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Wimbledon's mystique is borne of class, grass


WIMBLEDON, England -- And then there are the grass courts at Wimbledon.

Just like that, they come into view, green, fresh and intimidating. An endless season of clay, hard courts and carpets can't prepare anyone for what it's like to actually play on grass.

That is Wimbledon's blessing and its curse, to be put on display for the next two weeks beginning tomorrow at the All England Tennis Club.

In the circus that is the world tennis tour, Wimbledon stands alone, the original major tournament on the original surface.

"Things have changed in tennis," said Boris Becker. "The size of the players has changed. Because of that, the speed has gone up. You play at wider angles. But there are fewer players who can play well on grass."

There's the rub about Wimbledon. Virtually an entire generation of players has been raised to view grass as though it were some sort of alien object. Grass creates strange bounces and skips. It turns to dust in the sun and wax in the rain. It favors the attackers rather than the return artists.

It is unpredictable, and, goodness knows, pampered millionaires hate unpredictability.

But the worst part about grass is that it is out of style. Once upon a time, three of the four majors were decided on grass. There was a summer grass circuit in England and America. In winter, there were more grass tournaments in Australia. If you didn't know how to play on grass, you didn't survive in the country club world of tennis.

A decade ago, there was talk about ripping up Wimbledon's surface. But that's all it ever was -- talk.

"People have grown less and less familiar with this surface, therefore, they are more and more intimidated," Pam Shriver said. "Conchita Martinez was the most surprised person in the world last year when she won Wimbledon. Just because you are not a serve-and-volleyer doesn't mean you can't win Wimbledon. Bjorn Borg proved that. So did Andre Agassi."

Still, grass suits the players with the big serves. That's what has gotten Pete Sampras two straight Wimbledon crowns. It's the weapon that pushed Goran Ivanisevic to two Wimbledon finals.

"You have to shorten your swing," Sampras said. "It's not a surface where you have to work on stamina. Grass . . . it's explosive stuff."

With big rackets and bigger players, the grass-court style may often appear dull. But the strategy can be compelling. There are slice approach shots that skip low. Angle volleys that cut away to the flower pots. And. always, there is the constant need to attack.

"If you don't volley, you don't have a chance," said Rod Laver, whose two Grand Slam seasons occurred in the nearly-all grass era.

This year, though, in a bid to stop the two-serves-and-a-cloud-of-dust tennis, officials have deflated the tennis balls slightly to slow the game. But at Wimbledon, the player with the big, consistent serve is always going to be at an advantage.

"We just kept boring in, first serve, second serve, that was the style," Laver said. "If you were receiving and the person didn't come to net, there was a good chance you would have to.

"You'd have to learn to play on all different types of grass. The grass at Wimbledon is very good now, but in the old days, it wasn't all that brilliant. You think back to the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, and the grass was never very good. It was soft and undulating. Roy Emerson said he wouldn't let his bloody cows out there. But a good grass court is fun to play on."

Tell that to Thomas Muster, the French Open champion who was so excited about the prospect of playing at Wimbledon that he decided to go on vacation.

Or tell that to Sergi Bruguera and Alberto Berasategui, who withdrew from Wimbledon with injuries that were so mysterious, they have to get doctors' notes to avoid fines.

And Mary Pierce is showing up at Wimbledon for the first time ever. Last year, she actually played on grass once. And lost. To a junior.

"More players could do well at Wimbledon," Becker said. "But very few players practice much on grass."

At least most of the top men play in one or two tuneup tournaments. The top women have all but given up on a grass-court tuneup. Steffi Graf, a first-round Wimbledon loser last year, has played only one grass-court match in two years. The Eastbourne Tournament, which once routinely drew top stars such as Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, named Kimiko Date this year's top seed.

In a bid to get more women to play grass-court events next year, players at Eastbourne will get what amounts to a free pass in the computer rankings. Losses won't count. Wins will yield bonus points.

"Once the players experience the surface, they actually like it," said Eastbourne tournament director George Hendon. "The talented players, with the right coaching, can pick up the serve-and-volley style."

So there. It's not all that bad. For two weeks, the players will be forced to adjust to a game from another era. That's the way it is around here. Champions come and go. The grass stays.

Said Shriver: "Wimbledon is above it all."


Where: All-England Club.

When: Tomorrow through July 9.

Defending champions: Men, Pete Sampras (two-time). Women, Conchita Martinez.

Top seeds: Men, Andre Agassi; Women, Steffi Graf.

TV this week: Monday-Friday, HBO, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, chs. 11,4, noon-3 p.m.

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