TENNIS: The Grass Isn't Too High, but the Stakes Are
New York Times
June 21, 1992
WIMBLEDON, June 20— Wimbledon, the big green one, the only Grand Slam played on a living surface that inspires and respires and sometimes expires along with the players who dare to tread on it, is just two days away, and an anxious Martina Navratilova is testing the lawn.
She's squinting like a jeweler searching for that perfect emerald, a golfer casing out the intangible undulations of the perfect putt. Navratilova is no gardener, but she knows magic-carpet quality grass when she sees it. This year marks the 20th anniversary of a Wimbledon career that has brought her a record nine titles on the elusive surface that's all the more prestigious for being almost obsolete. The current crop, barely 10 months old, irrigated by Friday's deluge and pristine for the moment, makes her smile.
Navratilova got hoodwinked on this same species of flora only last week at Eastbourne, bounced in the second round from an event she'd won 10 times, but she preferred to blame that loss on the capricious British wind, not the capricious British grass. Wimbledon, which begins on Monday, has already seduced her again. 'Where Tennis Players Want to Be'
"It's all special because it's Wimbledon: this is where the tennis players want to be," she said, "and the better athlete you are, the better you'll be on grass. If you have quick hands, the grass rewards you more than others . . . and if there's bad grass, well, that can be a great equalizer. You have to allow for its imperfections, and yours."
She sticks a few blades in her back pocket for luck, then tries to preserve a memory of the pretty way Wimbledon's grass looks today. Verdant, consistent, accommodating to the touch, it has nothing in common with the treacherous, threadbare crazy quilt of mud, desert and solitary green hillocks that every Wimbledon champion has to conspire with and ultimately outwit like an added opponent in order to earn the most coveted title in tennis.
"You have to struggle with yourself on grass," she said, "and if you pull back, you're sunk."
No wonder nearly every player in the draw, No. 1 or not, seems to harbor equal parts fear and fascination for what lies in store underfoot.
Pam Shriver, a three-time semifinalist who shares five Wimbledon doubles titles with Navratilova, said: "At the start of the week you've got a pool-table surface that's fairly slick but not absurd, with a terrific true bounce, and then, as the tournament progresses, the court deteriorates, and so does the play of those who rely on the nice bounce.
"A good grass-court player doesn't deteriorate: you have to be extra resilient in your head about the bad bounces, figure them out and apply a solution, which usually means coming to net more. The champions all have the temperament to make it work."
And some of the purest serve-and-volley artists have not.
"The only thing I dislike about Wimbledon is not having done well here the last two years," said fifth-seeded Pete Sampras. "It's such a mental grind with me on grass. It's kind of potluck out there, it's an unfair surface." Sampras said he has honed his return of serve and abbreviated his "gangly" backswing to help him cope.
No. 1-ranked Jim Courier believes he can treat the surface the same way he treats his opponent, like a faceless entity. But his counterpart, Monica Seles, who has defied accusations that she skipped Wimbledon last year in part to preserve her top ranking, admits that the grass scares her and the notion of rushing the net positively paralyzes her.
"This is a tournament that I haven't won yet, and I'd love to win it," said Seles, whose stentorian grunt has helped propel her to titles in her last five Slams but who seems almost tongue-tied on the subject of winning here. "I can't go to net, I freeze, I just get scared from it, but coming here, if I don't change my philosophy of how to play on grass, I think I'll have a tougher time."
In the opposite corner, Courier, top-seeded here despite his quarterfinal finish last year, claims to be immune to grass.
"The court is still the same dimensions; I don't think it requires a different psychology from me," said Courier, who nonetheless compared his grass court prowess to that of Ivan Lendl, the former No. 1 ranked player, who took allergy shots so that he actually could become immune to grass.
"I look at myself as a Lendl on grass," said Courier, "not a comfortable player on the grass, but one who can play well on it at times."
According to Shriver, both Courier and Seles have a better chance of claiming their first Wimbledon titles than their baseline-oriented styles might suggest.
"When you look at them, their games really are adaptable to the grass" said Shriver. "Courier has a good serve, he returns serve well, and he's got that little backswing; Seles returns great, too, and she relies more on that quick hip rotation than a big swing to get her shots off."
Courier is, like Seles, halfway to a 1992 Grand Slam. Rod Laver is the last man to win the Slam, and when he gained the honor in 1969, grass was far from a foreign surface.
At that time, three of the four Grand Slams -- the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open -- were played on grass; the French remains on clay. Back then, grass-court tournaments were a fixture on the tour, with Australian, English and American grass-court seasons.
But nowadays, players are almost told to keep off the grass: Wimbledon, plus a handful of warmup tournaments before it and an epilogue at Newport, R.I., after it, are the only grass-court events.
Courier, who hasn't played a grass event since last year's Wimbledon, is a banger and grinder not overly fond of the intangibles of this ever-changing surface. But he has made tangible improvements to his game that can't help but help him on grass. Courier has come up with a firmer volley and has finally gotten the proper grasp on the brand of backhand slice that will make him far less reluctant to gravitate netward.
"I like my chances against anybody on any surface in the world; it's as simple as that," Courier said after successfully defending his French Open title earlier this month. "Certainly Boris and Stefan and Stich and Sampras are more suited to grass, but I feel very good about the way I played last year. I certainly feel I'm a better volleyer; I move better up at the net this year than last year, but who's to say someone's not going to knock me off first round?"
That sort of dethroning has happened here even to the grass-court titans. It happened to Stefan Edberg, a two-time champion, in nightmarish fashion last year when, despite never losing his serve, he was ousted in the semifinals by Michael Stich.
"I love playing on grass," said Edberg, whose stylistic serve-and-volley game has again made him a favorite among his peers to prevail here, "but it can be frustrating." Edberg said he didn't expect Courier to win this year: "Obviously it's not impossible, and he's not truly a baseliner, but I think he'll find it hard."
According to Stich, there is probably no such phenomenon as a player who learns to like grass by remodeling his or her game to suit the low bounce and fast points it delivers.
"If you go on the court and love it, you'll play well," said Stich, the defending champion, "but if you're not that comfortable, you'll never get that feel for it. You need to have the right game for grass, but Andre Agassi showed last year that you don't have to serve and volley: if a guy returns as well as Agassi, he could win it, but he's probably got to be even mentally tougher than the serve-and-volleyers. But Bjorn Borg showed in the past that it can be done." The baseline-bound Swede captured five consecutive Wimbledon titles from 1976-1980.
Both Courier and Seles have exhibited Borg-like tendencies, according to Dr. James Loehr, a sports psychologist who worked with them in their early teens: "Courier and Seles always seemed to have that vision, the will to win and the dedication to do whatever that takes. Courier gives the feeling that he's almost machine-like, like the other player can't get to him, and that reminds me of the way Borg used to transcend all the limiting factors of his game."
Even an unsympathetic lawn.
"The trick is not to try and fight it," said Shriver, "because you'll lose."