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Wimbledon 2023: Step on the grass

The slick grass, especially early on, is known to trip up even the most experienced of players. That's the catch. Most of the younger players don't have enough mileage on the lawns

Cori 'Coco' Gauff at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London in 2019.
Cori 'Coco' Gauff at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London in 2019. (AP)

The first strokes of Novak Djokovic’s tennis dream were painted green, Wimbledon green. Growing up a world away, in war-torn Serbia, he first glimpsed the sport’s big league through television. 1993. Pete Sampras vs Jim Courier.

“My parents ran a pizzeria,” Djokovic told the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera during the Italian Open earlier this year. “Just opposite they built the tennis courts. I was six. There was no place for me on the courts, and from behind the fence, I watched the other children play. Then I turned on the TV looking for a tennis match, and there was the Wimbledon final: Sampras beat Courier. The next morning Jelena (Genčić) came up and asked me: ‘Good morning little boy, do you know what tennis is?’ I replied: ‘Yes, yesterday I watched the Wimbledon final!’ And she said: ‘Do you want to try it?’”

With the majesty of Sampras still fresh in his mind, Djokovic picked up the racket. “Pistol Pete” became his first hero; Wimbledon, his ultimate prize. His first coach, Genčić, had engineered a career as successful as Monica Seles’ before that. But little did she know that she had set in motion one of the greatest success stories in tennis.

Thirty years later, Djokovic stands on the cusp of becoming the most decorated Grand Slammer and the most successful man at Wimbledon. The Serb, who will have the honour of opening the Centre Court for Wimbledon 2023 on 3 July, currently has 23 Grand Slam titles in singles—level with the retired Serena Williams for an Open Era (post-1968) record and just one short of Margaret Court for the all-time record. If he wins, Djokovic will have eight Wimbledon titles—one more than Sampras, as many as Roger Federer. The Serb, who is on a 28-match unbeaten streak at the major currently, can also join the elite club of Federer and Björn Borg as the only male players to win five successive Wimbledon titles in the Open Era.

That’s a lot of history to be rewritten at this oldest, and grandest, of Grand Slams.

Also read: Why clay courts remain the final frontier for the world's top tennis players

“Wimbledon is a whole different mountain to climb,” Djokovic told the Tennis Channel after winning the French Open last month. “The fact that I won the last four Wimbledons gives me a lot of confidence. That’s the dream tournament, always has been for me.”

And yet, Djokovic has never quite fit into Wimbledon’s fabric as seamlessly as Federer or Sampras. They floated like a butterfly; he stings like a bee. Federer’s quiet craft and Sampras’ temperament were meant for polite applause. Djokovic craves attention, is known to spew expletives in his native language, directed mainly at his player box and occasionally at the crowd. Wimbledon is neat, pristine and has an air of privilege. Djokovic is defined by earthy grit.

Yet, even though it seemed unimaginable a few years ago, it seems almost inevitable that the Serb will usurp another valuable chunk of Federer-land. The gap between Djokovic and the rest of the field is wider than ever before. Especially now that he has won the first two majors of the year. Especially at Wimbledon, where his rivals are too green. The Serb has won 86 matches at the Championships, the rest of the ATP top-20 have a combined 85 match wins.

Carlos Alcaraz, who is currently ranked No.1 in the world, has played a sum total of three grass court tournaments before this year’s Wimbledon. His record at the major is 4-2. The swashbuckling Spaniard has the versatility and bravado to do well on the surface but he’s still finding his feet. “The most difficult part is to move well on grass,” Alcaraz, 20, said ahead of the Cinch Championships (Queen’s), a tune-up event in London. “You need to be more careful than other surfaces. I have to be focused on every movement and shot.”

Though Alcaraz went on to win the Cinch Championships, he insisted in the post-match press conference that Djokovic is the one to beat at Wimbledon.

The slick grass, especially early on in the tournament, is known to trip up even the most experienced of players. That’s the catch. Most of the younger players don’t have enough mileage on the lawns.

One of the reasons the transitions from clay to grass is considered the most difficult challenge in the sport is because it is much too different, much too soon. After more than two months of exhausting tennis on the clay courts, where the ball travels slower and bounces higher, players have to move to grass, where the ball zips through and stays low, within three weeks. The grass season, including Wimbledon, lasts about six weeks. Of the nine Masters 1000 (Tour-level events that are just a rung below the Grand Slams) events in the calendar, none are played on grass. From the preferred choice of courts about 40 years ago, grass, the only living surface, has become endangered.

“If you go back in time and look at the number of tournaments that were on grass, I think now there are probably 10% of that,” says Vijay Amritraj, who reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals exactly 50 years ago, in 1973.

“In our day, there was grass, there was clay, there was red clay, there was green clay, there were hard courts, there were indoor courts, there were indoor matted courts, and there were grass courts in Australia, there were grass courts in the UK and the US. So, there were five or six different kinds of surfaces that you had to play on to be world No.1. Today, it is a lot more even from a surface perspective.”

The grass courts that Djokovic would have seen in the 1993 final between Sampras and Courier were lightning fast. A year later, the final between Sampras and Goran Ivanišević in 1994—which had a total of 42 aces, with the longest rally comprising six shots—precipitated matters. The big servers dominated the tournament, so much so that tired of quick points, Wimbledon slowed the grass down six years later to encourage longer rallies and make the sport more television-friendly. 2001 champion Ivanišević, Djokovic’s current coach, was the last true serve-and-volley specialist to win the men’s singles title.

That is why European baseliners bred on clay, like Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray, have dominated the major. Djokovic has turned the return, rather than the serve, into a potent weapon. He tamed four of the biggest servers in the game—Kevin Anderson in 2018, Federer in 2019, Matteo Berrettini in 2021 and Nick Kyrgios in 2022—in the final to clinch the title.

Though Wimbledon’s decision of laying down lawns of 100% ryegrass, which are more durable than the previous composition of 70% ryegrass and 30% creeping red fescue, in 2001 has slowed the courts, there are still some technical adjustments to be made. Due to the low and sometimes irregular bounce, players have to lower the centre of gravity, shorten the backswing, move quicker between shots to get back into position. Djokovic is one of the few players who has mastered the art of sliding on grass and stretches like a rubber band to all corners of the court. But the stop-start movement on grass—a result of pimple-soled shoes meant to grip the surface—takes some practice.

Over the years, players have creatively dismissed the surface. Spaniard Manolo Santana, who played in the 1960s, said “grass is for cows”, a sentiment that was echoed down generations. Last year, clay-specialist Casper Ruud stated his version—grass is for golfers. This year, Daniil Medvedev termed players proficient on grass “aliens”.

His experience and tactical genius give the 36-year-old Djokovic the clear edge. Now, let’s look at the competition. Kyrgios, the surprise finalist last year, is nowhere as sharp and hungry as he was 12 months ago. He pulled out of the ATP event in Halle, Germany, last week due to a knee injury, and has declared nobody can stop Djokovic at Wimbledon. “If it’s not me, no one,” said the Australian, famous for his indiscipline.

Novak Djokovic after winning the men's singles final in 2022.
Novak Djokovic after winning the men's singles final in 2022. (Reuters)

French Open finalist Ruud is preparing for Wimbledon on hard-courts back home in Norway. Holger Rune, ranked No.6 in the world, registered his first win on grass at the Cinch Championships last week. Medvedev, who denied Djokovic a calendar Grand Slam in 2021 by beating him in the US Open final, is a hard-core hard-courter. In the five Wimbledons he has played, Stefanos Tsitsipas has never gone beyond the round of 16 and has lost in the first round thrice. Jannik Sinner proved last year that he can take on the best when he won the first two sets against the Serb in the Wimbledon quarter-final but the Italian has become tennis’ new nearly man. Also, he had to withdraw from the Halle event due to an adductor muscle injury and may not enter Wimbledon in the best shape.

Prakash Amritraj, a former India Davis Cupper, believes Frances Tiafoe could be the jack-in-the-box. Tiafoe won his first grass court event in Stuttgart, Germany, two weeks ago to enter the ATP top 10 for the very first time.

“He’s maybe the best player at having that intangible improv skill set which is so needed on grass,” Amritraj said on the Tennis Channel. “He stays low to the court, he doesn’t mind having that continental grip on the forehand side where you are just able to feel balls this side, maybe come up with a chip there. So many balls come up on grass that you can’t practise for. You just have to be ready. He shovels that backhand well, uses the pace well.”

Since bringing in former player Wayne Ferreira as his coach, Tiafoe has become a lot more disciplined on and off the court. He made his first major statement by knocking off Nadal at the US Open last year. But taking on Djokovic in a best-of-five match at the Serb’s favourite tournament is a different challenge altogether. With Federer retired, Nadal forced out owing to injury, and metal-hipped (has undergone hip resurfacing surgery that involved reshaping of the bone with two new metal implants) Murray still to find his Grand Slam mojo, it could well be Djokovic versus a first-time finalist on the final Sunday once again.

In the women’s field, however, each of the 128 singles players who make up the Wimbledon draw may believe they have a chance, however faint. The last five Championships have thrown up five different winners and Serena Williams, who won in 2015 and 2016, is the last player to defend the women’s title.

World No.1 Iga Świątek is a superwoman on clay; grass has been her kryptonite so far. The talented and confident Pole, whose powerful groundstrokes have seen her dominate women’s tennis for the past 15 months or so, seems to lose faith on the green stuff. She doesn’t have enough time to load those forehands and backhands.

“Grass court season is something I haven’t figured out yet,” Świątek said, ahead of the grass court event in Bad Homburg, Germany. “I still have to learn a lot but I just feel like you are going to go on court and not play the way you should or the way you could; so this thing is adding more pressure.”

In 2022, Świątek’s 37-match winning streak—best of this century—which she had built over four months on hard and clay courts came to an end with a third-round loss at Wimbledon. With Świątek still a vulnerable starter, all eyes will be on last year’s finalists—champion Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur.

Though the soft-spoken Kazakh has struggled for consistency, she proved that the Wimbledon triumph wasn’t a flash in the pan by reaching the Australian Open final earlier this year. Rybakina’s powerful but uncomplicated game had helped her burst through the crafty web Jabeur had attempted to weave. While the Tunisian was guilty of trying a trick too many, Rybakina stormed to a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 finish. Rybakina’s power and Jabeur’s touch may once again take them far.

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Also looking to make a mark will be Aryna Sabalenka, who couldn’t compete last year due to Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players after the invasion of Ukraine. Sabalenka has grown in stature in the last few months and delivered on her Grand Slam potential by winning the Australian Open.

While Coco Gauff will be one of the biggest contenders from the younger lot, the Wimbledon crowd will also root for former champions Petra Kvitová, who won the Grasscourt Championship Berlin 2023, and Venus Williams. Five-time champion Williams resurfaced from a five-month hiatus during the grass swing.

At the Birmingham Classic, Venus Williams defied the odds and injury scare as she battled to a 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (6) win over Camila Girogi—her first in two years. “I hit some 120 mph serves and I haven’t done that in a couple of years—I was like, I have missed you!” said Williams, who played with a heavily strapped right knee. Forty-three years old and ranked 697 in the world, she will enter the Championships as a wild card. “Queen Vee” isn’t a major threat but her presence is welcome reminder of the grandeur of champions past.

Wimbledon stands at the crossroads of the modern and the traditional. New game played on the old lawns. It is where the all-white dress code is adhered to, AI (Artificial Intelligence) commentary on highlight reel is tested. It’s a place that sends these new-age gladiators out to the words of Victorian poets. If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same (If by Rudyard Kipling). Since its inaugural edition in 1877, Wimbledon has transformed from an amateur pursuit to a multimillion-dollar business venture. But, in spirit, it remains the ultimate prize. The stuff dreams are made of.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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