Laying out the green carpet for world’s best

Roy Charman
Roy Charman

The first week of June always marks a severe shift in the approach of the world’s leading tennis exponents.

After months of living in sublime surroundings amongst majestic Mediterranean sunshine, the professional tennis tour moves north to much cooler climes and reunites with the surface that first spawned the biggest racket sport on the planet.

But it is not just the weather that these athletes must acclimatise to. Having grown to enjoy the mammoth rallies and baseline gun-slinging that typifies the ebb-and-flow of the action on clay, the players must now make an adjustment to incorporate the unique subtleties and finesse that grass-court tennis undoubtedly brings.

The changes are needed in every aspect of a player’s game. Even the most instinctive, sub-conscious actions will need to be fine-tuned, re-programmed and re-taught if the game’s great and good are to taste grass-court glory.

Moving around the court, for instance, is to the uneducated observer surely the same premise regardless of the surface beneath the foot.

Yet at the elite level, the switch from clay to grass requires alteration. Gone are the last-ditch lunges favoured by clay-court maestros, with nimble footwork and agility the attributes needed to dominate proceedings on the lush greens of British tennis.

It rewards court-craft and artistry more than any other surface, where the smaller, graceful players can stand toe to toe with the brutish baseline sluggers and prevail through quick wit and ingenuity.

The lost art of slice can be deployed to devastating effect, safe in the knowledge the bounce will not be so catastrophically high as to allow your opponent to blast a forehand past you with little thought of mercy.

Then of course there is the glory of serve-and-volley, a traditional stalwart of tennis that has been slowly squeezed out of the game as the world’s hard courts have made it a suicidal technique to practise.

But it lives on, albeit fleetingly, on the grass. Tim Henman was the last pure serve-and-volleyer, charging to the net at every opportunity and goading his opponent into beating him with a precisely-placed groundstroke.

It is a thrilling, swashbuckling style that intensifies tennis into a two-shot duel. It is all-or-nothing for the player who rushes to the net in the hope of intimidating the player on the other side of the court, forcing their hand into playing either a point-winning or losing shot.

For the opponent, it is a question of holding their nerve, calculating the geometry of the court and delivering a shot that humiliates the on-rushing aggressor as it breezes past their outstretched racket.

The players and the spectators are united in their appreciation of the exquisite sound of ball on racket, which grass reveals in its entirety more than any other surface.

Nowhere does the sound of bounce and vibration on a racket head convey the action on the ball more eloquently.

Indeed, the caress of a heavily sliced backhand can make no sound at all. Even the noise of sprinting feet is absorbed and hushed by the turf.

Grass court tennis is traditionally unique. A throwback to the days of players with wooden rackets and baggy trousers, it is an arena where the likes of Federer, Williams and Nadal can discover the heritage and history of the sport they now dominate and execute a brand of tennis that is more graceful and sublime than any of its contemporaries.

It is unique challenge, and one that Eastbourne’s residents will be able to see unfurl for years to come.