By Danny Richardson
It’s called Lawn Tennis for a reason.
Well, not really. The manicured croquet lawns where our sport originated have long disappeared from the name. The Lawn Tennis Association may disagree, but their name is probably less a statement and more a typically British desire to avoid change if it involves a bit of work. Still, nomenclature aside, grass is the original surface of tennis, perhaps the most famous, and in the eyes of many, the best.
Although some philistines may want to finally end the grass court, its presence as the surface of the most famous grand slam tournament kept it alive, even as the artificial menace took over the rest of the world. Indeed, such is the status of Wimbledon and their pride in the lawns, if the Chairman of the All England Club were to ever suggest paving over the courts – or heaven forbid replacing them with that most European surface of all, clay – one suspects they would be thrown out of the club faster than a player showing coloured underwear.
In recent years grass has undergone a minor revival. Reduced by 2014 to a two week stretch pre-Wimbledon, and for the men the Hall of Fame Open stubbornly clinging on at the original home of the U.S. Open the week after, in 2015 we finally gained an extra week. Even better, the prestigious Queen’s Club and Halle championships were upgraded from the rather sad status of 250s to 500s (the more enlightened WTA had always kept Eastbourne at their intermediate Premier level).
Now, ATP chair Andrea Gaudenzi has revealed there may be a new masters event on grass. The WTA must surely follow, particularly when the loss of China means they have two 1000 tournaments to replace.
You’d think then that grass court tennis is healthier than ever right? Well, not exactly.
The trouble lies in the lower leagues of tennis. While this year’s ATP Tour features eight grass tournaments, on the challengers there are only three out of 123 scheduled events. For the lowest ranks, the ITF circuit has another three post Wimbledon. The women have it even worse. The WTA Tour has seven grass tournaments, but there is only one solitary event on the WTA 125 series, and out of over 500 ITF women’s tournaments, a grand total of two W100s are held on grass.
(Interestingly, bar the WTA 125 at “Gaibledon”, Italy, all these lower level events are held in the United Kingdom, a fact that cannot have escaped the minds of the governing bodies as they pondered their response to the LTA’s ban of Russian and Belarusian players.)
Is this just a result of a calendar truncated by the still ongoing Covid pandemic? Partially. The ITF schedules pre-2020 had grass court events in countries like Australia, Japan and India. While hopefully they can return next year, a “full” calendar still usually had only a single-figure amount of grass events.
These limited opportunities create a huge barrier. Unless you’re British, meaning you have a better chance of receiving wild cards into those few grass events, your ranking determines your entry like everywhere else. But the main draw cutoff at a W100 event is often in the 100s; for Wimbledon ladies’ qualifying this year it was #290. With hundreds of players ranked lower than that, how do they gain experience on grass?
The answer is that they don’t really. Beatriz Haddad Maia, the surprise winner of the midlands double of Nottingham and Birmingham, admitted in a post-match interview that her form was a surprise even to her, as she has no access to grass courts in Brazil. Only after grinding her ranking up to 166 in 2015, five years after her senior debut, would Haddad Maia play on grass, winning only two matches in four tournaments. She didn’t play on grass again until 2017, and an unfortunate injury in the summer of 2018 meant another year without playing on grass. This isn’t atypical. Pick a player at random, and odds are their CV will show a sparse grass history in their early years. Junior tennis may give a limited opportunity (Haddad Maia played junior Wimbledon three times), but with all the costs and no monetary reward, not every player commits to the full junior circuit.
Prize money at the bottom is sparse. A first round loser at a W15 receives $147, which might cover a pair of shoes. Is it any wonder that faced with little possibility of making the draw, and scant reward if they do, some players simply decide to grind away on clay and hard, avoiding grass altogether?
You don’t see this with other surfaces. British players have little access to red clay growing up, yet they all play multiple clay tournaments every year. (Emma Raducanu, who won the U.S. Open before playing a single clay match, remains a wonderful unicorn.) The difference? The hundreds of clay events held yearly. Without the pressure from hundreds of players trying to fit into a handful of 32 player draws, even an unranked player can easily find a tournament.
For grass tennis to really thrive, it needs to be accessible to more than just the elite. How do we fix it? If the tennis governing bodies are asking, I have a wonderfully obvious idea: put on more events.
How do we do that, when a tournament is expensive to host and even a 250 level event can lose money? Well, that’s a little trickier, but tennis is privileged to be a wealthy sport.
It is common in sport for the top of the pyramid to support the bottom. For a sport to continue it needs a future generation; for a sport to grow it needs new markets. This already happens in tennis to some extent. The ATP has subsidised challengers, Wimbledon plays a role supporting the new grass court tournaments, and the top players have pushed for prize money increases to be aimed at early rounds. It should not be a major ask for the largesse to be shared a little further.
Running a successful event at the lower level is tricky. You can’t ask for hundreds of dollars for a ticket, there’s no lucrative TV contract, and sponsorship is sparse. But successful challenger events exist. The combined grass events in Ilkley and Surbiton attracted full crowds and even a BBC stream. Many challengers throughout Europe and South America, held largely on clay, also attract passionate fans. With other surfaces already well represented, and the possibility of the unusualness of grass attracting a curious audience, it is surely possible for some events to switch surfaces.
Grass adds another expense; courts are expensive to keep and a week of professional tennis leaves them in a sorry state – not an inviting prospect for a club tasked with getting them back into play for their members. With support to get started, though, and a subsidy if necessary to keep events viable, new events could start up within a few years.
With new events established, and the return of pre-pandemic tournaments, grass court tennis at the lower levels will begin to re-establish itself. Unencumbered by the tours’ need to regularly gather together at the big events, a typical week on the ITF circuit features events on every (other) surface at every corner of the globe. Add grass to the mix, and players could gain experience any time of the year.
As great as all this could be, if the elite level of tennis still only features a few weeks of grass, it will remain a niche surface that many players will never feel comfortable on. However many challengers exist, if the tours only have a few weeks on grass, it will still be a surface some players feel they can skip, a surface players already at the top may never hone their games for. So expansion is just as needed on the tours.
Expanding into the moribund July clay swing is the obvious ploy, and perhaps that will be the case if the grass masters appears. But why limit ourselves to one stretch? Why not have a second grass court swing at a different time of year? The calendar is too full to carve out an exclusive period, but there is nothing stipulating all tournaments held the same week must be on the same surface. After all we have the golden swing in February, while the other half of the tennis world remains on hard in Europe and the Middle East.
Freed from the gap between Roland-Garros and Wimbledon necessitating tennis remaining in Europe, we could venture anywhere. Maybe Australia would like tennis outside of January, or South Africa (a traditional lawn tennis nation!) might make a return. Or what about India? They hosted the only other grass event this year – a home Davis Cup tie versus Denmark. Despite a long tennis history, India has only intermittently hosted top tier tennis in recent decades. Could being part of a new grass swing cement a home for professional tennis in a nation with over a billion people?
It’s easy to dream of these things. It’s almost as easy to imagine yourself as the President of Tennis and spend money that isn’t yours. But the fact remains, grass is going nowhere, even while its current state limits its potential. For tennis to grow and thrive, it must invest in grass.