The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Slow court made it hard for Roger
-Taller grass at All England Club killing serve-and-volley game
Guest Column

Leander Paes

Another Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final is over. It’s quite probable, of course, that the two will meet yet again at the same venue exactly a year later. If the surface at Big W gets any slower, then Nadal will start the favourite. However, if 12 months from now, the final is played on the quickest grasscourt at Calcutta’s very own South Club, then I think Federer would be the overwhelming favourite.

With no concrete underneath the grass cover and the foliage cut to size, I think it would be very difficult for a baseliner like Nadal to even trouble the world No. 1. The true champion that the Spaniard is, he would no doubt adapt his game to the electric speed of a traditional grasscourt, but I would put my money on the Swiss. There isn’t a doubt there.

What we watched on Sunday, though, was a historic final. The match lived up to its billing as one of the all-time classics. The regal Federer, at his free-flowing best, found his perfect match in the Spanish Matador. Awash with adrenalin, Nadal, it seemed, would spoil what was supposed to be Federer’s script. But that was not to be. In the end, it took all the class and coolness of the champion to make the difference.

Make no mistake, the courts at the All England Club are slowing up. What with a concrete base underneath for better drainage and taller grass on the surface, the pace of the game has reduced significantly.

Add to that the much heavier balls which go slower through the air and you have a perfect picture why the baseliners are starting to give the serve-and-volleyers a run for their money.

Where a typical point during the times of Ivanisevic, Sampras or Becker wouldn’t last more than two-three seconds, nowadays it takes at least two-three potential winners to finish off a rally. Even then, one isn’t sure that the perfect volley wouldn’t be returned with a whistling passing shot.

One can put it down to the evolution of the game, but the fact is that even the likes of Federer are feeling the heat. On Sunday night, the world No. 1 almost gave it away trying to beat Nadal at his own game from the baseline. It goes to show Federer’s lack of confidence in the traditional chip-and-charge tactic and his difficulty in coping with the slowness of the surface.

Conversely, for a supreme athlete like Nadal, taller grass means a surer footing. In fact, the runner-up didn’t come up to the net at all in two sets and only thrice in the second set, but still managed to stretch the champion to five sets.

Not only has this strategy — designed no doubt to lengthen the matches — killed the traditional serve-and-volley game, it has also reduced the longevity of a player’s career. The rough and slow surfaces mean more five-setters and subsequently, more injuries.

As for me, after more than 19 years on the circuit, I still find myself constantly adapting my game to suit the current needs. Whereas in the past I would be merrily sticking a perfect volley, now I am mentally prepared, even on grass, to expect a return. In that sense I have to plan out and construct a point, be more patient.

Coming back to the final, one marvelled at the way the duo took the game to the next level. Nadal was the aggressor at Roland Garros and Federer defended resolutely, whereas on Sunday the roles reversed, allowing us to witness a great tactical battle within the war.

Notwithstanding the similarities between Borg and Federer and their achievements, the differences are greater. Wooden rackets and slow pace of the game apart, in terms of sheer physical ability, the game is much more challenging nowadays. But in terms of quality — Borg had to subdue the likes of Connors and McEnroe — the competition had much more depth.

However, both know what it takes to win five Wimbledon titles in a row, and I was blessed to witness the moment when the legendary Swede congratulated the victor after Federer had equalled his record.

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