Debate over clay or hard-court misses the point: Why not add more grass to professional tennis?

24 Mar

Tennis star Rafael “Rafa” Nadal recently sparked a debate among followers of the sport by arguing that the ATP, men’s tennis’ pro circuit, should increase the number of tournaments held on clay. Currently, the ATP holds far more tournaments on hard-court than clay. The problem, in Rafa’s and others’ view, is that hard-courts are significantly more taxing on players’ bodies than clay courts, and that playing more tournaments on hard-court causes injuries and shortens professionals’ careers.

Rafa is the best clay court player in tennis history. He immediately acknowledged that it probably seemed disingenuous for him to argue for more tournaments to be played on a surface on which he has dominated the sport for nearly a decade. His claim was particularly intriguing, because, in many peoples’ view, if more tournaments were played on his preferred surface, Rafa would have a better claim on having had a better career than his arch rival, Roger Federer, who is widely considered tennis’ greatest player in history, but who has been trounced by Rafa on the dirt (read “clay”) and won the bulk of his championships at non-clay tournies.

To deflect criticism, Rafa pointed out that, beyond clay, he has also enjoyed tremendous, having won titles at the U.S. and Australian Opens, tennis’ two hard-court majors, and on grass – the Spaniard is a two-time Wimbledon champion. Rafa also said that any numerator-enhancing changes to the clay/hard-court tournament balance probably wouldn’t take effect in time to benefit himself – he’s nearing the final years of his career – but rather future generations of professional players, who would reap the gains of more physically forgiving tournament play. In sum, Rafa was arguing for more tournaments to be held on clay relative to hard-courts, but stressed that he wasn’t urging this to bolster his championship tally, but rather for the health of his professional counterparts.

That’s fine. I accept it. Rafa is a class act. He has, in fact, won, often and at the highest level, on every surface. And, I do think there’s merit to his argument that the ATP Tour schedule should be rejiggered in such a way that it reduces the share of tournaments played on hard courts, thereby lowering the physical wear and tear on players’ bodies.

But, is the necessary consequence of this that more tournaments should be played on clay court? Plainly, no. There exists a better solution, which would lead to a more even distribution of tournament surfaces and achieve the desired result of significantly reducing the toll on players’ bodies.

And, that is: hold more tournaments on grass!

Grass is arguably the most forgiving court on players’ bodies. The ground is soft. The points are short, because the ball skips across the surface faster, bounces lower, and ends points more quickly. Right now, there are a grand total of six ATP-level tournaments played on grass: Wimbledon (tennis’ most sacred and esteemed major championship); four Wimbledon tune-ups, over two weeks, in Great Britain, Germany, and The Netherlands; and a post-Wimbledon tournament at the ATP Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. This compares with nearly twenty ATP tournaments played on clay, and over thirty on hard-court.

To the extent that one can argue that the current ATP schedule favors hard-court-fancying players over clay court specialists, and to the extent that one can argue that this imbalance is bad for players’ long-term health because of the toll that hard-court play places on players’ bodies relative to clay-court play, there is a strong argument to be made that significantly boosting the number of grass court tournaments on the ATP schedule would be an appropriate move.

The implications of this argument are important. That is because Roger Federer’s best surface is, by a lot, grass. Let’s, for fun, imagine a world in which one-third of tournaments were played on hard-court, one-third were played on clay, and one-third on grass. I think most people would agree that this would have resulted in more titles for Fed, arguably the best grass court player in history. Rafa, as I’ve mentioned is no grass court slouch. But, again, I think most people would accept that, over the balance of their careers, Fed has proven a better grass-court player than Rafa.

I can hear the critics. One immediate counterargument I can imagine is, “There aren’t sufficient grass-court facilities around the world of quality sufficient to hold an ATP tournament.” That is false. One of the happy offshoots of the commonwealth is a wide distribution of grass tennis facilities. To name just a few, India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya and Nigeria house high-quality grass court facilities that could feasibly hold an event up to the highest standards of professional tennis. And, to those who would assert that these latter two countries could not draw in revenues sufficient to sponsor a pro event, I would say two things: a) that’s not true and b) why are you against playing top-level tennis in Africa?

The second critique that jumps to my mind is, well, you’re a Fed fan (I am. Full disclosure: Roger Federer is my favourite athlete in history). So, of course, you would advocate for more tournaments to be played on his preferred surface. The responses are so numerous that it proves difficult to know where to begin. Let us just say that, for starters, the argument that more tournaments should be played on clay is as, and perhaps more, favourable to Rafa than the argument that more tourneys should be played on grass is to Fed. So, cool it.

Secondly, again, the whole point of this debate is, says Rafa, to find ways to extend players’ careers by reducing court surface-induced punishment on their bodies, and grass is far less punishing than hard-court and, arguably, less punishing than clay. Moreover, grass is so under-represented right now that, irrespective of any other debate, it deserves higher prominence in the ATP Tour schedule. Facilities exist to make this happen. So, let’s do it.

Or, even if we don’t do it, let’s at least stop pretending that reducing the ratio of tournaments played on hard-court need necessarily result in an increase in the percentage of tournaments played on clay. It needn’t. For, grass is vastly underrepresented on the tour and quite relatively friendly on the knees.

Let’s surmount the vacuousness of the hard v. clay debate and go kick it in the grass.

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