Slippery situation at Wimbledon
LONDON -- "Grass," Sloane Stephens said with all the wisdom her 20 years could bring to bear, "is grass."
It was the simplest yet, in some ways, one of the smartest things anyone said all day at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club regarding the No. 2 most popular topic of the day behind No. 1: all the best players at Wimbledon losing or dropping out.
In several instances, Nos. 1 and 2 were intertwined. No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka withdrew from her second-round match Wednesday, saying she hurt her knee slipping on the grass Monday. John Isner also slipped and had to withdraw with a knee injury Wednesday.
Other players slipped and lost (No. 3 Maria Sharapova, telling the chair umpire the conditions were "dangerous"); some slipped and won; and, all the while, Wimbledon officials maintained their trademark stiff upper lips.
"The courts are prepared exactly the same as they have been every year, and we haven't changed anything, so there's no reason why they should be any slippier this year than any other year," Wimbledon head groundskeeper Neil Stubley told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi on Thursday. "We have a tried and tested method of how we produce our grass courts, and we're fully confident in that. We were last year, and we are this year."
And yet ...
"They're saying there's nothing different, but the eye test tells you, 'God darn, there's a lot of people falling,' " said ESPN analyst and former top-five player Brad Gilbert.
One theory floating around the tournament was that the 2012 Olympics, played on the same Wimbledon courts last summer, caused more wear and tear and changed the schedule of the court's conditioning with another resurfacing required.
"No," said former British pro Tim Henman and four-time Wimbledon semifinalist, "because as members, we play on the courts until the middle of September anyway. So whether the Olympics had been here or not, we would always be playing on them."
"And they redo the courts every year anyway," tennis Hall of Famer and ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale said. "The Olympic thing is a complete red herring. That's nonsense."
On Thursday, a day in which rain interrupted play on all but the roof-covered Centre Court, the slipping continued, although none resulted in notable injuries this time.
"I bruise easily," said Marina Erakovic, who slipped and suffered a bruised knee. "Luckily, I caught myself."
Drysdale said he blames cold and wet weather in England over the past few months.
"[The grass] is actually a lot better than it used to be," he said. "Some years ago, they hardened the surface up. As slippery as it is now, the ball bounce is much more predictable than it used to be. ... It really changed dramatically for the better, which is why players can stay back now and win -- and do stay back and win."
Gilbert said that players' improving athletic abilities also explains it.
"There have always been slips," he said. "But players are trying to make more explosive moves, the same moves they make on hard court and clay, which are not as easy on the grass.
"The [slips] we're seeing the most is right behind baselines -- it's almost like when they do a jump step, they're spinning their wheels. It's almost like a noncontact injury in football. It's not like they're making a running move, it's because they're trying to change direction."
ESPN's Patrick McEnroe agreed.
"[It's] the physicality of the game -- players have to move more quickly, maybe not than the last year or two years ago, but certainly than 25 years ago," he said. "If you watch tapes of my brother [John] playing [Bjorn] Borg and Chris Evert playing Martina [Navratilova], they have more time between shots. That's just a fact."
The former players all said the courts would benefit from more use right before the tournament.
"It's pristine on Day 1," McEnroe said, "but that makes it more slippery."
"I do think there may be a case for having the members play on these courts a couple days before the tournament starts to maybe wear them in a bit," Drysdale said.
Henman said it has been discussed among All England Club members.
"The seeded players obviously get half an hour [of practice on the courts] every day the week before," Henman said. "If they play with another seeded player, they're getting an hour a day on the outside courts. The show courts do get played on, but very minimally. So perhaps that's something to look at."
Beginning in 2015, there will be an extra week built in between the French Open and Wimbledon, which players have said could reduce injuries with more play on the softer surface and more time to adapt to the grass.
"I think that will be good for everyone," Henman said.
Until then, as Roger Federer said after his second-round upset Wednesday, players maybe just need to be realistic.
"It is grass, after all," he said.