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Wimbledon - Slip Slidin' Away
Injuries, grass movement & play-styles
Sadly we had back-to-back retirements due to injury on Centre Court at Wimbledon yesterday. First Adrian Mannarino injured his right knee, thanks to a slip while leading two sets to one over Roger Federer. And then Serena Williams injured her hamstring in a more innocuous looking, but still slip-induced, accident against Aliaksandra Sasnovich. These are unfortunately not isolated incidents, nor are they limited to Centre Court. Today Isner, Djokovic, Kyrgios and a handful of others have also slipped on the hallowed grass of the All England Club. Both Murray and Federer, two of the dwindling number of players who have managed to stay vertical on the lawns so far, noted how slippery Centre Court seems to be this year:
Federer: “You do have to move very, very carefully out there. If you push too hard in the wrong moments, you do go down.”
Wimbledon’s response was the same as it always is:
“Each grass court is checked by the Grand Slam Supervisors, Referee's Office and Grounds team ahead of play commencing, and on both days of the Fortnight they have been happy with the conditions and cleared the courts for play," the club said in a statement. The weather conditions on the opening two days have been the wettest we have experienced in almost a decade, which has required the roof to be closed on Centre Court and No.1 Court for long periods. This is at a time when the grass plant is at its most lush and green, which does result in additional moisture on what is a natural surface.”
This poses a tough question for Wimbledon. For all the criticism they’ve faced, bombarded with simplistic suggestions like ‘just blow-dry the grass’, their groundskeeping is as advanced as it gets and world-renowned. If there were ways to make the grass less slippery, they will have certainly already considered it. The tournament has faced similar criticism countless times, most notably and recently when it was too dry in 2017, and before that in 2013. This is not a new problem.
Play-styles and movement on grass
It’s interesting that Murray and Federer, two of the last true grass courters on the men’s side, are also two of the only players to avoid slipping so far. Some of this has to do with the fact that both are coming back from lower body surgeries (Federer knee, Murray hip), and both men, in the late stages of their careers, desperately want to avoid another injury. But these two also have great intuition about how to move on this surface (watch me jinx both of them).
Almost all of the bad slips that have happened this year, and every year, at Wimbledon come after baseline (or occasionally service box) split steps that clearly place significant risk on hips, groins and knee ligaments. Slips also happen on the run, but it’s really the action of the upper body moving one way and one leg slipping the other way which is a recipe for serious, torsional injuries:
On a hard court, the players find enough friction between foot and surface for this to almost never be an issue. Contrastingly on grass, at a time when tennis footwork and movement has never been so aggressive, players regularly end up splitting themsleves in half and writhing around in agony, worried about their careers. But both Federer and Murray have been taking noticeably lower, and less explosive, split steps on the grass in their opening rounds, as well being especially careful on the run. Djokovic is a bit of an exception to this, as his extraordinary ability to slide on grass, contorting his body into a lanky pretzel while somehow maintaining balance, means he’s likely less careful than the other elite players (hyper-mobility probably helps him too). But Federer and Murray’s comfort on this surface suggests that familiarity with grass could be a factor when it comes to slips and injuries. After all, both have more matches on grass under their belts than the vast majority of the tour thanks to significant deep runs at both Wimbledon and Queens/Halle. Their bodies and brains have a larger grass data set to work with.
Unfortunately for other players looking to become more familiar with grass, this type of court has largely been relegated to a novelty, minority surface these days, played for approx 5-7% of the calendar. It’s therefore not surprising that players don’t have sufficient intuition for how to move on a type of court they only get to play on for a few weeks a year. Given Wimbledon has absolutely no intention of shifting away from their grass court traditions, perhaps more grass court tournaments is therefore an answer to this problem. Giving more players more opportunities to get used to the nuances of moving on this surface in the run up to Wimbledon. Some will disagree with this notion, suggesting that this will increase potential for injury, but while one of the four largest and most important tournaments on earth is played on grass, it seems silly not to have sufficient preparation and practice for this most particular of surfaces.
The other factor is that grass courts traditionally didn’t see two things that are evident in 2021:
The explosive movement of modern tennis. These days we have taller, stronger and faster athletes playing this sport than ever before. The pressures on their bones, ligaments, cartilage, and the grass/surface itself, has probably never been greater. More force = more potential for slips and injury.
Baseline heavy tennis meta. Grass court tennis was traditionally played just as much up in the service box as on the baseline. Players spending so much time on the baseline these days, and therefore split-stepping that much more often back in that zone, contributes to the frequency of slips. This is particularly evident if you have a look at Centre Court in the 1980 semi final compared to the 2019 semi final:
The slips always mostly disappear in week two of the tournament, as the courts have seen sufficient play and wear on the baseline to create a worn-out dirt patch, which is significantly easier to move on than slick blades of grass. My only question is whether the baseline needs to be as lush as it is during the first few days of the tournament, when the majority of injuries seem to happen. The area where these players are slipping is a patch of grass just behind the baseline. The ball doesn’t bounce here (it would be out) and so the only purpose that bit of the court fulfils is player movement. I know Wimbledon value the aesthetic of their pristine lawns above pretty much all else, but it would be an interesting experiment to start the tournament with slightly shorter or worn out grass around that footwork-heavy area. It’s going to be ground into dust and dirt anyway after a few rounds play, so why not save the ligaments of these players?
There are calls to ban the grass. There are calls for grass zamboni’s (I would like to see it purely so I can write ‘grass zamboni’ more often) to dry the blades of grass between games. None of this will happen though, nor will this be the last year Wimbledon deals with complaints over a slippery and dangerous surface. But two things can be true simultaneously. Firstly, players probably don’t have enough opportunity to learn how to move on the grass these days, given its different, peculiar properties compared to the more familiar hard and clay courts, thanks to the rarity of this surface in the calendar. And secondly, Wimbledon could consider prioritizing function over form when it comes to baseline grip and aesthetics in the first week, where 80%+ of the bad slips take place. After all, we’re here to watch star athletes skilfully thwack small yellow spheroids around a rectangle, not watch these superhumans morph into Bambi on ice.
Will sense prevail? Knowing tennis, probably not.
See you on Sunday
If you have any questions or thoughts about what you just read you can leave a comment below & I’ll answer it. No question is dumb.
The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) analysis piece every Sunday/Monday.
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