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 it. The problem on clay is when you get to the net. Because you can’t recover after the volley, you can’t maneuver and get to the ball fast enough.”
For most players, the transition from clay to grass can be awkward and difficult. For Navratilova, it was a revelation. Her uber-athletic game was made for the slick surface and its low-bouncing balls. She won her first of nine Wimbledon singles titles in 1978, at the age of 21. Twenty-five years later, she collected her 20th major title at Wimbledon, winning the mixed doubles with Leander Paes.
As the Hologic WTA Tour turns from the European clay-court season to the relatively brief – 34 days – campaign on grass, Navratilova has some good news.
“There’s not as much difference between clay and grass as there used to be,” she said. “The clay is playing faster, with the use of lighter balls, and the grass is playing slower.”
Few professional sports have surfaces that vary as widely as tennis. It takes a particularly fluid and flexible athlete to pull it off. The active players who have won titles at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon? Serena Williams, with three French Opens and seven Wimbledons, and Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza, with one each.
Two-time French Open winner Iga Swiatek was a junior champion four years ago at Wimbledon, but she’s won only three matches in her two previous appearances at the All England Club. Swiatek has won 35 consecutive matches, on hard courts and clay, but didn’t sound overly confident after winning at Roland Garros. Her coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski, has told her he believes she has the game for grass.
“I don’t know about that yet,” Swiatek said in Paris. “But I would like to add one or two [match-wins]. But honestly, grass is always tricky. I actually like the part that I have no expectations there. It’s something kind of refreshing.”
The pictures of Swiatek and the Roland Garros championship trophy are still all over social media, but two grass events are already underway in Nottingham, England and ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands. Next week, there’s a 500 event in Berlin, along with a 250 in Birmingham, England, and a 125 in Gaiba, Italy. The week before Wimbledon, it’s another 500 in Eastbourne and a 250 in Bad Homburg.
Mastering the nuances
Brad Gilbert reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1990 and wound up coaching three guys – Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray – who were pretty proficient 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 get it down. It used to be only two weeks, so at least that’s something. It’s still the toughest surface on the nuances of movement. You can’t track down balls as well as you can on other surfaces.”
That can be a joy to players on clay, sliding and slashing, marking their territory with dramatic gashes in the dirt. Try that on grass and the ligaments in your knees and ankles will object strenuously. Footwork is the biggest adjustment.
Long before she first played on grass, Navratilova trained on wooden indoor courts during the colder months.
“Talk about a contrast,” Navratilova said. “The ball shoots through the court like crazy. So that teaches you to make those adjustments. That made it easier for me to get used to playing on grass.”
“Ultimately, you really need to be better at moving north and south, from the baseline to the net. The ball doesn’t bounce as high on grass, so you really need to be taking advantage of those shorter balls. You can’t wait for the ball to come to you.”
At the turn of this century, Wimbledon’s grass was playing a lot faster, conducive to the big serves of Venus Williams and Goran Ivanisevic. Venus won Wimbledon in 2000 and 2001, while Ivanisevic hit a record 213 aces on his way to the 2001 title. Today, it’s a lot slower, and you see many 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’re breaking 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 can’t do the jumping split-step without going down.”
Those big, arching forehand topspin swings that carried Swiatek and her idol, Rafael Nadal, to victory at Roland Garros? Forget them?
“With the lower bounces, it’s a crapshoot,” Navratilova said. “You cannot be taking such a massive swing. If you get a bad bounce, you can’t adjust to it. You have to shorten everything, maybe a little bit lower backswing, maybe a little bit shorter backswing, little more inside the court.
“Also the cadence is a little bit different with the shorter bounce. The ball comes back quicker, so there’s less time between shots to get ready for the next shot. So you have to be in slightly better cardio shape to keep that intensity getting to the ball.”
Tightening it up … 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 have gone deep at Roland Garros. Karolina Pliskova was a Wimbledon finalist a year ago and reached the 2017 semifinals in Paris. Jelena Ostapenko won the French Open in 2017 and reached the Wimbledon semifinals a year later. Coco Gauff, a finalist at Roland Garros, was only 15 years old when she advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon.
Ostapenko and Belinda Bencic, along with Anastasia Potapova, Claire Liu, Eugenie Bouchard and Kirsten Flipkens, join Swiatek as former girls’ Wimbledon champions in this year’s main draw. It’s worth noting that Wiktorowski previously coached Agnieszka Radwanska, a Wimbledon finalist in 2012.
“Yeah, I’m going to just prepare my best and maybe with his experiences that he had with Aga,” Swiatek said. “It was her favorite surface, so maybe he’s going to give me some tips that are actually going to be really helpful, and I’m going to enjoy playing on grass a little bit more.”
Mary Carillo, who called matches at Roland Garros for NBC and Peacock, doesn’t see why Swiatek’s clay game won’t work on grass.
“Why would a surface stop her?” Carillo said. “Honestly, why would that create some kind of issue for her? Iga doesn’t have funky grips, she’s got sturdy footwork on hard and clay. And grass is so different from what it used to be. I cannot imagine that being problematic for her.”
“She’s a great athlete, and great athletes adjust to things like this,” Navratilova said. “And I think she’ll be able to shorten up that swing. It’s not that big a swing. Pretty compact, her forehand. So it should translate nicely. Maybe the big topspin forehand won’t pay off as much but maybe she’ll flatten it up a little bit, quicker.
“I’m sure she’s been working on the transition game. On the grass, it really pays to move forward and take the ball in the air. Technically, she should be fine.”