindorfer is the CEO of Emotion Group, a tournament management company that runs grass-court events in Stuttgart, Berlin and Mallorca. He does not see it happening. “I personally believe it is very difficult given the dimension of the costs that it costs to run a 1000. If it’s a combined one, especially. Even if it’s a 1000 tournament with a 64-player draw, you will probably need 10 to 15 grass courts and a huge stadium.”

As with many issues within tennis, everyone has a different opinion about whether the grass season could and should ever take up a larger part of the calendar. “I think, at the moment, it’s a perfect swing,” says Weindorfer. “Four tournaments a week, 12 tournaments, six women’s tournaments, six men’s tournaments, then it goes into the championship. I think it’s the perfect situation.”

Despite being a former Wimbledon junior champion, the mere thought of spending more time on grass is offensive to Davidovich Fokina.

“For me, one month is enough,” says the Spaniard, who reached the quarter-finals at Queen’s last week, waving his hands in protest. “When I have more time, it’s better for me than to play on hard or clay. I will show more of my game. This month on the grass is to enjoy, to have some fun, improve a lot of things of your game, and that’s it.”

As she discusses the possibility of a lengthier grass-court season, a smile spreads across Kvitova’s face: “I wish it could be longer,” she says. “Anytime I’m finishing Wimbledon, I’m like: ‘Hmm, it’s sad that we’re already finished.’ It seems like we just started and it’s already done.”