The soggy, muddy, grass-stained first week of Wimbledon produced a familiar hue and cry from an unsentimental segment of the tennis population: the antiturf lobby. Abolish the grass courts, its members say. Give us clay, or cement. Or something synthetic; take the lawn out of the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
These weed-brains deserve to have their mouths washed out with Turf Builder.
You expect such heretical nonsense from clay-court road runners who can't play worth fertilizer on any other surface.
For years undistinguished continental players have whined that grass is good only for cows and should be put out to pasture. They come to Wimbledon with flowing top spin ground strokes and big backswings, and the ball--skidding fast and low off the grass--is by them before they are ready to hit it. They look as out of place as lawn mowers in the Mojave Desert.
The best Europeans have adjusted and have come to respect, if not relish, grass. The French Musketeers, Jean Borotra and Rene Lacoste and Henri Cochet, won Wimbledon in the '20s. Spaniard Manuel Santana won in 1966. Czech Jan Kodes won in 1973 and planted a grass court at his house in Prague. Bjorn Borg, whom knowledgeable people said would never master grass, won the title five years running, 1976-80.
This year Ivan Lendl, who has won more matches and money than anybody else the past nine months, decided to skip Wimbledon because he dislikes grass. He has hay fever. But he may be more allergic to experiences like last year, when he lost in the first round to somebody named Charlie Fancutt.
Lendl has hurt only himself by bypassing Wimbledon. As defending champion John McEnroe has noted, "He's never going to learn how to play on this stuff by avoiding it, and if you want to be the No. 1 player in the world, you have to win the major titles."
It is disturbing that some people who whould know better have joined the antigrass lobby. Buster Mottram, the only British player to make it as far as the fourth round in singles play, said on Saturday that the sacred sod would be gone by the turn of the century. If he had his druthers, it would have been uprooted in the last century.
"It's ludicrous to continue grass courts. In terms of utilization, grass has handicapped many clubs that cannot afford the maintenance but they feel they have to follow in Wimbledon's footsteps," he said. "Although the courts have improved this year tremendously, it would be in Wimbledon's interest if they were replaced with something else that could be used throughout the year."
Understand this about Mottram. Just because he is the No. 1 British player doesn't mean that he is a national treasure like Virginia Wade. There was no groundswell among Britons to name the royal baby prince Buster.
Mottram is running for Parliament, but Winston Churchill he ain't. His politics are somewhat to the right of Conan the Barbarian. And what few votes he might have garnered probably were scared off by his advocacy of this wildly radical notion for an Englishman: dig up the grass.
Paul McNamee was informed of Mottram's blasphemous remarks. "I never shared many of Buster's opinions, like most people, which I don't think augurs well for him in politics," he said. "I don't think Wimbledon will ever change from grass, nor should they."
McNamee is a rarity, an Australian tennis player who did not grow up with green blades between his toes, but he shares the prevailing Australian view that Wimbledon is fine the way it is.
"The grass-court standard has dropped, and there are many fewer grass-court specialists, but I don't think that detracts from the stature of the tournament in any way whatsoever," he said. "It's still by far the best event. I think it's very disappointing that some players don't support it, because the criticisms are unfair."
Many modern players never see a grass court, let alone play on one, until they get to England. It takes some acclimation.
The ball comes through much quicker and lower than on clay or hard surfaces, and at an uneven tempo. Players need to adjust their whole game to the unfamiliar bounce, making subtle changes in grip, strokes and footwork. "You must arrive at the ball quickly, so you can't be back on your heels," says three-time champion John Newcombe.
There is no time to take a big backswing, so strokes must be shortened, especially on return of serve. Underspin is more effective than top spin, because it makes the ball stay low instead of sit up. Dinks and drop shots are useful because they die in the soft grass, and spins that make the ball skid provide the most effective serves.
Because grass is so fast and unpredictable, there is a tactical premium on following the serve to net. The rule of thumb for grass-court play is this: if you have a choice, don't let the ball hit the ground, because it might not bounce the way you expect.
Grass-court play is a staccato game of big serve and knock off the first volley. This handicaps players with "European serves" who hit the ball while leaning back instead of forward, and therefore have trouble getting to the net quickly.
"I think that's Lendl's problem," says McEnroe. "He's retreating from the net when he serves, so it's hard to serve-volley. But he could learn if he wanted to."
The argument in vogue with the antigrass lobby is that since grass-court tennis is a dying art, it should not decide the world's premier title.
Even tradition-minded Stan Smith, Wimbledon champion of 1972, advanced this argument. "To me," he said, "it's like having Grand Prix racers all of a sudden run in a stock car race to decide their championship."
There is even some merit, although I hate to admit it, in Mottram's premise that grass is impractical, depleting club treasuries, because skilled groundsmen are almost as rare these days as skilled grass-court players.
But grass is worth the bother. It is the all-natural surface, an aesthetic delight. It is also the original surface. Wimbledon, the oldest of tournaments, is the most traditional, and grass is part of the heritage, of what British writer Rex Bellamy calls "an old glory that hangs like a sunlit mist over those green lawns in the land where tennis was born."
Great players win on all surfaces, and grass is a test of skill and will, technical and tactical flexibility and the mental strength to deal with capricious bounces. "I think it takes a better athlete to win on grass because you always have to adjust more quickly, in the middle of a stroke," says Billie Jean King, winner of a record 20 Wimbledon titles. "It's not the best test of tennis, but it's the toughest."
Finally, there is indisputable heavenly evidence that Wimbledon is supposed to be played on grass: the rain. If the Lord had intended lawn tennis in England to be played on anything except lawns, He wouldn't have put such an active sprinkler system in the sky.