The glory of grass: Wimbledon warm-up begins at Queen’s
With the sun barely set over Roland Garros, the tour moves from grit to grass for the Wimbledon warm-up
It is the first week of June and tennis makes the most dramatic transition of the calendar.
After two months of terracotta clay and golden sunshine, of Mediterranean colour and Latin fragrance, of clinging dust and drifting rust, the tour turns its face to cooler climes and takes its feet back to its grass roots.
The move after more than two months on the terre battue to barely a month on grass is also one of the hardest, especially for those who have played deep into the second week of the French Open.
One day the two last men standing in Paris are battling through a best-of-five-set match for Grand Slam glory, the next they are flying to one of only four ATP tournaments that will give them a brief chance to savour the spring and sap grass before Wimbledon.
Rafael Nadal, for the second year in a row, arrived in London fewer than 24 hours after lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires at Roland Garros.
Novak Djokovic instead announced some time off to rest a knee problem while Roger Federer, within a day of lifting the French runner-up trophy, pulled out of the week’s other grass event in Halle to rest and recuperate his own muscle strains.
There may, next week, be exhibition knockabouts at select country clubs around London’s suburbs, but this week of competition -a brief window to prepare for their sport’s unique field of dreams -is a precious chance for players to repackage their clay court skills for the fresh demands of grass.
And there is no doubt that grass asks different questions from clay. It is an environment where fast and nimble footwork rather than lunging slides is king.
It is where fast hands and great movement help to make the last-minute adjustments demanded by grass’s extra pace.
Deftness, subtlety and touch married to all-court tactics can win more points on grass than anywhere else, and light, nimble physiques can stand toe-to-toe with the baseline power-players.
Slice becomes a weapon that keeps the ball skimming low over the net and skidding off the ground. A big serve or a kick delivery will shoot lower and faster but will gain less purchase off the grass. Grass is a surface that rewards a wide repertoire of shots and styles and gives the serve and volley a place to flourish.
With these extra tactical options come faster, often shorter, points that can be killed with a low angled backhand volley or a flat forehand drive. And even the counter-puncher can get more out of grass than other surfaces. Andy Murray’s double-hander whips through the court with a flatter and faster line and his serve contains a drop more venom.
For the players and the spectators there is one other special dimension to tennis on grass: Quite simply, it reveals the exquisite sound of ball on racket like no 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.
Perhaps this is why the fleeting tennis season has something of the garden-party about its uniquely old-fashioned atmosphere. The crowds are more restrained and there is, thus far, none of the pre-match razzmatazz nor end-of-set music that characterise the hot and lively American, Australian and southern European seasons.
Nowhere is this atmosphere captured better than at the Wimbledon warm-up tournament of choice, the most prestigious venue with the most pristine grass of all: the Queen’s Club.
Founded in 1886 and named after its first patron, Queen Victoria, the Club was one of the world’s first multipurpose sports complexes. It is still the national headquarters of “real tennis” though its surroundings bear little resemblance to the leafy environs of Victorian times.
Nowadays, Queen’s is shoehorned into one of the most desirable yet densely populated residential areas of London: West Kensington. Unable to expand beyond the constraints of the surrounding houses that overlook its grounds, the venue has preserved its compact, intimate quality -and its turf centrepiece is surely one of the smallest arenas on the ATP circuit.
Host to the Aegon Championships, Queen’s boasts possibly the fastest and slickest grass of all, with courts that keep the bounce down and the speed up. It is the perfect location for Wimbledon preparations and will remain the place of choice for practice after this year’s event is over and before the tour moves to SW19.
An early review of first-round winners illustrates eloquently the kind of tennis that flourishes on Queens’ tender lawns. The elegant serve-and-volley Frenchmen Michael Llodra and Nicolas Mahut won in straight sets, as did the more powerful serve-and-volley exponents, Ivan Ljubicic and Feliciano Lopez.
Last year’s champion Sam Querrey is again feeding off the speed of London’s grass, as is the all-court variety of veterans Michael Berrer and Arnaud Clement.
The big names are still to come: Juan Martin Del Potro could excel, David Nalbandian could shine and Andy Roddick, a former champion, will hope to make his presence felt once more.
Most of the home audience, though, are waiting for the campaign of one man: Murray. He has practised already, declared his ankle to be fit and will use this as the launch-pad for an assault on his home Grand Slam.
That traditional grass-court hush may just evaporate should it be successful.