On the surface, Wimbledon is more steeped in tradition than any other tennis tournament, yet it undergoes more radical changes from day to day than any other Grand Slam because it is the only one played on grass. As its grass courts gradually lose their moisture and then patches of the grass itself, players must continually adjust.
Fifty years ago many tournaments, including three of the four Grand Slams, were played on grass. But today, many players play only one or two grass-court tournaments before Wimbledon.
“The players are on hard courts almost all year and have no doubts there, but they’re not getting many reps on grass,” said Tracy Austin, a Tennis Channel analyst who reached two semifinals and won a mixed doubles title at Wimbledon. “Players get psyched out by the grass.”
As Ian Westermann, the author of “Essential Tennis,” said, “Players have to problem-solve and think on their feet.”
Wimbledon used to be even more distinctive, but in a way that many fans found repetitive and boring. Grass courts play fast, and the ball stays low, so matches were once an onslaught of serve-and-volley points, which reduced the drama. In 2001, the tournament switched grasses, replacing a mix that was 70 percent ryegrass and 30 percent creeping red fescue with 100 percent ryegrass.
The new lawn made the courts more durable and provided cleaner bounces, while allowing Wimbledon to keep the soil beneath drier and firmer. That yielded higher bounces and slowed the game, which Eddie Seaward, who was then the head groundskeeper, acknowledged was needed for the good of the sport.
The serve-and-volley quickly fell from favor. Craig O’Shannessy, the director of the Brain Game Tennis website, said that, in 2002, 33 percent of the men’s points featured that approach, but three years later, that number had dropped to 19 percent. Since 2008, the serve-and-volley has been used 5 to 10 percent of the time.
But O’Shannessy cited statistics revealing that even as usage fell, the serve-and-volley remained a winning tactic: Two-thirds of serve-and-volley points were won by men, a figure that has not varied for two decades. O’Shannessy cited a “herd mentality” for abandoning the tactic and said players should attack more frequently.
Austin said rallying is now part of Wimbledon. She said that as changes in strings and playing styles gave returners more weapons against the serve-and-volley, players began engaging in baseline rallies on the grass.
Serve-and-volley “is successful because it’s not predictable,” she said, adding that players no longer learn or practice the serve-and-volley style, so they’re not comfortable doing it often.
Wimbledon still requires a different skill set and mind-set from the other Grand Slams. While there are longer baseline rallies now, Westermann said, “grass places a premium on first-strike tennis. You just have to take your shot.”
Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst, said that players in his day had to charge the net immediately because service returns otherwise stayed too low, but that now the ball was more likely to come up high enough for the server to hit an aggressive ground stroke.
“It’s easier to hit a first ball from the middle of the court with your forehand than with a volley,” McEnroe said. “And a mediocre volley is likely to bounce higher now, giving your opponent more of a chance to hit a passing shot.”
Austin said that “serve-plus-one” style wasn’t always feasible without a big serve, but McEnroe said players should focus on “taking the ball early and moving forward” to win the point in one or two shots.
Westermann said big servers still could go further in Wimbledon than on other Grand Slam surfaces, and McEnroe added that the wide slice serve was especially effective because it is harder to reach and harder to recover from on the low, fast court.
Additionally, Wimbledon favors players who can hit through the court with hard, flat ground strokes. Topspin, the shot that brought Rafael Nadal endless success on clay, is less effective here because the deadened bounce leaves the ball in an opponent’s comfort zone.
To optimize the lower bounce, Austin and McEnroe said the slice backhand — important to Roger Federer’s Wimbledon glory — was an essential weapon. “The slice stays so low and the spin is even more squirrelly on grass, especially because there are still uneven bounces there,” Austin said.
More than other surfaces, grass rewards players who can improvise off low or bad bounces, McEnroe said. “Clay requires more point construction, but on grass, the advantage is to the superior technical players who have the best racket skills,” he said.
The bounces are lower and the ball moves slower in the first week, O’Shannessy said, because there is more water in the blades of grass. “Your butt and hamstrings will be way more sore playing on grass from getting down low,” he said.
That moisture also causes players to slip on the run, Austin said, adding that “it gets in their head” as they worry about potential injuries.
McEnroe said players can’t just explode and run all out. “Your feet have to be light, and while you run, you have to think, ‘How am I going to stop?’” he said.
As the second week begins, the grass dries out and the soil hardens — barring rain — producing a higher bounce, making topspin more effective.
As second-week regulars, returning players have an edge, O’Shannessy said: They are experienced in dealing with the grass as it turns to dust and dirt. “You’re often moving between two different surfaces, and if you’re not used to it, that can be difficult,” he said.
The dirt surrounding the baseline where the players hit many of their shots not only changes the bounce again, but it also becomes slippery. “Complaining about the dirt is another Wimbledon tradition,” Westermann said.
While it might be tempting for players to back up for better footwork and time to adjust to the bounces, he said, that tactic just allows opponents to go on the offensive.
“Players instead need to double down and take the ball early,” he said. “Players who are confident and aggressive will be rewarded.”