Back Into The Blue
There aren’t many odes written for the hard-court. Many lust over Wimbledon’s lush grass and others pine for the smooth brown clay that brings many a slide and tumble. The beauty in tennis, they say, belongs solely to those few months of the year that bring flashbacks of the past, Wimbledon whites, and that extinct species of player, the clay-court specialist. It’s as if the sun shining on Wimbledon’s groomed lawns or Paris’s meticulously prepared clay lights up an otherwise dreary calender.
Rafael Nadal certainly thinks so. It was at Queens this year Nadal once again denounced grass. Clay had brought him back to number one and Wimbledon was about to seal the deal. Nadal blasted hard-courts from the comfort of Queens, “For me, the worst surface is hard-court; not grass, not clay. Hard-court is very difficult, is very, very aggressive for the ankles, for the knees, for the back, for everything.” It sounded as if he detested hard-court tennis and the aggression it demands.
Roger Federer is not averse to hard-courts as Nadal is but he certainly treasures Wimbledon and relishes playing on it every year. Fans of both players seem to prefer the ‘natural’ surfaces, often claiming that they require more skill, more finesse, more talent. A stranger to the sport could be forgiven for thinking that this unnatural surface they call hard-court is the stuff of nightmares, a demon sent by those who wanted to save on cost and labour, that has in turn wrecked the sport of tennis. They might be lead to believe that the cold concrete has allowed the breed of mindless ball-basher to grow and triumph. That hard-courts have destroyed the volley, punished the knees, and eliminated tradition and skill. Come the mid-year comment and articles and it would appear that many think hard-courts have ruined tennis.
It takes a brave professional player to disagree. It takes courage to admit that not only to they find hard-courts all right, they actually prefer them over grass and clay. Andy Murray may be British but his dream is the US Open, not Wimbledon. It’s a dream ignored as often as the fact he was born in Scotland. Murray won’t play up to tradition and expensive strawberries, he is honest about his love for hard-courts. Juan Martin del Potro is another that isn’t afraid to admit he isn’t all that fond of the status quo. Argentina may be famous for its clay but del Potro has always prefered hard and showed it by winning the US Open. Ask him if he’d prefer a natural surface and you’re likely to receive a frown from the quiet Argentine. Like it or not, there are many top players that aren’t that found of the grass or clay.
Some fans prefer it too. I have always found hard-courts more inspiring than any other surface. Where some may see an eyesore I see an object of beauty. It’s the slick white lines, the smooth blue surface, the white skid marks from a player’s shoe that really stirs something inside. I don’t feel the same about the muddy grass or slippery clay. A hard-court stands the test of a Grand Slam: its lines never weaken, its baseline never obliterated. It comes out on top, no different than when it went it. It’s as tough as it require its opponents to be.
I’ve heard clay called the great equaliser and it is in that it largely removes a powerful serve and an effective volley. It neutralises the best shots of some players. Hard-court, however, equalises in the sense that everyone has a chance with their own game. Hard-court sets no rules and demands for a certain game plan; a big server can succeed as much as a defending baseliner. It’s those that can combine all of tennis’ skills that succeed the most. Hard-court is also as unpredictable as tennis can get. Scroll through the clay-court Masters champions and two names will appear: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Those names will appear again on a list of recent Roland Garros champions and again as Wimbledon champions. However, those names have company on a hard-court. Those Masters aren’t dominated by any one player; it is a chance for up and comers as well as dogged veterans to shine. Grand Slams may be harder for the fresh faces to win, but even they have shown more variety in the chest-pumps of 2008 champion Novak Djokovic and the delighted tears of Del Potro. For them hard-courts have brought the greatest moment in their careers.
As nice a change clay and grass bring it’s the hard-court season I look forward to most. It’s the one I miss even though it is the longest. It may be gruelling and there will be injuries, but it’s all worth it. Counter-punchers, aggressors, and the dying breed of the serve and volleyer can all find solace in those deep blue courts. As we prepare to go back into the blue fans can be assured there will be tears, triumph and unpredictability. All without a bad bounce in sight.