Martina Navratilova, who knows a thing or two about fast courts, having only won 9 singles titles back when the Wimbledon grass was fast, and 4 US Opens, back when it was super fast, and a combined 16 doubles titles combined at the two, was asked earlier in the week if these courts in Melbourne were playing slowly.
“Super slow.” she said. “Very very slow.”
Asked how she knew, she said that she could tell from watching up close, but that also, she had just played in Melbourne Park a day or two before. She said the courts were nothing like the US Open, which were also slower than normal this year, that the balls they are using seem if not bigger then more inflated, more airy, and that only the very biggest of hitters will be able to get the ball through the court.
“I played on red clay last week” said Martina. “And it was faster.”
Australia. The slowest major? We’ve thought so since Tennis Australia sold out to Plexicushion 4 years ago, noticing a real uptick in speed at Roland Garros, shorter points there, bigger serves and more aces, whereas Melbourne Park has been widely criticized for misrepresenting their speed of court since going with the tacky blue foam. What a splendid ad campaign they had. The height of disinformation really. Trotting out old pros like Don Newcombe and Rod Laver who they gave free courts to, to endorse Plexicushion for reasons such as the rubber, spongy surface was easy on the knees. Sure. But they are senior citizens, not current players on the tour.
You heard much different talk from Lleyton Hewitt, who always has a current AO court zapped in at his home in Australia so that he may practice on the actual surface. Hewitt reached a final and four SFs on the former Rebound Ace surface. Not a huge guy, Hewitt likes the faster courts on which his balls move better through the court. He also likes a target, but since so many players feel like they are giving the opponent too much time on the pass on the slow Plexicushion, players are not venturing much to net. Recall that Hewitt was a major champion on both fast grass and fast hards, and a great player.
Hewitt ripped the new surface in the papers all over Australia, calling it very slow. Tennis Australia countered, saying Plexicushion is “medium fast”, virtually the same speed as Wimbledon, and a 38 out of 45 on the same court speed scale on which the US Open is a 40 and ultra fast Cincinnati is a 42 and the Paris Indoor is between 43 and 44.
Hewitt is right and Australia is lying. Hewitt is wondering aloud where the up and coming Aussies are as well. Please note that neither rising star Bernard Tomic who is actually German, nor Jelena Dokic and Jarmilla Gadjosova are technically from Australia.
Many believe the court speed is closer to 28 than 38, and that Tennis Australia, who stated that their goal was to create a court somewhere between the speed of Wimbledon and Roland Garros, had gotten it very wrong, noting 1st that Wimbledon is way slower than it’s ever been, and that the Plexicushion is more accurately nowhere near the speed at SW-19, and is in fact, slower than the RG of the last 3 years.
We don’t like slow courts at all because they do not promote the best tennis skills, and do not favor the best tennis players. And way worse, tennis players who grow up on slow courts exclusively, do not develop all around tennis games. Slow courts give players time to set up for two handed shots, when the artistry is clearly in the one handed shot, now a dinosaur. Slow courts require more power to hit through, hence all the 2-handers, and they give those 2-handers the time to get their second hand on the racquet. What does a 2-hander do when rushed? They slice the ball. A one handed shot. And where have all the volleyers gone? Well, they are with the one handers and the other dinosaurs.
These Plexicushion courts mock conditions at Wimbledon in only one notable way. A good slice stays low. Otherwise, we are watching the new clay court tennis, and pretty much, with as much sand mixed into the court. One of the things that determines the speed of a hardcourt, is how much sand is mixed in to the top layer. If you notice, when the spot shot challenges play in slow motion, you can see the top layer of the court in a closeup, and is visibly gritty and bumpy, providing more friction for the ball, which detracts from its speed.
The other primary determinant to court speed is surface make up. The US Open is an acrylic surface, truly a hard surface. The Australian Open is a synthetic surface. A simulation of a hard surface, essentially made of rubber. You ever wonder why the ball bounces so high in Melbourne? Extra inflated rubber ball on a rubber court. Bad for the sport. The would be winners of more talented players are played back by would be losers on better surfaces. Flat ball forehands that skid through a real hardcourt quickly, bounce up on a fake court like these an extra 1-2 feet. That gross topsin we see from these pushers also bounces up some additional feet, making it hard for aggressive, talented shot makers to do anything with the ball. That’s a shame.
Roger Federer, tennis’s king of talent and artistry, in his QF match, had an average ground stroke speed of 71 MPH. He is consistently in the 80’s at Flushing.
Bringing us to tonight’s showdown between Federer and Nadal. These courts are a beautiful fit for Nadal’s passive pusher hack butcher style. He is going to hit high looping Tracey Austin type garbage all night long, and the last time he did so to Roger on this court at Laver, he was crowned champ. The last time they faced off on a similar surface, in Miami last year on that horrid Defense Pro surface, Nadal absolutely dominated Roger as has no other ever on a ‘hard court.’
So if you are wondering what ever happened to the American game, think about how California has almost exclusively gone to Plexicushion (IW, LA, Stanford) and how Florida has gone with Rebound Pro, and think of where all our young players train.
And as for tonight, listen, we can always make a case for Federer. Apparently Vegas believes in that case–probably on name value–because the odds have been installed as follows:
Federer: – 150
Nadal: + 130
Federer has Paul Annacone putting together a masterful gameplan, no doubt, and Nadal didn’t play so well against Berdych, and he didn’t get done so early, giving Roger the more time to plan and prepare. Which he needs, because Nadal is just going to do what he always does, which means he can roll out the same playbook he’s been using on Roger since 2005. He is going to serve to Rogers’s backhand, he is going to loop topspin to his backhand within the point, and these embarrassingly bad for tennis courts will oblige him.
BTW Federer has lost his last 2 AO evening semis, and it isn’t too surprising, because the cooler it is, the slower these puffy balls even become. And outdoors, Federer has not beaten Nadal in 2 years and 8 months (Madrid 09). Also Federer has lost in straight sets to Djokovic twice in evening semis here at the AO, and lost in his only match here to Nadal, also at night. He has also lost the only other major semi-final he ever played Nadal in, the RG semi in 2005.
But we’ll go with our hearts. Roger may have some payback in mind for these rivals who have lately or routinely gotten the better of him, and Lord knows we are dying to see it. It would be life affirming to see Roger beat the people he’s not supposed to beat and win when he’s not supposed to win, on the court built to spec for the other guys. For once. Even though he is “favored.”
It would also be better for tennis.