Wimbledon `99: Dig up the grass for the sake of the game

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The Independent Online
AT THE end of Wimbledon's first week I have heard a lot of people saying how nice it is to see a few rallies again in the men's game because of the decent weather, but as far as I am concerned this is just a way of grabbing on to anything that helps to present tennis in a better light.

If you look back at it objectively there have been very few exceptional matches on the men's side, matches that jump out at you, for a number of years now, never mind the last week. Even though we have had more baseline rallies, notably from Andre Agassi, there still hasn't been anything outstanding from the men as far as I am concerned.

Nothing I have seen at Wimbledon 99 changes my opinion that the tournament would be a lot better off with the demise of grass, certainly for the men's game. The standard of tennis in last April's Davis Cup tie between Britain and the United States at Birmingham on a medium-paced court offering a slow bounce, where you could either attack or defend, made it 50 per cent better as a spectacle.

I can imagine the "shock, horror" reaction to these comments but within a year, once the "sacrilege" headlines had died down, the change for the better would be obvious. The quality of tennis would improve by leaps and bounds, it would be three times better to watch. This is not meant as a snub to Wimbledon, which is the greatest event in the sport, but it is not the grass at Wimbledon that makes it so special.

Digging up the grass would cause a slight blip and then it would quickly be forgotten. Wimbledon would be so much better on a medium-paced surface. It isn't so long ago that I was playing Wimbledon, but it was a different game then because there was more creative shot-making. Basically, the men have just become too good for the surface. The serve is way too much of a shot on grass, it has become far too important. When tennis was invented the court dimensions were put in place for people of 5ft 6in. Now the average is 6ft and in 10 years it will be 6ft 2in. The men have already become too good for the court dimensions.

Right now grass is a great surface for the women's game but give them another 10 or 15 years and it will be out of date for them, too. You only have to look at the Williams sisters to see how important power has become in women's tennis.

Having got that thought off my chest, I realise that nothing will change at Wimbledon in my lifetime. Much as we love them, the people at the All England Club will point to record crowds and soaring TV ratings in defence of the status quo, but Wimbledon is such an event now that people would turn up to watch Mickey Mouse play Minnie Mouse. Half the people who go there have gone just to be at Wimbledon. If you really analysed it and asked the tennis fan if he was getting value today from the men's game the answer would be "no". The length of the rallies at Wimbledon is so short that it's ridiculous. Most of the time you don't see more than two- shot rallies.

What I am arguing for is not done to hurt Wimbledon but this is, after all, the premium showpiece of tennis, so the product needs to be shown in the best possible light. Right now it isn't the best product it could be because of the surface. So get another surface. Paint it green if that's what the traditionalists want.

A new surface doesn't need to copy the hard courts they have at the US Open or the Australian Open. Wimbledon could be pioneers of a new surface because it would be nice to have four different surfaces for the Grand Slams. The US and the Australian adapted well enough after abandoning grass. As for the French, I have to say they have problems, too. The clay surface is too slow and that's boring for the fans, too. The average punter doesn't think Paris offers great tennis either.

I know these opinions won't be popular in Britain because right now our top two players have a good chance of victory on faster courts but, logically, you can't persuade me that what we are watching is entertainment.

BEFORE Wimbledon started I nominated four men who could win the tournament - Pete Sampras, Tim Henman, Andre Agassi and Greg Rusedski. I am still taking Henman to become champion because he has such a fabulous draw to get to the semi-finals, a better draw than anyone else by far. And once he gets that far, I expect him to kick into top gear.

However, I must say I have been a bit surprised to see Sampras start as well as he has done. He has a habit of not finding his rhythm early but he was sharp from his opening game, clearly seeing the ball as big as a football on Day One.

But he will soon come up against tougher opposition and I am not sure he has had enough matches throughout the year to survive the barrage of such as Rusedski or Mark Philippoussis, Henman, and then Agassi.

John Lloyd was talking to Ronald Atkin