As we’ve seen from Serena Williams and Roger Federer, being able to stand on the baseline and hit shots early and flat is a great advantage for a player who wants to unleash aggressive, first-strike tennis. But on clay courts, the ball bounces so remorselessly high that if you don’t play farther back on the court, away from the baseline, you’ll be left to trying to pull off shots coming at you shoulder high and often even higher.
The French Open luxuriates in its own laws of physics and playlists of tactics that make it more distinctive than even Wimbledon. Tennis on grass, after all, is really in essence a bucolic, ultrafast version of hard court tennis infused with a heavy dose of nostalgia.
Strangely, this is one of the allures of tennis. That as it glances both backward and forward, the game can revel in the nostalgia of grass and mandatory all-white outfits while heralding in video replay and extensive changes such as tiebreakers and shot clocks.
This is no doubt in part because of the nature of the schedule. Professional tennis is one of the few sports that begin on the first day of the year and progress forward to the end of the year. Within this calendar year the three main surfaces — hard court, clay and grass — each form their own type of mini-season within the full season, beginning on hard courts, moving to clay, then grass and finally back to hardcourts. In other words, a year in tennis mimics a year in our lives: It’s seasonal, and a season is inherently a thing both of renewal and destruction, welcomes and farewells.
So spare a moment for my favorite surface this weekend and catch the French Open finals. Come Monday tennis turns the page, from the greatest show on dirt to leaves of grass.