Watching Donald Young play Yen-Hsun Lu in the first round of the Miami Masters last week was like watching a tennis match played in slow motion.
The ball moved through the court at an astoundingly slow pace, but it had nothing to do with the players; instead, it had everything to do with the court. It’s as if the court transformed the ball into a lifeless, floating object upon contact. The pace of the courts has caused many to refer to these courts as “purple clay,” a take on the actual blue clay courts used in Madrid back in 2012.
In terms of the three majors surfaces, hard courts are usually considered to be in the middle in terms of pace — faster than clay courts and slower than grass courts. However, there is no doubt the courts in Key Biscayne cannot be grouped with typical hard courts.
With this said, it’s no secret that courts in general have slowed down over time. We aren’t in the glory serve and volley days of Wimbledon where every point was finished at the net within three or four shots. In the same breath, we’ve seen courts slow down to a pace that it can be simply agonizing to watch at times, even with the best players in the world playing on them.
(And I’m sure it’s not something the players fancy that much either.)
Now, there are many who will argue that slower courts do well to create more strenuous back and forth exchanges and push players to their physical peaks. They wouldn’t be wrong, but there’s a difference between lengthy baseline duels and excruciating back court rallies that seemingly have no end in sight. Courts as slow as those in Key Biscayne cause creativity to melt away into impatience as players are no longer concerned with building points — just ending them.
(It’s totally understandable when you consider that nobody has a desire to play 20-shot rallies for three hours in the sun.)
Overall, the larger point that needs to be stressed here is that tennis is losing its heterogeneity.
Racket technology, increasingly extreme grips and evolving swing paths (among other things) have already caused the game to trend toward the baseline. Attempts at diversifying the game from a purely strategical standpoint are being further stunted by slow courts.
Players approaching the net are as susceptible as ever. Attacking is infinitely more difficult on courts like Miami where it’s more than likely that an opponent will track down almost any approach shot with time to spare. In addition, the amount of topspin players hit these days make passing shots much easier to execute.
It’s just not supposed to be like this.
Hard courts are not supposed to be this slow and the balls aren’t supposed to be bouncing this high.
No tennis court, of any surface, should be as slow as these courts.
If the sport trends in a direction where more and more courts play like this, only a select few tennis skills will be seriously valued. Big servers, serve and volleyers and tacticians will be marginalized. The David Ferrers of the world will be greatly aided because they have a unique level of commitment to put every ball back. Combine that with extraordinary fitness, and you have a player that is just ludicrously difficult to hit through and beat. Someone like Ferrer obviously has other skills, but they don’t matter as much when the court is this slow.
From the perspective of a tennis fan, none of these developments should be seen as positive.
Tennis’ greatness lies in the fact that there are so many different ways that a player can win a point from virtually anywhere on the court. Someone like Mikhail Youzhny, who is one of the best strategists in the game, cannot really get much out of his ingenuity and resourcefulness on slow courts.
Unless you’re one of the premier servers or offensive ball strikers, be ready to hit that extra shot.
And then the next one.
And the one after that.
Really, cancel your plans for a few weeks because the point isn’t going to end anytime soon.
Professional tennis is changing.
A lot of it is for the better.
Some of it is for the worse.
If there’s one thing at the professional level we need to avoid at all costs, it is the homogenization of courts — where each week, players feel like they’re playing on molasses irrespective of surface. It’s not pleasurable to watch over long periods of time and it certainly will not do any favors for the players or their bodies.
As we head toward the latter stages of the Miami Open, we will continue to watch tennis played in slow motion but in terms of what is in store for the future, I’ll just say this: better later than never in terms of a fix.