Future is green as tennis tournaments consider grass-court switch
After years of fighting a rearguard battle, grass-court tennis is on the attack. Several clay-court tournaments in Europe are looking to convert to grass in a significant shift in the game's balance of power.
Impetus for the change has come from Wimbledon's decision to start a week later from 2015. Players have long complained that the two-week break between the French Open and Wimbledon gives them insufficient time to hone their grass-court game.
The All England Club's move will create a three-week gap for grass-court tournaments after Roland Garros. Events across Europe, including the men's competitions at Hamburg, Stuttgart and Gstaad, have shown interest in filling it. Meanwhile, the Women's Tennis Association wants to double to six the number of grass-court competitions in the build-up to Wimbledon.
Although the French Open is the highlight of the European clay-court season, it is not the end of it. Next year, for example, there will be six European clay-court events on the men's tour in the weeks after Wimbledon.
However, the investment in hard-court tournaments across the Atlantic in the build-up to the US Open has made it increasingly difficult for European clay-court events in the same weeks to attract top players. With one week fewer between Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows from 2015, some tournaments are now seeking to move into the grass-court period after the French Open.
This would reverse the recent decline in the number of events on grass. Until 1975, three of the four Grand Slam tournaments were played on grass – today Wimbledon is the only one – and there were strong grass-court circuits in the United States and Australia. Today, the post-Wimbledon men's tournament at Newport, Rhode Island is the only main-tour grass-court event played outside western Europe.
Wimbledon and the Lawn Tennis Association have been happy to help those tournaments thinking of going green. Roger Draper, chief executive of the LTA, said: "We have a very good relationship with the tennis federations in countries like Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands and we're working together on this. It's in everybody's interests to see more of the top players playing more grass-court tennis."
The main women's tour currently has three pre-Wimbledon grass-court events, a "Premier" tournament at Eastbourne and two "International" events at Edgbaston and 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. From 2015, the WTA would like the three-week period to feature two "Premier" events and four "International" tournaments. No decisions have been taken yet, but the new structure would allow both for an upgrading of existing British tournaments and for events in other countries to switch dates and change surfaces to grass.
The men's tournaments currently staged in the fortnight after Roland Garros are all likely to follow Wimbledon and move back a week. This should help the events at Queen's Club in London and at Halle in Germany, which have sometimes been hit by late withdrawals of players exhausted after Paris.
From 2015, some of the top men might prefer to rest in the week after the French Open, but many others will welcome the chance of an extra week's grass-court competition.
An attraction for clay-court tournaments wanting to switch to grass is the prospect of attracting better and more varied fields. Edwin Weindorfer, the tournament director at Stuttgart, which wants to convert five of its 27 courts – including its main stadium – to grass, said: "At the moment we never attract American players, for example, because they all want to go home after Wimbledon. However, if we were part of the build-up to Wimbledon we believe we might draw players like John Isner or Mardy Fish who want to prepare on grass for the most important tournament of the year."
He added: "A lot of the players I talk to, including the top players, feel it's more comfortable for their knees and their bodies to play on grass, especially when compared with hard courts."
Until 2008, Hamburg staged a men's Masters Series tournament on clay, but it was downgraded to a "500" tournament with a new post-Wimbledon date. Now the German tennis federation wants to move to a June slot at an even lower level as a "250" tournament. However, it is facing opposition from its own tournament director, Michael Stich, whose company run the event and want to stay on clay.
Attendances at Hamburg have halved since the switch to July, when many locals are on holiday. Jens-Peter Hecht, a spokesman for the German tennis federation, believes a tournament on grass in June would draw better fields and crowds.
"We may not attract the players who reach the semi-finals or final at Roland Garros, but you have a good chance of getting players maybe ranked No 5, 6 or 7 in the world," he said.
Hecht believes that putting Wimbledon back a week would make it more difficult than ever to attract players in Hamburg's present clay-court slot. "There will be one week less for players to prepare for the US Open, so they will be more keen than ever to move on to hard courts," he said.
Having a tournament of Hamburg's stature join the circuit would boost the profile of the grass-court game, while the expansion of the season should also improve the quality of the play. Chris Kermode, the tournament director of the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club, said: "Expanding the circuit can only improve standards."