Roger Federer had this to say after his first match at the Flushing Meadows this year:
"I really have the feeling that conditions are slower this year than last year here at the US Open. It's just unfortunate - I think that maybe all the Slams are too equal. I think they should feel very different to the Australian Open, and now I don't feel it really does. It's great for tennis, but I'm not sure if it's really what the game needs. The game needs different speed at Slams and so forth."
I agree with Federer. Variety is not just the spice of life, but also of the game. There was a time when the four Grand Slams of tennis reminded of Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons — each having their unique styles. The Rebound Ace surface at Rod Laver Arena and the hard clay courts of Rolland Garros favouring the baseliners, while the fast grass at Wimbledon and acrylic hard courts of Flusing Meadows luring the serve and volleyers. The four Slams then moulded players with distinctive styles thus making every clash between them a memorable watch.
Talking of styles, we then had the attacking serve and volley players, the defending baseliners and the adaptive all court players. There was Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Goran Ivanisevic on the one hand who belonged to the serve and volley school, on the other were the baseliners like Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Gustavo Kuertan .
In such varying surfaces, one man's haven became another man's nemesis, and the serve and volley Wimbledon champs who easily dominated the grass often faltered on the rough clay courts of Rolland Garros, which explains quite well why Sampras couldn't manage to win a French Open title despite dominating the game for almost a decade.
That was in the past. Take a big leap to the current era. When the authorities made an attempt to neutralise the surfaces by making significant changes to the courts, it was a death knell for attacking tennis. The serve and volley game is practically extinct now. The volleys and aces have given way to powerful ground strokes.
The Slams started metamorphosing with the Wimbledon slowing down its grass, making it harder and denser and eventually turning it into a high bouncing surface similar to the clay court.
The transition of the Mecca of tennis started after the 1994 tennis final between Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic which was indeed a battle of the aces. There were hardly any rallies in the first two sets where each held his serve. The following year, the All England Club introduced softer balls and changed the composition of grass in an attempt to bring down the pace of the game. However, the slight makeover didn't alter the face of Wimbledon, and the turf continued favouring the big servers.
Interestingly, if you take a look at the stats, after Bjorn Borg, who won five back-to-back titles from 1976-1980, only Jimmy Connors (1982) and Andre Agassi (1992) have managed to win the Wimbledon from baseline from 1980 to 2001.
The 2002 Wimbledon finals is considered by many as one of the most boring matches ever in the Open era's history. Aussie man Lleyton Hewitt defeated Argentine David Nalbandian in straight sets: 6—1, 6—3, 6—2 then. There were hardly any volleys and that final featured only 7 aces, something never heard of before in the history of the Championship. The villain was the new variety of grass which was 100% perennial rye, opposed to the old court which was a mix of 70% rye and 30% fescue. Unlike the old surface, the new turf was more durable, slowed the balls as it hit the ground, and made it bounce higher, much to the delight of the baseliners.
Wimbledon no more favoured the serve-and volley players, and they began to feel more alienated as the grass turned hostile to their attacking style. While ageing players like Tim Henman found it difficult to adapt with the new court, it was never too late for Roger Federer to switch his style. Federer, who started off as a serve and volley player, had no other option but to move to baseline to win the matches. This explains why he is an all-court player unlike Nadal who has failed to excel at the net until recently.
Change is inevitable, and we grow as things evolve; that's the law of nature. Now the US Open too has slowed down the courts making it almost similar to the Australian Open. Definitely the game has improved with time and we see rallies raining with the modern polyster stringed racquets that makes it easier to return a serve . But the homogenisation of the courts, has even homogenised the players.
Earlier we had clay court experts, grass court specialists and all-court masters who excelled in both. Nowadays, with courts being more or less similar, players like Nadal can excel at Wimbledon and French Open at the same time in a similar fashion. Had it been a decade ago, it would have been difficult for the Spaniard to win the heart of grass in the same manner as he woos the clay! Note that he had to wait till 2010 to lay his claim at the Flushing Meadows.
It's the era of uniformity and the four Grand Slams have now become more or less similar favouring the baseliners. One question still arises here - do we have to alter the ground to suit a certain style of play? Bjorn Borg never had that luxury while winning his 6 French Open titles and 5 Wimbledon crowns on contrasting grounds.
We have been lamenting the death of the serve and volley game for quite a while, and now Roger Federer too has questioned where the game is heading to. Are we killing the charm of the game by subjecting it to multiple makeovers? The real skill of a player lies in how he adapts to different styles, but if the court itself transforms to suit the players, aren't we killing the game altogether?