Serena Williams has been the most high-profile Wimbledon exit due to slippery conditions which have caused havoc for an array of star players this week. With Novak Djokovic also struggling with the wet grass for a second time in his match on Wednesday, Telegraph Sport explores what has happened:
What’s causing the slipperiness on Centre Court and Court One?
The wettest opening two days in a decade wiped out much of the action on the outdoor courts, but play continued uninterrupted on the tournament’s showpiece arenas. Wimbledon blamed the slippery surface on rain forcing organisers to use the roofs while the grass was “at its most lush and green”. There has been speculation that Centre Court’s state-of-the-art ventilation system may have been a factor in failing to dry the surface. Over 600 air distributors pump dry air into the space when the roof is closed as part of a roof design led by Populous, which also led the regeneration of Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium.
“The preparation of the grass courts has been to exactly the same meticulous standard as in previous years,” the All England Club added. Supervisors, referees and grounds teams “have been happy with the conditions and cleared the courts for play”. “The weather conditions on the opening two days have been the wettest we have experienced in almost a decade, which has required the roof to be closed on Centre Court and No 1 Court for long periods,” the statement added. “This is at a time when the grass plant is at its most lush and green, which does result in additional moisture on what is a natural surface. With each match that is played, the courts will continue to firm up. The Grounds team and Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) take hardness readings every morning in order to ensure that the courts have the right level of moisture and are playing consistently.”
What have players said?
Williams, who lost her footing and was eventually forced to pull out with an ankle injury against Aliaksandra Sasnovich, stopped short of criticising the grass in a statement, but said: “I was heartbroken to have to withdraw today after injuring my right leg”. However, a host of other players have taken issue with the surface. Roger Federer has said it was “more slippery under the roof”, while Djokovic has said he could not recall “falling this many times on court”.
Shortly before Williams’ exit on Tuesday, Federer’s opponent, Adrian Mannarino, was also forced to retire after slipping and hurting his knee. “I just slid down and it was really slippery,” Mannarino said. “I heard a big crack and I knew straight away that I wouldn’t be able to do anything anymore. I’m not used to playing on Wimbledon Centre Court. It’s tough for me to compare, especially playing last week in Spain where the weather was really dry and the courts were not slippery at all. I didn’t have much time to practise before the match and the court definitely looked slippery to me.” Djokovic, known for having the best footwork in the game, had been first to raise the issue on Monday and he and his first round opponent, Jack Draper, slipped ten times between them. “I don’t remember falling this many times on the court,” he said. “I don’t know whether that’s because the roof is closed or because it rained quite a bit in the last few days,” he added. After Williams bowed out on Tuesday night following a seemingly innocuous slip behind the baseline, Andy Murray tweeted that it had been “brutal” for Williams. “Centre court is extremely slippy (sic) out there,” he wrote. “Not easy to move out there.”
Coco Gauff, who had been playing on outdoor Court Two, also slipped over countless times but escaped injury during her victory against Briton Francesca Jones. She said it had been difficult to later see her idol Williams get injured on Centre Court. “With Serena… it was hard for me to watch that,” she added. “I’m a big fan of hers, even though I’m a competitor now. But she’s the reason why I started to play tennis. It’s hard to watch any player get injured, but especially her.”
How can it be stopped?
The chances are that dryer weather over the coming days will resolve the issue for Wimbledon. Rain is forecast again over the weekend, but by then the grass may not be as green and lush if the roofs are used again. Former British No 1 Tim Henman told the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage that a “very damp practice week” had been a factor, so the surface should improve after back-to-back days of sunshine. “In those 13 years (that he’s been on the committee) the preparation of the courts has been absolutely identical,” Henman added.
“There’s no doubt the one thing that has been different this year is the weather in the lead up to the tournament, we had a very damp practice week. The court and the plant doesn’t have the chance to dry out. Add that the roof has been closed for the first two days and that is why you are going to see some slipping and sliding.
“Early in the tournament the court is at its most lush and it can be a bit challenging moving. From the club point of view they wanted to check the humidity levels on Centre Court and No 1 with the roof closed and the humidity levels were lower – and that’s because we aren’t at full capacity. We don’t want to see injuries. The ground staff are meticulous in their preparation of the courts and nothing has changed.”
What can players do to mitigate the risk?
The leading players are likely to make minor tweaks to footwork, taking shorter steps to maintain control of their centre of gravity and weight. “Maybe I’ll work on my movement and slide a bit less because it doesn’t seem to be working on this surface,” Djokovic has said. Players are unlikely to change their footwear.