Ball to bounce Rafa's way at Wimby?
WIMBLEDON, England -- Ask 10 different players how the grass is playing at Wimbledon this year, and you'll get 10 different answers.
"It's slow. It's not quick like usual," Michael Llodra said. "I mean, a couple years ago it was faster for sure."
"No, it's better than last year for sure," Jurgen Melzer said.
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"Depends, obviously, how you play as well," Roger Federer said. "If you've got a massive serve and you can just outright overpower a guy, then obviously it's fast. But a guy who is that agile at the baseline, like [first-round opponent Alejandro] Falla, makes it very difficult to play against."
The long-standing consensus is that grass is playing more like hard court, with a higher, truer bounce than a decade ago. But more so than hard court, it is affected by changing conditions.
"I'd put more stock into the weather as opposed to the actual court," Andy Roddick said. "You know, when it's colder out, it slows up a bunch. When it's really warm -- it was really warm last year almost the whole tournament, and it was pretty quick."
At Wimbledon, colder weather usually means wet weather. And when it's wet, the grass becomes slicker and the bounces lower, making slices stay low and volleying easier. Hot, dry weather means a livelier ball but also a higher bounce.
With the weather forecast to get warmer through the first week and perhaps beyond, the ground underneath will get baked hard while the grass above gets worn away. By the time the later rounds come around, the lush, green field could look more like a dirt patch.
One person who won't be complaining is Rafael Nadal, who will find the conditions becoming more like his beloved clay.
"For me, first matches are very difficult," Nadal said. "If you win more matches, you can finish playing better than you start because in the end of the tournament you play similar to clay, no?"
It's that extra bounce, more than anything else, that seems to be responsible for the change in the way the game is played on the surface and the players who are having success on it. Grass remains a relatively quick surface that rewards power. But it is no longer the domain of big servers and net rushers who benefited from the way the ball skidded away on the turf. Now the ball sits up a little more, a little longer; there's a little more time to line up a passing shot, and it's easier to chase balls down.
"There's no bad bounces," Federer said. "You can just stick at the baseline, half-volley, not panic when a guy moves in. You can always flick it at the end. Obviously they're not the fastest courts anymore."
Tournament officials always have denied deliberately trying to slow down the surface, but the grass blend grown on the courts was changed in 2001 to 100 percent rye grass, which requires less watering and can withstand more rolling and compacting.
The sunny and warm weather during the first few days of the championships means the grass is playing at a nice medium, Melzer reports.
"The ball is staying a little flatter -- it's good if you come in and you can easily put volleys away," he said. "But if you have rallies from the baseline, the ball still bounces up, and you can hit."
The weather will benefit Nadal, but it is just one of several factors falling into place for the Spaniard, who won the title in 2008 in conditions that the Wimbledon compendium recalls as "generally warm and sunny" apart from "rain interrupting play on the first Friday and three days towards the end."
Unable to play during last year's gloriously sunny fortnight because of knee injuries, Nadal was dealt this year what potentially looked like a very tough draw: James Blake in the second round, Ernests Gulbis in the third, John Isner in the fourth, Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals, Andy Murray in the semifinals and Federer in the finals.
But Blake, who has troubled Nadal a couple of times, turned out to be in no shape to play after being sidelined by a knee injury most of the season. Gulbis withdrew before the tournament even started because of a hamstring strain. He was replaced with another talented but erratic player, Philipp Petzschner, who will bring less self-belief to a third-round encounter against Nadal.
And Isner, who's seen as a potential threat because of his giant serve, was embroiled in the unforgettable longest match against Nicolas Mahut, finishing his chances of being able to hang with Nadal over a best-of-five sets even if he's able to get to that stage.
And if the weather holds up, the courts should be playing just to Rafa's liking by the time he gets to test them against the likes of Mikhail Youzhny, Soderling and beyond.
It's not as if Nadal needs much extra help, either, because he is playing the best tennis of anyone coming into the tournament. He lost in the third round at Queen's on grass after going undefeated on clay, but the loss gave him a chance to go home to Mallorca and get in some time on the beach, so he is relatively fresh after a long spring campaign. Perhaps most importantly, he is pain-free.
Although Nadal isn't considered as unbeatable on grass as he is on clay, the players know he will be a force to be reckoned with this fortnight.
"He's the best clay-court player, in my opinion, that's played, and obviously winning matches creates confidence," Roddick said. "He uses that as a bit of a springboard.
"I don't think anybody in the locker room has ever said, 'Rafa is not the same.' It's just a matter of him getting into a groove."
Meanwhile, the likes of Federer, Roddick and those with more traditional grass-court approaches, such as Melzer, might be hoping for a change in the forecast.
"It would be nice if it cools down a little bit," Melzer said. "London like this, we're not used to."
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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