When a high-profile match involving a high-profile player involves a high-profile injury, it is easy to reach for the quick conclusion or the sweeping statement… but the quick conclusion or sweeping statement can sometimes be wrong, misguided, or both.
Such was the case after Serena Williams — who already had significant wrapping around her upper right leg, and might have been carrying a slight hamstring injury into Wimbledon — slipped when making a backward movement with her left leg in the first set of her match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich on Tuesday. Her movement was very clearly impaired, and she retired minutes later. Serena had hoped to make yet another Wimbledon final. She reached the final in 2018 and 2019, and in four of her last five trips to the All-England Club. Her retirement from this match is a huge loss for the tournament and tennis fans, given that Serena never had a chance to compete at Wimbledon last year due to the pandemic.
The grass-slippage issue had already become a headline story on Tuesday before Serena’s match. A very unfortunate injury to Adrian Mannarino — who led Roger Federer two sets to one (but was down a break in the fourth) — led to a retirement by the Frenchman just after the fourth set. Federer was not the better player in this match, and he admitted as much after Mannarino retired.
It was not the first time a fabled Wimbledon champion trailed in a match and advanced in the bracket because of his opponent’s injury. Mark Philippoussis led Pete Sampras by a set in the 1999 Wimbledon quarterfinals before suffering a nasty injury which caused him to retire. Sampras won Wimbledon four days later against Andre Agassi.
So it goes.
We don’t need to pretend that the various playing surfaces in tennis are equal in terms of how often players slip on them. The first few days of a grass tournament often involve slips and slides with a level of frequency we don’t see at clay or hardcourt tournaments. This doesn’t mean slips aren’t part of clay or hardcourt tennis — they are — but the frequency is much lower than in the first few days of a tournament held on a fresh lawn, particularly in damp conditions.
There are differences among the playing surfaces, and the first four or five days of Wimbledon are tricky in terms of footing. Injuries have happened because of slips on the slick grass, and they will happen again.
There is no deeper story to this. It’s just part of tennis, a sport which has been played on multiple surfaces for 130 years, since Roland Garros began in 1891.
From 1905 — when the Australian Open was founded — through 1974, three of the four major tournaments were played on grass.
Did we see an epidemic of players slipping on slick grass at the start of the Australian and U.S. Opens or at Wimbledon? No we did not.
From 1975 through 1987, two of the four majors were played on grass. Was there an attack of injuries on grass, such that either of the two tours were depleted? No there was not.
The injury threat provided by grass is unique, but not severe or extreme.
Look at the larger whole of tennis in 2021:
Simona Halep, Ashleigh Barty, and Garbine Muguruza, among several others, were worn down by clay season and the physical nature of clay-court tennis.
Rafael Nadal needed to take a break. He wasn’t injured on grass.
Dominic Thiem got injured in a grass event, but it was a wrist injury completely removed from the slip-and-slide treachery of a grass surface.
Grass isn’t a worse surface for tennis injuries. The slipping in the first week of Wimbledon is simply easier to notice because the tours barely play on grass all year. Top players play one week of warm-up tennis before Wimbledon. “Grass season” is a misnomer, since it’s hard to view a four-week period as a whole season.
Wimbledon is the one grass tournament everyone watches, since there is no 1,000-point grass tournament where Roger, Rafa and Novak all play, and since there is no 1,000-point women’s tournament of similar stature. Wimbledon is the only showcase grass event on the calendar, and it comes just a few weeks after Roland Garros — this year, just two weeks after Paris, not three.
Wimbledon — in modern times — essentially has become synonymous with grass tennis, unlike the world of past decades in which large portions of the calendar had grass tournaments. When a high-profile injury happens at Wimbledon, there is no follow-up grass event or other showcase grass tournament to provide a fuller context for grass-court acumen. Wimbledon is it — it’s the whole show. If Wimbledon is marred by injury, it’s easy to then conclude that grass tennis is marred as a result.
The idea that grass tennis shouldn’t expand because of these injuries ignores two fundamental points: First, playing tennis on hardcourts is extremely punishing on joints, especially the knees. Imagine Rafael Nadal playing on a tour with 25 percent less hardcourt tennis and 25 percent more grass. Would he come out on the short side of that equation from a physical standpoint? It’s an open question. Remember that he has suffered many injuries at the Australian Open over the years. When we look at the larger whole of tennis, there is no severe “Grass Monster” which has disproportionately hijacked or harmed careers.
Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors.
Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker.
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic.
Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong.
Chris, Martina, Steffi.
Serena, Venus, Clijsters, Davenport, Henin.
Grass injuries stick in the mind because Wimbledon and the identity of grass tennis are tightly fused together in the public imagination, and of course those injuries (Serena and Mannarino) are awful when they happen… but that’s sport. It’s not a “grass menace” problem.
The second point missed by anyone who wants to prevent grass from having more events on the calendar is the bigger point in this discussion: Maybe, just maybe, if there WAS an actual grass season the same way there is a 2.5-month clay season (from early April through mid-June), players would get a lot more time playing on grass.
Remember this: There was no grass season in 2020. Players on both tours went without grass tennis for 23.5 months. Can we guarantee that the presence of a 2020 grass season would have prevented these injuries on Tuesday? No, of course not… but it remains that the PAUCITY of grass tennis, not its ABUNDANCE, adds to the frailty of this 2021 Wimbledon tournament.
Injuries are awful, especially when they claim Serena Williams at Wimbledon or prevent a dogged opponent from being able to face Roger Federer in a fifth-set shootout… but this is not an existential crisis for tennis, nor is it an indication that grass needs to be prevented from expanding.
The foreignness of grass has increased over the years, instead of remaining a widely-used surface in tennis, which it was through the mid-1980s and especially through the early 1970s.
Grass HAS become more marginalized already. Maybe the solution is to make it less of a niche surface and more of a common one. At any rate, the sport is punishing and physically demanding as it is.
Don’t make grass the fall guy… or should I say, the fall blade.