Earlier this year, Tennis Australia and the Australian Open’s tournament director, Craig Tiley made a deliberate decision to change the Australian Open’s court surface, from Rebound Ace to Plexicushion. The Australian press made headlines out of the surface switch, emphasising the distinct advantage that the surface would give for local hope, Lleyton Hewitt who had long spoken out about his desire to finally win his home Grand Slam.
The claims were made by some sources that the new Australian Open surface would be sped up to become even faster than the current speed of the courts at Wimbledon, while other sources stated that the surface would be playing at a similar speed to previous years. There were fears that the surface would be too similar to the courts at the US Open, and that the Australian Open had lost its uniqueness.
But one year later, now that the surface has been tried and tested under tournament conditions, by the players themselves and observed by the fans, we can more accurately evaluate the surface and its differences with Rebound Ace, and which players it favours and disadvantages.
Rebound Ace had more distinct qualities to hardcourt and was most known for its high bounce and ability to take spin. Over the years, the speed of the surface varied significantly, both due to the indecisiveness of the organizers and the inability to effectively test the surface due to the major impact that weather conditions had on the speed of the surface.
The courts were playing relatively quickly way back in 2001, when Pat Rafter made it through to the semi-finals but since then they had slowed down somewhat, especially in 2006 and 2007, which in part was due to the slowing down of courts across the board on the tour. In 2007, was when Lleyton Hewitt famously yelled to “Fix the courts!” in his five-set encounter with Michael Russell out of sheer frustration, a plea for help which eventually led to the court surface change today. The appointment of Craig Tiley as the new tournament director, replacing Paul McNamee, was the other reason behind the change.
In night conditions, the court was often slow and players needed to generate their own pace to be able to hit through the court. The difference between how the courts played at night, compared to day conditions was magnified. Last year I watched big serving lefty Australian, Chris Guccione put on a serving clinic against Rafael Nadal in Sydney, consistently serving aces against the world number 2 back then with serves that viciously kicked and spun out of court.
Then scheduled for the night session the next round against Austrian Jurgen Melzer, it was like Guccione’s serve was suddenly transformed into a mediocre stroke without any of the vicious spin from the day before, and the ball was consistently landing right into Melzer’s strike zone to return back with ease. For this reason, Guccione has been known to often request day matches to improve his chances.
The introduction of Plexicushion meant that many of the fluctuating playing conditions that were problematic with rebound ace were drastically reduced. The heat no longer reflected off the court as severely, where it was reported that the temperature on the rebound ace surface was often 10-15 degrees above the air temperature. The surface began to show more of the qualities of a typical hardcourt, in particular, predictability.
It was a medium-paced court, as close to the definition of a neutral court as you could find. It was a surface that didn’t reward any particular style of play over another, where slice backhands stayed relatively low, but heavily topspun groundstrokes were also given their fair share of reward. Players could stay back to trade groundstrokes, but were also able to finish points off at net if they were selective enough about it. For that reason, the surface was relatively well-received by the players, and there were no complaints made about it publicly.
In the end, it was concluded that the new surface was not overly different from Rebound Ace, for any type of player to gain a significant advantage, given that the old Rebound Ace surface was known to be a relatively fair one, in itself. Even though the old surface had been known to take spin particularly well, flatter hitters like Andre Agassi, Marcos Baghdatis and Marat Safin also had some of their biggest successes on the surface. In fact, if you look at the winners list, five of the six previous champions have been known to be relatively clean, flat strikers of the ball (Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Thomas Johansson, Andre Agassi, Marat Safin while Novak Djokovic is somewhere in between in that he can either flatten out his shots or impart a bit more topspin). Showing that if players were either tall or strong enough, or had the ability to take the ball early to counter the higher bounce, then that was a good recipe for success.
With the added predictability and elimination of some external factors, logic would suggest that we can expect to see more of the favourites move through the draw. After all, factors like the heat and changing conditions are potential factors that could disrupt the rhythm, mental outlook and physical conditioning of the more favoured player, issues that make the one-on-one battle less about pure tennis abilities.
Starting from next year, this predictability will extend even further, now that the heat rule has been modified to allow matches to be disrupted when the heat reaches above the limit of 35°C on court. Considering that the most high profile players are usually scheduled to play under the comfort of a roof on the show courts, and that the majority of them are in physically good shape, you would think that this decision is one that impacts and favours more the second tier and below players, like Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych. Players that are known more for their shotmaking and ball-striking, than their physical fitness.
Roger Federer regularly trains in Dubai in difficult conditions, Rafael Nadal is known as one of the fittest players on the tour, Andy Murray recently triumphed in hot temperatures in Cincinnati earlier this year, and Novak Djokovic is also physically fresh at the start of the tennis season. On the women’s side, the players are less proven in this area, but their matches are less likely to be decided to be physical fitness due to the shorter format.
If there was one criticism of the change in playing conditions, it was surprisingly the change of balls from Slazenger to Wilson, which had been previously used at the US Open. Prior to the event, Richard Gasquet and Fernando Gonzalez had made complaints about the balls fluffing up and slowing down, while Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, Andy Murray and Roger Federer agreed about the effect of the Wilson balls.
Safin and Gasquet commented that players needed to be strong in the upper body to be able to generate the pace necessary to hit through the court, reiterating that the bigger hitters had a clear advantage over the counterpunchers. This was further backed up by the success of Novak Djokovic and surprise packet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier this year, both players that are capable of generating massive amounts of pace on their groundstrokes. Maria Sharapova on the women’s side also overpowered her opponents to pick up the coveted Australian Open title.