x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Dubai outpaces tennis world on the surface of it

In an era of slow courts and long rallies, the reflexes of top players such as Roger Federer were tested at Aviation Club during the recent Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

Roger Federer called playing at the Dubai Tennis Championships 'first-strike tennis here'.
Roger Federer called playing at the Dubai Tennis Championships 'first-strike tennis here'.

How telling to hear the world's best players peg the fastness of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships court as an anomaly.

It lent fresh evidence that the world has solved its boring-tennis problem.

That problem peaked probably at the 1991 Wimbledon, where blasting serves led to staccato points with few rallies on fast courts, which led to furrowed-brow suggestions for reform. Points often went boom-return-point, or often just boom-point. In a semi-final against the champion Michael Stich, Stefan Edberg never lost serve yet lost a match that featured one service break in four sets.

The words "boring" and even "soporific" made printed appearances.

The great Arthur Ashe, the 1975 titlist, surveyed the serve-dominated tedium, thought Wimbledon deserved better and told the Associated Press, "Success at Wimbledon is now survival of the tallest rather than survival of the fittest. The committee could have seeded by height and still done a creditable job of anticipating the results. A wonderfully talented performer like Michael Chang has no chance to win here."

David Lloyd, the former British player and coach, suggested to the Associated Press that you could design a winning player for Wimbledon only (and probably for the carbon-fibre-racquets era in general) and that the guy would be 6-foot-5 with a searing serve and a good nerve for tiebreakers. "It would be unbelievably boring to watch," Lloyd told the AP, "but he would win."

Suggestions included softer tennis balls, a backed-up service line, smaller racquet frames and the trusty old limit-the-players-to-one-serve.

Well, around a globe in which most everything has sped up two decades on, tennis courts have not. For years we have heard players speak of how the courts slowing down even at Wimbledon. Where once the French Open (slow) and Wimbledon (fast) seemed almost like two different sports, both Rafael Nadal (2008) and Roger Federer (2009) completed the rare double of winning both in the same year, something that before 2008 had not happened since wooden-racquet 1981.

Two decades on, you have players referring to Dubai as a worthy outlier from a slow slog of a world. Federer, the champion, called it "first-strike tennis here."

His long-underrated serve, placed fiendishly, mattered as he suffered only one break in five matches and never went down a break. Yet rallies did go on entertainingly – perhaps owing to further evolution of fitness – and by 2012, the speed does lend Dubai a curious, testing distinction on a grinding tennis map.