Smokin’ Grass: On Stereotyping and The Little Guy

Posted by Brodie under: Lu, SW19

25 Jun 2012

With age comes many things. Sore joints, blurry eyes, hair in strange places, or maybe no hair at all. But it also brings something much more wonderful. Perspective.

Surface changes in tennis are a strange thing, but the switch to grass remains the most peculiar of all. What kind of sport would have it’s biggest tournament on a surface people play on for only four months at a time? Tennis, that’s what.

With history comes knowledge, but so does an over simplification of the facts. Wimbledon, and grass in general, is a fast surface. This much we know. For years, Pete Sampras and his cannon blast serve dominated the competition. It was no wonder he wasn’t much of a fan of practicing. Patrick McEnroe recounted in his book that Sampras was a fan of playing tiebreakers, typically for $100 bucks a pop just to give them some sort of meaning.

Big serving giant Lendl. High flying Rafter. The whip of Roddick. In the eyes of most people, grass is a simple surface. Serve big, and serve big often.

In reality, the stereotypical view of what grass courts are like may be closer to what an indoor hard court is like. Yes, big serving has and always will yield results on grass. However, while grass may be slightly slower than the insane speeds of yore, bounces incredibly low. It is an almost opposite problem to the speed of the stuff.

Two years ago, 82nd ranked Rendy Lu took out Andy Roddick. It was seen as a choke on Roddick’s part. How could such a big server lose to such a little guy on a fast surface?

Watching Lu today, it is very apparent that grass rewards all risk takers. Lu has nearly mastered the art of small guy grass tennis. We smaller players (and I speak from experience) are used to playing defensively against big hitters. Outlast, outwit, and defend.

Lu has learned over time that there is hope for the little guy. Footwork is the key ingredient. At 5’11, Lu is hardly Leo Messi, but he is hardly John Isner either (Isner is 14 inches taller than Messi). He is on the shorter side for a tennis player. He keeps his feet moving. Always. This aids his ability to put real angle at the ball, as he is setting up before his opponent has made a shot. This further boosts his ability to react and push opponents into difficult areas, particularly off easier cross court shots.

Lu has a good serve, but not an excellent serve, but he is able to play with a pattern similar to a big server. In the first set against Harrison he served at 67% but won 97% of his first serve points. For big servers, it’s easy. Hit the serve, wait for the weak return, crush the forehand.  Lu has found a nearly similar style of play, but involves creating that opening from the shot after due to excellent footwork and quick thinking, not from a bomb serve out wide. This doesn’t mean that he was hitting winners directly after the serve, but that he set himself up to succeed. Again, lower centre of gravity and excellent footwork means he is able to creep into the net and make quick decisions to finish off points. Excellent movement largely blurs the line between offense and defense (think Nadal). Most importantly, he has the confidence to go for it time after time, and very rarely settles for less.

Grass is a surface that demands you to go for it. Those who shoot first shall be rewarded, it is simple as that. And while power never hurts, grass can also reward those who can use the low bounce, react and move quickly, and be creative (the other side of Federer’s game, for instance).

As an individual sport, tennis can feel repetitive and rather simple. Players who can rethink their game and make the necessary adjustments so that surfaces work in their favour and not vice versa should always have a special place in the hearts of tennis fans.

The Changeover Podcast:

Episode #56 – Indian Wells Wrap