Monday, August 12, 2013

How commercialism is destroying sports – Part 2: Tennis

I wrote in the previous text about how commercialism has changed the racing in Formula One. But it isn't the only sport that has changed because of the commercial interests. The game of tennis has changed over the last decade for commercial reasons.

Tennis originated in the 19th century as lawn tennis played on grass courts. Since then other playing surfaces have been introduced and those different surfaces favour different playing styles. The contrast between playing styles on different surfaces had become biggest in the 90s. French Open champions were struggling to get past even the early rounds on Wimbledon's grass and players like Sampras, Becker, and Edberg never managed to win the French Open on clay to complete the Grand Slam. That's why Andre Agassi's Career Grand Slam is a truly amazing achievement.

Unfortunately the game seen on the fastest surfaces in the 90s didn't please the big crowd. The big crowd found serve-and-volley boring and rather wanted to see long rallies. That's why the two fastest Grand Slam events; Wimbledon on grass and the US Open on hard courts slowed down their surfaces. After that you could hear players saying that the US Open is already faster than Wimbledon. That shows how much Wimbledon was slowed down. Grass is supposed to be the fastest surface but Wimbledon became slower than US Open on slowed-down hard courts. Nowadays Wimbledon is probably again the fastest slam, but not because it would have been speeded up. Instead the US Open has been even slower in the last years.

The other hardcourt slam, the Australian Open, changed their surface for the 2008 tournament because the previous Rebound Ace hardcourt became sticky on hot weather causing injuries. Already Rebound Ace was slower than the US Open's DecoTurf hardcourt, and be it intentional or not, the new Plexicushion hardcourt was even slower. Also, the fast indoor carpet courts were abandoned on the tour after 2008 and replaced with slower indoor hard courts. A real reason or an excuse to slow down the game, but one of the aims was to reduce the risk of injuries.

There is still one surface that hasn't been slowed down, it is clay. If anything, it has rather been speeded up. The French Open plays faster than previously, even though it can be explained by the faster balls introduced in 2011. Then again, balls can be used to homogenize court speeds; not only Wimbledon's grass has been slowed down but also the balls are slow there.

I find it sad that they are homogenizing surfaces. Homogenized surfaces take away variety from the game. I think that has depreciated the Grand Slam as an achievement. It is easier to master different surfaces than it was in the 90s when Agassi reached the Career Grand Slam. And not only Agassi reached the Career Grand Slam on four very different surfaces but he also won the Year-End Championship on indoor carpet. Also, as the homogenization is done mainly by slowing down the fastest surfaces, it has favoured players with great defensive abilities at the expense of players with great offensive abilities. Moreover, I think the slower surfaces make the game more physical. Longer rallies require better stamina and you need to be stronger to hit through the slow courts. Of course, faster surfaces favour big-hitters but you have less time to prepare the shots there. That hurts some big-hitters. Also, fast surfaces enable players with weaker shots to hit winners. I would say the average pace of courts on today's tour is medium-slow; courts are more often slow than fast. Then again, I think the average pace of 90s' courts was too fast. Most hard courts were fast, the 90s US Open was very fast as even the slowed-down mid-00s' US Open was still fast. I think grass and clay should have been left like they were, they are the two most traditional surfaces. But I think hard courts needed some slowing down. The Australian Open on Rebound Ace was fine. It was a slow hard court but not as slow as the current Plexicusion surface. And I think the US Open was fine in the mid-00s when it had been slowed down a bit from the 90s. It was still fast but not too fast as shown by the French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero reaching the 2003 final.

But the slower surfaces have brought what the big crowd wanted. More long rallies, less serve-and-volley. And the homogenized surfaces have one effect which the ATP and the WTA must like. As the surfaces play more similarly, it is more likely the same players that make the late rounds in all events. In the 90s it was hard to succeed at both the French Open and Wimbledon, in the recent years it has been much easier as shown by Nadal winning them both in 2008 and 2010 and Federer doing that in 2009. The previous time that had happened was in 1980 by Björn Borg.

But maybe the surfaces might be speeded up again in the near future. The slow surfaces can lead to long matches like the six-hour final between Djokovic and Nadal at the 2012 Australian Open. TV channels probably aren't too happy with matches being so long. By speeding up the courts, points would become shorter and matches would be over in a shorter time.

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