The Pros and Cons of Grass Tennis Courts

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Disadvantages of Grass Tennis Courts

Player's shadow on a worn grass tennis court
The shadow of Pablo Andujar of Spain serving in his Mens Singles Third Round match against Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic during day six of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 4, 2015 in London, England. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

Grass is the one tennis court surface that changes character significantly during the course of a tournament, especially the most famous grass-court tournament, Wimbledon, which goes for two weeks. Grass is, after all, a living thing, and there's only so much a tiny little plant can take of being stepped on by a world-class athlete running at full speed or digging in to stop running and change direction. On the first day of Wimbledon, the grass courts are a lovely green throughout. By the second week, huge areas behind the baselines and near the service lines are reduced to brown remnants of grass and a lot of bare dirt.

On a fresh, green grass court, the ball tends to bounce fairly consistently, but quite low and fast. As the ball hits the grass at the acute angle typical of most tennis shots, it bends blades of grass in front of itself, and laid down, they form a fairly smooth surface upon which the ball skids forward, encountering relatively few vertical protrusions to slow it down or push it upward. On such a fast surface, points tend to be relatively short; therefore, a grass-court generally provides the least exercise per match. Grass is tough on the arm, though, because the ball hits the racquet with more speed, and more speed generally means more shock and torsion.

The amount of torsion the arm suffers increases as the court gets more worn, because bounces become more unpredictable, leading to more off-center hits. Unpredictable bounces also introduce more luck into the game. A fast, unpredictable surface tends to discourage patience, as the potency of aggressive shots is enhanced and the ability to rely on steadiness is diminished, in part because topspin is a major tool for consistency, but it's less effective and more difficult to execute when the ball bounces low and more difficult to time when the ball bounces unpredictably.

Whether grass is fresh or worn, it tends to be slippery, and even slight wetness makes it quite unsafe. While hard courts can remain playable for several minutes and clay sometimes indefinitely in a light drizzle, play must be suspended almost immediately on grass.

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Advantages of Grass Tennis Courts

A small bird standing on a Wimbledon tennis court
A fresh grass court on the first day of the 2015 Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships. Julian Finney / Getty Images

The softness of grass makes it relatively easy on the legs (except when the player slips), and its shorter points mean less running. Shorter points also mitigate somewhat the stress on the arm, as the faster and more frequently off-center ball impacts are at least fewer. Racquet also meets ball generally lower on grass, and on groundstrokes, meeting the ball low usually strains the arm less than meeting it high. When a player does slip, grass cushions the fall, especially when it's still untrampled.

If you've watched Wimbledon or the handful of other grass tournaments over the years, you've probably noticed seeing more serve-and-volley tennis there than anywhere else. Low bounces make getting under the ball to hit topspin passing shots more difficult, and unpredictable bounces add an incentive to hit the ball in the air; therefore, volleying becomes especially advantageous. Slice groundstrokes are also rewarded on grass, as it enhances their low bounces. Playing on grass thus encourages a versatile, all-court game.

Grass is the closest thing to a fountain of youth for balls and shoes. They don't get to keep their good looks while enjoying longevity, but given a choice between green coloration and being entirely used up, I'd go green every time. Earth itself agrees.