Why use grass on tennis courts? Grass is fast!

With the availability of hard, rough surfaces for tennis courts, why do champions play on natural grass at Wimbledon? That grass is no regular “yard grass” – and it’s not even the same as what is on golf courses. The grasses at Wimbledon are not only bred for tennis but maintained at professional levels. Let’s look at some of the factors about different tennis surfaces, and of course, the game of tennis itself.

Factors in a tennis game

Pace: The term pace is used to describe the conditions of the court specific to how fast or slow players need to move to the ball after the ball impacts the court surface. The speed of play is related to (1) the vertical height of the ball bounce on the court and (2) the friction between the ball and court surface.

Compared to a rough surface (hard courts), a smooth surface like grass will have less friction. That means that after the tennis ball impacts a court surface, it will retain more of its inbound speed (velocity) than after impacting a court of low surface friction.

Bounce: The higher the ball bounces off a court surface the more time a player must complete their stroke in relation to the tennis net. Court surfaces having higher ball bounce will therefore play slower than courts having lower ball bounce. The combination of higher ball bounce and higher surface friction will allow the court to play slower.

tennis ball on ryegrass tennis court. grass courts have high bounce rate
This perennial ryegrass tennis court has relatively high ball bounce and higher surface friction that helps ryegrass to play slower than other turfgrasses. Credit: J.S. Ebdon

Types for surfaces

There are over 160 different types of court surfaces used to play tennis. Major court surfaces include hard court (acrylic and asphalt), clay, and natural grass surfaces.

Court surfaces of lower friction will have the potential to play faster because the tennis ball retains more velocity after impact. In general, hard court and clay courts play slower because of their higher ball bounce and higher surface friction when compared to grass courts.

Grass surfaces are less rigid (softer) than other court surfaces and this contributes to the lower ball bounce and faster pace on grass. In addition, grass surfaces generally have lower surface friction with the ball and the combination of lower ball bounce and lower surface friction make grass courts “fast” in terms of its speed of play. The unpredictable bounce and fast pace of grass make grass tennis courts notoriously fast!

three grass tennis courts and research plots used to test ball bounce, surface friction and traffic tolerance
Grass tennis courts at the University of Massachusetts Amherst were established to investigate different turfgrasses for ball bounce, surface friction, and traffic tolerance. Credit: J.S. Ebdon

Other factors about grass tennis courts

Unlike more permeant court surfaces such as hard court and clay surfaces, grass courts are living and very dynamic. Turfgrass react to day-to-day variations caused by weather and ordinary maintenance practices such as mowing height and frequency, irrigation and rainfall, and fertilization. Grass courts will thin and lose turf density from play (traffic) along the court baseline. Under such conditions the height of the ball bounce and friction between the surface and ball will change, and this in turn, will change the speed (pace) at which the game of tennis is played. These changes in the grass surface make grass courts less consistent and unpredictable than hard court and clay court surfaces. Less consistent ball bounce on grass surfaces require players to react faster to the ball when playing on grass courts. This can make for a more exciting game that shows off professionals’ skills!

Another factor unique to grass court surfaces is they need to be maintained. Grass tennis courts are a hybrid between a golf green (smoothness and mowing height), and the heavy traffic seen on football fields.

Maintaining 100% grass cover by selecting traffic tolerant turfgrass is critical to grass court performance and sustainability. Proper maintenance is important to having fast grass surfaces play slower like hard court and clay surfaces while maintaining optimum traffic tolerance. As grass surfaces are worn down to bare soil or worn to partial grass cover from play at the baseline higher ball bounce and unpredictable ball bounce will result.

side by side turfgrass with the grass on the right showing soil due to foot traffic
Perennial ryegrass shown to the left is more traffic tolerant than colonial bentgrass shown to the right. The bounce of the tennis ball is less consistent after impacting colonial bentgrass. Credit: J.S. Ebdon

Many common cool-season turfgrass used as recreational turf have been tested for their use in tennis. Some turfgrasses are used in commercial lawns, athletic turf, and in golf. Turfgrasses such as colonial, creeping and velvet bentgrasses used in golf will play very fast because of their lower ball bounce and are worn down to bare soil very quickly from traffic along the court baseline. Other turfgrasses such as perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass that are used in lawns and sports turf tolerate traffic better than bentgrass and provide higher ball bounce that allow these grass courts to play slower like clay and hard courts.

The surface on which tennis matches are played greatly affect how tennis players adapt their athletic game. So, next time you tune into watching the Wimbledon Grass Court Championships remember “grass is fast.”

Answered by J. Scott Ebdon and Michelle DaCosta, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Dr. Ebdon’s research was published last year in Crop Science Journal, a publication of the Crop Science Society of America

https://doi.org/10.1002/csc2.20270)

Other notable grass courts:

Longwood Cricket Club, Chestnut Hill, MA, one of the world’s oldest and prestigious, established 1877

International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport, RI, established 1881

Seabright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club, Rumson, NJ, established 1877

Philadelphia Cricket Club, Philadelphia, PA Germantown Cricket Club, Philadelphia, PA

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