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Wanted: Faster Courts
Why quicker surfaces can be beneficial to the game and its players.
Published Nov 20, 2023
This surface is the fastest of the year, that’s for sure. . . all the tournaments that we have played on hard court are so, so slow, then we come here to the Masters and they put this court so fast. I don’t know why. Carlos Alcaraz, after falling to power-serving Alexander Zverev in round-robin play at the ATP Finals in Turin, Italy
In all fairness to the Wimbledon champion, Alcaraz went on to explain that having had adequate match-play on a comparable surface, he would have no beef with the choice of court. The 20-year-old sensation is highly adaptable, as he demonstrated by bouncing back to survive the round-robin portion of the event. His 2023 year of consolidation ended in Turin with a semifinal loss to Djokovic.
No shame in that, right?
Notably, this ATP Finals turned out to be highly entertaining and somewhat unpredictable despite a court speed that, on the game’s official Court Pace Index, rated a 42 out of a possible 50 (that latter value represents the “fastest” pace endorsed for tour play). It was the fastest court on the ATP Tour this year (Wimbledon rated a 37), leading Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier to describe the court speed as “greased lightning.”
Naturally, the tournament featured plenty of aces. Zverev had 15 in that win over Alcaraz, Djokovic had 13 in his relatively swift 6-3, 6-3 deconstruction of Jannik Sinner in Sunday’s final. Yet neither Zverev nor ATP ace-per-match leader Hubert Hurkacz (with 15.2) survived the round-robin segment. In general, players in Turin produced the kind of lengthy, intense rallies that excite fans to go along with artful volleying and spectacular point-ending strikes from anywhere on the court.
All this should be enough to wake up a tennis establishment that for a long time has turned a deaf ear to entreaties calling for at least some faster courts. Despite a few outliers, on slow courts the players pursue a style that makes tennis less dimensional, if often majestic in its brutality. The glory has come at an increasingly heavy cost. Withdrawals, including season-long ones, have become commonplace on both the WTA and ATP tours, among journeymen as well as stars.
Take the last US Open: Rafael Nadal, Denis Shapovalov, Marin Cilic, Pablo Carreno Busta, Roberto Bautista Agut, Shuai Zhang, Paula Badosa and Nick Kyrgios all withdrew, along with two recent, young US Open champions: Emma Raducanu and Bianca Andreescu. Kyrgios played just one match in 2023, Raducanu just 10. Alcaraz did compete at the last major, but he has already missed one Grand Slam tournament, along with a number of lesser ATP events, in a budding career already impacted by assorted injuries.
Increased parity and fiercer competition among exceptionally well-trained athletes have increased the load on players who were already playing significantly longer matches than ever before. ATP data collected by The Athletic earlier this year determined that the average length of a men’s Grand-Slam match has increased from 2:21 in 1999 to 2:54 this year. Three of the four majors (Roland Garros is the exception) began campaigns to significantly slow their courts around the year 2000. As a result, men’s Grand Slam matches may soon average over three hours.
An additional factor that tripped red flags this year on both tours is the lack of continuity in the balls used tournament-to-tournament. In Turin, Alcaraz sounded off again on the issue, telling reporters that it’s “unbelievable” that the pros can play three or four consecutive tournaments using balls with properties that can vary greatly. Many players on both tours have argued that a slow or heavy ball on slow courts is a surefire recipe for injury. The problem exists because every tournament is free to make its own deal with a ball maker/sponsor. According to Alcaraz, the tour used “20 or 21” different brands of ball this year.
“A lot of players got injured because of that,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
WTA No. 1 Iga Swiatek also chimed en route to winning at the WTA Finals in Cancun: “This situation is pretty hard in terms of injuries, because we are stringing our racquets more and more tight, and this [changing balls] is really confusing for our arms and hands and for our touch.”
Speeding up the courts would certainly alleviate some of the health risks. Moreover, in Turin we saw that the cost of doing so would not be onerous. It might even usher in a more varied game. Ironically, it was just that desire that created the slow-court boom, in response to the success in the late 1990s of devastating servers including Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic and Pete Sampras. On surfaces other than clay (hard courts were fast back then), those men all but killed the rally game.
A growing outcry over the lack of rallies reached a fever pitch right around 2000, at which point the All England Club dug up its storied Wimbledon courts and replanted them with a hardy rye-grass that ultimately produced a slower, higher-bouncing surface. Hard on the heels of that decision, US Open officials also opted to slow down their hard courts. Following the lead of the majors, lower-tier events fell like dominos, as did indoor events once contested on fast carpet. Like the era of the dinosaurs, the golden age of serve-and-volley players came to an abrupt end and we entered the age of the superbly fit, spin savvy, consistent baseliner.
To many, the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. During a discussion of this subject on the Tennis Channel broadcast of the ATP Finals, analyst Andy Roddick remarked, “God forbid we have a tournament on something fast every once in a while.”
I want to see some bang-bang, one-two tennis—and a lot of those Federer fans still out there want to see that too. I loved watching that Federer one-two. Nick Kyrgios, on commentary for Tennis Channel
Nick Kyrgios, moonlighting as a TC commentator while he prepares for a 2024 comeback, amplified Roddick’s comment: “I’d like to see more variety. It’s good to play on [fast] courts like these, where aggressive tennis gets rewarded a little bit more.
“I want to see some bang-bang, one-two tennis—and a lot of those Federer fans still out there want to see that too. I loved watching that Federer one-two.”
Years ago, making the transition from slower to faster courts (and vice versa) was a challenge faced by all players. Having that skill isn’t nearly as important in this era of uniformly slow courts, week-in, week-out.
“It’s okay for an all-world champion like Alcaraz to have to adjust to a faster court,” Roddick said. “But give him a chance to stack some matches before he has to make the switch.”
Alcaraz echoed that comment in his interview following his second-round win over Andrey Rublev. A player who revels in the chance to use every implement in his deep toolbox, Alcaraz said, “It’s a little difficult to adjust your level to this court (coming off a year on slower courts). At the same time, I like to be aggressive, to go to the net. . .I think that is the key if you want to have chances in this tournament.”
We can only hope that in the coming years, Alcaraz’s comment might be applicable to more than one tournament per year—even if that one tournament happens to be the most important sub-Grand Slam meeting of the year.