Growing up in the former Czechoslovakia, Martina Navratilova learned to play tennis primarily on clay.
“It wasn’t really suited to my game,” Navratilova said, “but I knew how to move on. The problem on clay is when you get to the net. Because you can’t recover afterwards. the volley, you can’t maneuver and get to the ball fast enough.
For most players, the transition from clay to grass can be tricky and difficult. For Navratilova, it was a revelation. His ultra-athletic game was designed for the smooth surface and his low-bounce balls. She won her first of nine Wimbledon singles titles in 1978, aged 21. Twenty-five years later, she collected her 20e major title at Wimbledon, winning the mixed doubles with Leander Paes.
As the Hologic WTA Tour transitions from the European clay-court season to the relatively brief – 34-day – grass campaign, Navratilova has some good news.
“There’s not as much of a difference between clay and grass as there used to be,” she said. “Clay plays faster, with the use of lighter balls, and grass plays slower.”
Few professional sports have surfaces as varied as tennis. It takes a particularly fluid and flexible athlete to succeed. Active players who have won titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon? Serena Williams, with three Roland-Garros and seven Wimbledons, and Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza, with one each.
Two-time French Open winner Iga Swiatek was junior champion four years ago at Wimbledon but has won just three matches in her previous two appearances at the All England Club. Swiatek has won 35 consecutive matches, on hard and clay courts, but didn’t seem too confident after his victory at Roland Garros. Her trainer, Tomasz Wiktorowski, told her he thought she had the game for the grass.
“I don’t know yet,” Swiatek said in Paris. “But I would like to add one or two [match-wins]. But honestly, weed is still tricky. I actually like the part that I have no expectations there. It’s something rather refreshing.
Photos of Swiatek and the Roland Garros championship trophy are still all over social media, but two grass-court events are already underway in Nottingham, England, and ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Next week there is a 500 event in Berlin, as well as a 250 in Birmingham, England, and a 125 in Gaiba, Italy. The week before Wimbledon, it’s still 500 in Eastbourne and 250 in Bad Homburg.
Mastering the nuances
Brad Gilbert reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 1990 and ended up coaching three guys – Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray – who were quite competent on grass.
What makes the transition so difficult, Gilbert said, is its abruptness.
“You have the least amount of time,” Gilbert said. “To go from clay to grass, you have three weeks to bring it down. Previously it was only two weeks, so at least that’s something. It’s still the hardest surface on motion shades. You can’t track balls as well as on other surfaces.
It can be a joy for players on clay, sliding and cutting, marking their territory with dramatic slashes in the dirt. Try this on the grass and the ligaments in your knees and ankles will vigorously resist it. The footwork is the biggest adjustment.
Long before playing on grass for the first time, Navratilova trained on indoor wooden courts during the colder months.
“Talk about a contrast,” Navratilova said. “The ball crosses the pitch like crazy. So that teaches you how to make those adjustments. It made it easier for me to get used to playing on grass.
“At the end of the day, you really have to be better at moving north and south from the baseline to the net. The ball doesn’t bounce as high on the grass, so you really need to take advantage of those shorter balls. You can’t wait for the ball to come to you.
At the turn of this century, the Wimbledon grass was playing much faster, conducive to big serves from Venus Williams and Goran Ivanisevic. Venus won Wimbledon in 2000 and 2001, while Ivanisevic broke a record 213 aces en route to the 2001 title. Today it’s much slower and you see a lot more rallies than before.
“Probably the trickiest shot on the grass is the return of serve,” Gilbert said. “Especially in the women’s game, where they break a lot more – on grass it’s harder to do. Especially if you’re playing behind the baseline and there’s a lot of dirt late in the tournament. You cannot do the jumping split step without descending.
Those big arching forehand swings that carried Swiatek and his idol, Rafael Nadal, to victory at Roland Garros? Forget them?
“With the lower rebounds, it’s a roll of the dice,” Navratilova said. “You can’t take such a massive swing. If you get a bad bounce, you can’t adapt to it. You need to make everything shorter, maybe a little lower backswing, maybe a little shorter backswing, a little more inside the court.
“Also the cadence is a bit different with the shorter rebound. The ball comes back faster, so there’s less time between shots to prepare for the next shot. So you need to be in slightly better cardio shape to sustain that intensity all the way to the ball.
Tighten… in a hurry
Beyond Halep and Muguruza, there are a number of players who have distinguished themselves on both clay and grass. Wimbledon champions Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber went far at Roland Garros. Karolina Pliskova was a Wimbledon runner-up a year ago and reached the 2017 semi-finals in Paris. Jelena Ostapenko won the French Open in 2017 and reached the Wimbledon semi-finals a year later. Roland Garros runner-up Coco Gauff was just 15 when she qualified for the fourth round at Wimbledon.
Ostapenko and Belinda Bencic, along with Anastasia Potapova, Claire Liu, Eugenie Bouchard and Kirsten Flipkens, join Swiatek as former Wimbledon women’s champions in this year’s main draw. It should be noted that Wiktorowski previously coached 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska.
“Yeah, I’ll just prepare as best I can and maybe with his experiences he had with Aga,” Swiatek said. “It was his favorite surface, so maybe he’ll give me some tips that will really help, and I’ll enjoy playing on grass a bit more.”
Mary Carillo, who has called matches at Roland Garros for NBC and Peacock, doesn’t see why Swiatek’s clay-court game won’t work on grass.
“Why would a surface stop him?” Carlillo said. “Honestly, why would that create any sort of problem for her? Iga doesn’t have great grips, she has solid footwork on hard and clay. And the grass is so different from what it was. I can’t imagine this being problematic for her.
“She’s a great athlete, and great athletes adapt to things like that,” Navratilova said. “And I think she’ll be able to shorten that swing. It’s not such a big swing. Quite compact, its forehand. So that should translate well. Maybe the big topspin forehand won’t pay off as much, but maybe she’ll flatten it a bit, faster.
“I’m sure she worked on the transition game. On the grass, it really pays to step forward and get the ball in the air. Technically, she should be fine.