Wimbledon, which runs through July 10, is unique among tennis Grand Slam events. It’s the only major tournament to be played on grass – 100% perennial ryegrass mowed at 0.315 inches, to be exact.

To find out more about what playing on grass is like, Tom Schwab, superintendent of the O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility, interviewed U.S. Tennis Hall of Fame inductee John Powless. Powless, who was head basketball and tennis coach at UW-Madison from 1968 to 1976, has participated in O.J. Noer’s annual Wisconsin Turfgrass Summer Field Day a number of times over the years, holding a tennis demo on the station’s grass courts – the only grass courts in the state.

Here’s the full interview, which ran in a Wisconsin Turfgrass Association newsletter last year:

Schwab: We don’t have any grass courts in Wisconsin, aside from the demonstration court at O.J. Noer. Where have you travelled to play on grass and do you have any favorites?

Powless: I’ve played in many parts of the world. One of my favorites, of course, is Wimbledon because of the history of the tournament. England is the birthplace of tennis. Some say it was France. But either way grass was the original surface. New Delhi, India is another favorite because of their great playing conditions. Australia is another. They actually compact the courts with a heavy duty street roller before the Australian Open to make the surface truer and faster. Mission Hills in Palm Springs California is pretty good too.

Schwab: I know you have played and won on hard court, clay, and grass. What is your favorite surface and why?

Powless: They’re all good surfaces, but there’s something special about playing on grass, because that is the original surface tennis was played on.

Schwab: How does a tennis ball react differently on grass compared to a typical hard court?

Powless: A strong power shot is going to bounce low and long while retaining most of its speed. A slice shot is also going to bounce low, go long and be very quick. That is why you’ll often see the server move to the net to play the return ball on the fly. That style of play is called serve and volley. Another shot to be aware of is a drop shot which is going to die much quicker on grass compared to other surfaces. Grass play favors strong servers and players that can hit hard and get to the ball quicker. Points generally don’t last as long, in other words the ball doesn’t go over the net as many times per point, because of the stronger hits and importance of getting to the return quickly.

Schwab: Who are some major players who prefer to play on grass and why?

Powless: Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and many others who have had a strong serve and are quick to volley.

Schwab: For playing on grass courts, do you use different equipment (e.g., shoes, balls, racquets)?

Powless: Yes, the balls are made of different materials specific to grass. Shoes have a different sole. In old days, metal spikes were sometimes used in wet conditions which would destroy a court.   Today’s shoes used for grass play have soles with lots of small dimples rather than the smooth sole that you’d see on hard courts. The racquets are the same for any surface.

Schwab: Is physical conditioning different for grass play?

Powless: You have to practice on grass before you play on grass. Compared to hard court play, which is tough on your joints like knees, hips, and ankles, grass play is tougher on the major muscle groups like the quadriceps, calf, and hamstring muscles. Working out at the gym is OK but you have to get on actual grass before a tournament. During a tournament, I’ll walk by the hot tub area after playing to see who is nursing sore muscles, and then I’ll attempt to make them run more the next day.

Schwab: How do you modify or change your style of play for grass surfaces? Do you have any grass play secrets that you’d be willing to divulge?

Powless: You try to do more net play. If you have a chance to drop one in short, do it. Get out and practice on the grass court as much as you can before a tournament.

Schwab: Do you have any favorite stories about playing on grass courts?

Powless: Several years ago we were playing against identical twin in an international doubles tournament. They were so identical that they even dressed alike, down to the white warm up pants they wore since it was cool out. Half way through the match one of the twins slipped and grass stained his pants. Several points later, my partner and I noticed that the person serving never had stained pants. They got away with the stronger brother doing all the serving until we caught them.

Another story, and this is kind of bragging, so sorry. We were playing a British pair in doubles. It was in New Delhi, India for the World Championship. We were down for match point. One more point and the Brits would have won the championship. They served to my partner who mis-hit and returned a high ball back to them. This was ripe for them to slam a ball back at us which they did. The Brit came charging in and slammed a huge overhead straight at me. It landed between my feet and the only shot I had was to hit the ball from between my legs. I got it and the ball went over the net unreturned to tie the game. My partner and I then went on to get the next two points to tie the match. We then won the next eight points in a row to win the match and championship. Winning that many points in a row is unheard of in grass tennis but the “betweener” must have taken any remaining wind out of their sails and the Brits couldn’t get a single point after that lucky shot.

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