In the weeks leading up to the championships the official name for the tournament popularly known as Wimbledon, to be held this year from June 23 to July 6 guards patrol the grounds of the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club with German shepherds; their radios buzz periodically with static and their fingers twitch on flashlights. Electrified fences surround the courts in London's leafy southwest. Interlopers of all kinds are unwelcome. Foxes, especially.
The urine of the female fox, it turns out, is highly toxic to grass; it can wipe out whole patches of a lawn in seconds and leave a tennis court in ruins. That one of the world's largest sporting events could be thrown into disarray by the startled evacuation of an urban fox is a telling reminder that each singles match at Wimbledon involves three living organisms: two players and the lawn beneath their feet. And for all the grunts and struggles of the players, the lawn has a huge effect on how tennis is played at the Championships.
All of tennis' championship surfaces have a distinct character that shapes a certain style of play. The French Open's clay courts which are actually pulverized brick slow the ball and reward long, grinding rallies of attrition. The medium-paced hard courts of the Australia and U.S. Opens provide a neutral surface for a variety of styles. But grass has the most profound influence on style of play. In 2001, Goran Ivanisevic beat Pat Rafter in a Wimbledon final that featured 38 service aces; both players favored the fast-court tactic of heading to the net to volley. A year later, however, Australian baseline specialist Lleyton Hewitt defeated Argentinian David Nalbandian in a match that featured only seven aces and not a single such serve-and-volley point.
The dramatic shift in the winning style engendered plenty of speculation. Players argued that Wimbledon had surreptitiously introduced slower balls; some commentators heralded a new generation of players so adept at returning serve that they made serve-and-volley tactics ineffective. But the biggest change at Wimbledon, of course, was to the grass.
In 2001, Wimbledon tore out all its courts and planted a new variety of groundcover. The new grass was 100% perennial rye; the old courts had been a mix of 70% rye and 30% creeping red fescue. The new lawn was more durable, and allowed Wimbledon's groundsmen to keep the soil underneath drier and firmer. A firmer surface causes the ball to bounce higher. A high bounce is anathema to the serve-and-volley player, who relies on approach shots skidding low through the court. What's more, rye, unlike fescue, grows in tufts that stand straight up; these tufts slow a tennis ball down as it lands.
Ivanisevic and Rafter were able to blast their way through the new grass because an exceptionally rainy two weeks had kept the courts soft. But the ground eventually dried, and baseliners have excelled since; in men's tennis, Roger Federer, who serves and volleys only around 10% of the time, has reigned supreme. And while women have always been more inclined to play from the back of the court, big-hitting groundstrokers such as Maria Sharapova and Serena and Venus Williams have all but shut the door on the serve-and-volley style ushered in by the now-retired Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna.
Head groundsman at the All-England Club, Eddie Seaward, says the new grass was developed because the tournament needed a plant that could withstand the wear of the modern game. Grass surfaces that could put up with lightfooted gents in trousers like Fred Perry, the Englishman who dominated Wimbledon in the 1930s couldn't as easily endure the exertions of, say, 6-ft.-6-in. (1.98 m) Max Mirnyi, a.k.a. the Beast from Belarus.
To test the durability of different varieties, technicians at Britain's Sports Turf Research Institute put a tennis shoe on a massive hydraulic ram and then stomped patches of turf intermittently for 13 days, mimicking the conditions of the Wimbledon fortnight. The hammer was calibrated to two different weights: that of the average female and average male pro.
"We needed a grass that could hold up for two weeks and not splinter into patches, which is what causes bad bounces," says Seaward. "That was our goal." Any change in the pattern of play, he insists, "was just a natural byproduct of being able to keep the soil firmer."
But not everyone was happy with the new surface, especially those who contend the change may have robbed England of its best chance of crowning a homegrown Wimbledon champion since Perry took the title in 1936. Tim Henman, a serve-and-volley player, made four Wimbledon semifinals, but says the new grass forced him to alter his natural game midcareer. "I remember sitting at a change-over in 2002 in utter frustration and thinking 'What on earth is going on here? I'm on a grass court and it's the slowest court I've played on this year.' " Veteran tour pro and former Wimbledon doubles champion Jonas Bjorkman says the slower grass courts have homogenized the professional game. "There is a danger that we will have only one type of player soon because everyone is growing up on courts that are roughly the same speed," he says. To underline the point: Federer's great rival, Rafael Nadal, is widely considered a clay-court specialist, but has still made the final at Wimbledon the last two years.
"There was a time when clay-court [specialists] wouldn't even make the trip [to England]," Bjorkman said after losing to Nadal at the Artois Championships, a warm-up event for Wimbledon. "Now they hardly even need to adjust their game."
Well, maybe. But remember: a decade ago, men's tennis was widely considered deadly boring, mainly because the serve-and-volley exchanges were so brief. Both Bjorkman and Henman admit that the new grass has led to longer, more dramatic points. And they say any grass still presents a special challenge best mastered by players who have a smooth, flowing style and attack with a steady momentum.
To lovers of grass courts, this natural progression of play one contestant taking the initiative and seeing the point through to its conclusion has always been the surface's most appealing effect. Points on slower surfaces often have the rambling structure of a poorly written novel; points on a grass court develop like a tightly drawn short story, tense and satisfying. On grass, where he's at his best, Federer seems to perform each point like a set piece, building a crescendo to success. The way a player moves on turf, American tennis pro Andy Roddick told TIME, "is almost like a rhythm thing."
So while its appeal hasn't changed, so much else about grass-court tennis has. By tradition, almost everything on Centre Court is painted green during Wimbledon including the grass, which groundsmen sprinkle with iron to enhance its look. The exceptions are the players' uniforms, which must be white. The scenery, which evokes pristine figures at play in a paradise, is misleading. For as the new type of grass shows, tennis players are more beholden to the earth than that timeless image suggests.