WIMBLEDON, England — After losing what proved to be her final Wimbledon championship in 1994, Martina Navratilova bent over and plucked a blade of grass from Centre Court as a bittersweet souvenir.
“I didn’t know what to do for my excitement and joy,” Djokovic said of his odd celebration.
Wimbledon champions have come and gone since the world’s oldest tennis tournament was first contested in 1877. But its biggest star, the one that endures, is its grass. The sport’s greatest players accord it hallowed status.
So have the dead, although the not-infrequent requests to scatter the ashes of departed loved ones on Centre Court are declined by the All England club, which hosts the grass-court classic.
No playing field imposes its personality on the competition quite like Wimbledon’s lawn.
While its characteristics have changed over the years, particularly since head groundskeeper Eddie Seaward switched to a blend of rye grass in 2001 that withstands traffic better and extends rallies, Wimbledon’s grass tends to reward power hitters and big servers.
But its irregular bounces can frustrate the inexperienced. American qualifier Brian Baker confessed as much after his storybook Wimbledon debut ended in a straight-set defeat in Tuesday’s fourth round.
“I felt like there were a few points where I was in position to do something, and the ball would literally just stop,” said Baker, 27. “But that’s grass-court tennis.”
Wimbledon’s grass is also demanding and costly to tend, as high maintenance as any locker-room diva.
Its irrigation system is fully computerized. But a lower tech solution — guard dogs that patrol by night — has been devised to deal with the threat posed by female foxes, whose urine is toxic to grass.
This summer, Centre Court’s lawn will be tended with the care of a British Royal’s first born, with the London Olympics tennis competition getting under way at the All England club just 20 days after Wimbledon’s men’s champion is crowned Sunday.
Seaward, the head groundskeeper since 1990, has been inundated with interview requests about how he’ll manage. Part of the solution involves planting pre-germinated seeds on the courts that suffer a beat-down during Wimbledon’s fortnight.
Grass courts are increasingly rare in tennis as tournaments abandon them for easier-to-maintain hard courts.
When John McEnroe competed in his first U.S. Open in 1977, three of the sport’s four Grand Slam events were contested on grass. That’s why he was taught to develop a big serve and crisp, aggressive volleys, weapons that worked well on the surface. Today, only Wimbledon remains.
The U.S. Open abandoned Forest Hills for a new hard-court complex, now known as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, in 1978. The Australian Open switched from grass to a hard-court carpet a decade later.
Wimbledon’s grass demands special expertise of players, according to Hall of Famer Chris Evert, who won three of her 18 majors at the All England club.
“For a baseliner like myself or Steffi [Graf] or Monica [Seles] or anybody, you have to adapt and you have to make adjustments in your game,” says Evert, who provides Grand Slam commentary for ESPN. “On no other surface do you have to except on grass. You have to shorten your swing. You have to bend your knees and get down lower for the ball. You have to make split-second adjustments, if that’s what it takes.
“Therefore, you don’t see a lot of baseliners winning Wimbledon, because a lot of them can’t make those adjustments.”
But grass has its rewards, too.
It’s far gentler on the body than hard courts, which is why Nadal, a two-time Wimbledon champion, would love to see more grass-court tournaments. So would American Andy Roddick, a three-time Wimbledon finalist.
Grass also provides a beautiful visual for broadcasters. Nowhere is it more evocative than at the All England club.
“It’s really Britain’s front lawn that is opened to the world,” says ESPN tennis producer Jamie Reynolds. That notion of an iconic front lawn has driven the network’s approach to covering Wimbledon, he adds. And the advent of high-definition technology only heightened the intensity of its emerald-green playing fields.
“It never looked better or brighter or bolder,” Reynolds said.
But even Wimbledon’s grass gives way under the punishment of so many matches. Courts that start the tournament a lush green turn patchy and sparse. By this weekend’s finals, the area around Centre Court’s baselines will be brown, more dirt than grass.
That’s part of Wimbledon’s narrative, too.
“Gradually it starts showing its bruises and bumps,” Reynolds says. “And that’s the story of the strategy and the style of play. You see divots from racket tosses. You see where the players have taken advantage of their strength along the baseline.”
But what of Wimbledon’s future? Could its lawns one day go the way of the wooden racket, living on as random blades of grass in past champions’ scrapbooks?
Seaward, who will retire in August, doesn’t see that happening.
“The [All England club] has always steadfastly maintained its commitment to the game’s original surface, and as groundsmen we have always been very fortunate in being given the tools and wherewithal to maintain the courts to the best of our ability,” Seaward said Tuesday. “They are very much at the heart of the club. And I can’t see that changing.”
Says Evert: “I hope it’s around forever, because Wimbledon is just the epitome of tennis.”