Everything I Know About Tennis I Learned from Cow Paths

There is a famous (and mostly apocryphal) set of stories about universities – sometimes it’s Tufts, sometimes Irvine, sometimes somewhere in … Denmark – that allegedly left grassy areas without sidewalks. The idea, according to the stories, is that students and faculty would create trails by their “desire lines”, and then campus planners could then turn those “cow paths” into sidewalks. It turns out it mostly didn’t happen, but the idea is the thing: paths in grass tell stories.

I was thinking about those cow paths while watching Wimbledon this year. While Rafael Nadal was unsurprisingly triumphant, I kept being pulled back to the cow paths on Center Court. Here is a screen grab of that court during the Nadal/Berdych final.

tennis-now

Notice the wear areas. After two weeks of play, the Center Court grass is dead along both baselines, stretching horizontally from sideline to sideline at either end of the court. (It’s also dead under the ball-boys and line judges, but that’s not important for this argument.) It is clear that the area seeing the most wear – the most player traffic during points – was that baseline dead-zone.

Now have a look at a screen grab from the classic 1980 Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

tennis-then

The wear patterns? They’re very different. There is wear along both baselines – left/right at the near and far ends – but the predominant wear is along what’s called the “t”-line which leads from mid-court to the center of the net. You can see how players have repeatedly rushed to the net, and then moved from side-to-side in an area just in front of the “t”.

Look once again at the picture of Center Court from this year’s final. See anything like what you saw during Borg/McEnroe? No, not at all. As most tennis fans know well, the game of tennis, even on grass, has been transformed by technology in recent years, with a “power baseline” game becoming dominant. Players like Rafael Nadal wallop the ball from the baseline, hitting unreturnable shots (“winners”) from parts of the court where players like Connors, Ashe, Borg and McEnroe would never have imagined it possible.

Turning back to court usage patterns, what this makes clear is the unidimensionality of court use. The dead areas in 1980 weren’t as dead as those in 2010 – it’s the difference between mostly dead and all dead, to borrow a phrase from Miracle Max.  Players baseline usage is so overwhelming that the courts became dried and crusty, according to player complaints. No area of the courts was as dead in 1980 as was the baseline in 2010. Modern technology has created a tennis monoculture, one that is best seen in paths of dead grass.

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