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Wimbledon rallies with revolution of grass courts
June 16 2003
By Staff Writer
The Guardian

Wimbledon hopes to revive the appeal of grass-court tennis by exporting the idea of other countries using the surface. The All England Club wants to use its controversial new rye grass in an attempt to help save the form of the game that gave lawn tennis its name.

Wimbledon's new surface has been blamed for a decline in lawn tennis's most characteristic style of play, serve and volley, but in fact it may revive the popularity of what in many parts of the world is regarded as an anachronism.

Grass is disliked by many professionals, though they often think it wiser not to express that view, because its bounce can be low and uncertain, its season too short and its tactical requirements too different.

But rye grass, which has replaced the old hallowed grass because it is harder wearing and also creates a higher bounce, could change all this. "There have been great technological changes in the past few years," says Wimbledon's head groundsman Eddie Seaward. "Grass can remain popular here and make a comeback elsewhere."

Seaward is referring to the fact that in the 70s the French Open was the only one of the four grand slam events not played on grass. "We need to get all the players enjoying it and help them get over the mind barrier about it," he says.

"One hopes we can encourage most of the clay-court players to play here. One hopes this will help change how they feel about grass and also how they feel about it in their countries."

So far about 150 types of rye grass have evolved and the one that Wimbledon completed installing in 2001 allows air to get between the blades better. It is maintained by a hydro-jet which aerates the soil through water. If May is warm, the turf bakes more easily, creating the higher bounce which allows players a split second longer in which to receive serve.

It is encouraging news for Juan Carlos Ferrero and his base-lining Spanish compatriots but it has annoyed Tim Henman, who likes to approach the net frequently but last year could not because of the changed surface.

But the All England Club knows that Wimbledon cannot stand still. Grass-court tennis must move forward or risk losing further ground.

"All sorts of things have become possible through changes in maintenance and types of courts and we are undergoing a series of trials of new grass," Seaward revealed. "That's not because we are unhappy with the grass we have but because we want to see if we can improve further.

"It is now possible to breed grass all over the world with better wear qualities and one of the seeds which they are trying to develop is a rye grass which is good in a hot climate. Currently there is no such thing. But, if they had a hot- climate grass in Florida, they could use something like this in summer and winter.

"They are looking at grass which can survive in any climate and also at what's going on with the environment and global warming. There will be a market if we get warmer and warmer summers, as we are told we will."

So it could develop more of a market for grass abroad. The All England club knows that by performing a PR role for the surface with officials and players around the world it could hasten the day when the grass-court season is expanded. This is crucial to its survival.

There has been talk among the grand slam committee of separating Wimbledon and the French Open by one week, instead of a fortnight, by 2007.

If that happens, it could trigger many other scheduling changes. The grass tournament at Newport, Rhode Island, could move to before Wimbledon and separate weeks might be found for Queen's and Halle, the pioneering grass event in Germany with a centre-court roof and the only covered grass practice courts in the world.

Queen's or Halle might then acquire Masters status - the highest apart from grand slam - enabling an expanded five- or six-week grass season and with it greater significance and a greater commitment from more players. Wimbledon, Queen's and Nottingham are liaising to create a similarity of grass for their events.

"The All England Club is very progressive. It wrongly gets accused of being conservative," Seaward claimed. "Look at the research and development it does in grass to see how progressive it really is."

He has been spending time at the Turf Research Institute at Bingley, Yorkshire, which is trying to develop new strains with even better wear qualities, and where the optimum height of cut can be lower. This might quicken the speed of the ball again, if desired.

Conclusions will take three years but the wait could be worth it. New technology was said to have ensured the demise of grass-court tennis. But now it could prove its saviour.
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