Tennis is readying itself for delivering the last Slam. And every year it does so with gusto, representing the celebrations at the end of a good harvest. To read an excellent curtain raiser to the US Open, click here.
Tennis is blessed with many different surfaces. Two of them produced by human modification of form, of the surfaces found naturally on earth, and the multitude produced by the moulding of substances produced by man, where the subtlest of variations are produced by the slightest tweaking of the proportion of ingredients.
The difference in player movement and the ball's reaction to each surface gives us almost three different sports as Rafael Nadal is fond of saying. Tennis thus highlights not only range of talents required and the ability to co-ordinate them, but also the variability that one needs to effect upon them in adapting to the different surfaces.
Over the years, evolution, in the Darwinian sense, in no small part influenced by our meddling intelligence and stupidity, has rendered us physically and mentally, creatures optimized for a life within constructions our own. And over the years, in a Luxilonian sense, tennis players are becoming more and more comfortable on artificial playing surfaces.
However, a kind of romantic link with nature is not implied here, of those players who do well on the natural surfaces. No "George of the Jungle" metaphor here.
Tennis is roughly about two things, running and hitting. More precisely put, moving and making contact.
For, on the natural surfaces, this movement is not just running, it is also a bit of a balancing act. You got to control your pace as you build speed and slow down; or you got to expect the ground beneath you to give way horizontally. That is, you cannot throw yourself on the ground irresponsibly and expect it to bring you to a stop or change your direction of motion.
On grass, you slip if you try that. On clay, you got to slip to come to a stop. Great runners are not necessarily great movers on grass and clay. Your feet need to get a feel for the surface.
On cushioned asphalt, you get more traction. You can put more pressure on the surface and it will respond. You can move build speed quicker and slow down to a stop in no time, or change directions in the blink of an eye. The firmness of the surface beneath your legs re-assure you.
There is however a penalty. These abrupt movements or changes thereof, that everyone is tempted too forcefully to try, to not try, exert bigger forces on the joints, thus testing the resilience of the body more, leading to more injuries.
The clay-courter who throws himself on the ground in Roland Garros expecting the surface beneath him to give way and allow him to slide to a stop, will, if he does the same in Arthur Ashe, find after a few years that his knees are not holding up as they used to.
A particular kind of balance is needed on hard-courts, and it is either an optimization of the movement required on grass and clay, or is the kind of movement that can be modified to suit grass and clay courts.
Of course no one has mastered the ability to move with the lightness of foot on grass and sureness of balance on clay courts, and the kind of movement that maximizes the use of traction provided by a hard court, but at the same time not drawn too much into it as to cause himself injuries, as has Roger Federer.
The traction provided by the surface has also an influence on how you make contact with the ball. One reason is that it is movement that allows you to get into position, and the better position you are in, the more comfortably you can swing the racquet hoping better to connect with the sweet spot.
Another is the pattern in which forces are exerted on the ground when a stroke is made, by the play. Some look for more traction, others do not much depend on it, but provide for it by way of a slightly better forward movement.
The other component that influences the making of contact is the bounce and pace on the ball.
Players with "classical" grips like lower bouncing balls and can easily deal with faster balls due to their easier shorter swings. The more "towards the west" your grip is, the more you would like the ball to bounce higher, and slower.
This is primarily because the racquet head comes into a natural striking position (not facing too much downwards or too much upwards), at different heights with respect to oneself when one employs different grips. Also, the western grips are employed but to provide more spin and that needs a more elaborate movement of the racquet head.
Clay provides more bounce and slows down balls a lot more, while grass provides (traditionally) a lot less bounce and absorbs lesser horizontal velocity from the ball. And hence provides for the possibility that completely different kinds of players may dominate these two seasons (which was true till about 2008 since after Borg's retirement).
Hardcourts, allow both these classes of shot makers to try their fortunes on a neutral surface, the bounce and speed controllable on them. It allows bounce so that the "Westerners" are allowed to swing better and produce more spin and hence a higher percentage on their strokes, while the quickness allows the "Orientalists" to get away with quick piercing winners, though at the cost of a reduced conversion rate.
The US Open employs the Decoturf which like most cushioned surfaces uses acrylic, rubber and sand to "cushion" an asphalt base. Multiple layers are used, each gradually changing the hardness and texture of the layer towards the surface.
The lower layers are harder, and coarser and are employed to reduce the porosity of the asphalt below, and also provide a more adhesive base for the layers above - not everything sticks with everything else.
The base layer covers the concrete surface below, and is the substrate for a layer of coarse rubber above. Over this is a fine-rubber course and another with silica whose properties are chosen according to the needs of the playing conditions. Then follows a layer of paint.
Uniformity is one of the requirements of the laid surface, over which great hue and cry was raised in the Australian Open. Another is that the surface should not start heating the court from below. On both accounts the US Open has been the more preferable of the two hardcourt Slams.
Thus the US Open in every sense is a sign of an attempt to optimize the vagaries in tennis, an attempt to reward the more complete player. Records in the past couple of decades strongly vouch for this argument.
Lets get ready for the final act.
Before I bid adieu, enjoy the highlights of one of the best matches of all time, played at US Open 2001.