Many professional tennis players tend to prefer the slowness and higher bounce to be found on clay courts to the speed and low bounce of grass courts. The slower clay surface plays to strengths that include being adept at playing sweeping groundstrokes and, to a certain extent, nullifies the booming (130mph plus) serves of grass aficionados.
In 2001, Gustavo Kuerten joined the ranks of the clay court malcontents by opting not to play at Wimbledon, the world's premier grass court tournament. He is the latest in a long list and won't be the last. Kuerten threatened to boycott Wimbledon if the tournament seedings weren't taken off the rankings computer. Later, he claimed a leg injury. Many people doubt that Kuerten's dislike of Wimbledon would have caused him to skip the event if he felt he had a chance of winning and adding to his tally of three Grand Slam tournament victories.
'Grass is for the Cows'
Clay court specialists such as Kuerten don't like Wimbledon's grass. They prefer long rallies where big groundstrokes, patience, stamina and speed are rewarded. They love the clay courts of Roland Garros in Paris and abhor the way that grass favours serve and volley experts. Ivan Lendl missed Wimbledon in 1982, uttering what has since become a cliché among clay courters: 'Grass is for the cows.' Yannick Noah played there only three times during his prime, from 1980-89. Andre Agassi skipped Wimbledon from 1988-90. Other clay court champions such as Manuel Orentes, Guillermo Vilas, Adriano Panatta, Thomas Muster and Andres Gomez, although they turned up at Roland Garros religiously, often missed Wimbledon.
The Best Players Conquer both Surfaces
Manuel Santana was a magician on clay, winning the French Open twice. But the Spaniard turned up at Wimbledon each year and showed his class by winning there in 1966, beating American Dennis Ralston in the final. Bjorn Borg is regarded as the best clay court player ever. He lost only once at Roland Garros in eight years and won six French Open crowns. How he achieved the French Open-Wimbledon double three times, and won Wimbledon five times in succession is beyond comprehension and explains why he is such a legendary figure. Lendl, to his credit, came to accept the challenge of Wimbledon. He employed Tony Roche, a grass court expert, to coach him and reached the final in 1986 and '87, being beaten by grass court specialists Boris Becker and Pat Cash. Ille Nastase, another clay court star, twice reached Wimbledon finals, losing to Stan Smith in an epic five-setter in 1972 and to Borg. Agassi surprised himself by returning to Wimbledon and winning the title in 1992, his back-court game prospering even against the net-rushing Goran Ivanisevic.
Some clay courters attend Wimbledon even though they have no chance of winning. This Researcher recalls watching American Aaron Krickstein laughing his way through an early-round defeat in 1986. Krickstein, who had massive groundstrokes, was given a low seeding on the basis of his top ten world ranking, but was not a realistic Wimbledon contender. He knew it and so did most of those in the draw.
It Works the other Way Too
Pete Sampras was seeded fifth for the 2001 year's French Open, but is unsuited to the Roland Garros courts and his second-round exit, after he'd beaten a qualifier 9-7 in the fifth in the first round, was no surprise. Stan Smith, John Newcombe, Roscoe Tanner, Kevin Curren - all Wimbledon winners or finalists - seldom bothered playing at Roland Garros.
The really great grass courters, such as John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg, reached the final in Paris and Boris Becker twice made the semi-finals, but none of them ever won the title. That's why players such as Rod Laver, Borg and Agassi must rank so high. They showed the capacity to prosper on such different surfaces. Sampras and the other grass court experts who play at Paris each year deserve credit for at least bothering to enter. They have little chance of winning and their world ranking will suffer, but they play because they understand the French Open is a Grand Slam.
The same praise cannot be extended to Kuerten, who is only too happy to miss Wimbledon. Guga, as the popular Brazilian is known, is a wonderful asset to the men's tour, but apparently hasn't yet grasped why he should be at Wimbledon. He should have a chat to Agassi. Kuerten is so talented that many good judges are sure he will one day respond to the challenge of playing on grass. He has the serve and the strokes to become a good grass court player, once he gets over the mental hurdle that confronts so many clay courters.
The Women's Game
The grass court/clay court argument doesn't apply as strongly to the women's game, where the serve is never as dominant. Power players such as Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport must be accorded the best chance of winning Wimbledon, but clay courters such as Conchita Martinez (who won in 1994), Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (a finalist in 1995 and '96) and Gabriela Sabatini (a finalist in 1991) have also done well. Clay court specialist Chris Evert won Wimbledon twice.
Of the other two tournaments that make up the Tennis Grand Slam, the US Open, now played on an acrylic hard court, was played on grass until 1974, and the Australian Open, now played on the artificial Rebound Ace surface, was played on grass until 1988. Both acrylic and Rebound Ace surfaces can be manipulated to produce the court speed event organisers deem appropriate for their tournaments.