Ditching Clay, Mercedes Cup Organizers Hope Grass Is Greener


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A sign at Weissenhof Tennis Club in Stuttgart, Germany, reads “Keep off the grass” as clay courts were switched to grass.

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Peter Jülich for The New York Times

PARIS — While the new king of clay, Stan Wawrinka, posed for the cameras Monday alongside the Seine with the French Open trophy, the longtime king of clay, Rafael Nadal, was already on grass in Stuttgart, Germany.

The transition from red to green is always abrupt in professional tennis, but this year, Nadal and his rivals will have one more week than usual to find their form and their footing before the biggest grass-court tournament of them all. Beginning this season, there are three weeks instead of two between the French Open and Wimbledon. It was a move driven by the All England Club and its proactive chairman, Philip Brook, in the hopes of promoting the grass-court game and providing more time for beating the promotional drums before Wimbledon.

That the calendar shift was approved was a reflection of Wimbledon’s enduring clout but also a sign of revival for the game’s original surface. It was called “lawn tennis” for a reason, and Britain’s governing body for the sport, founded in 1888, is still called the Lawn Tennis Association.

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Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany returning to Alexandr Dolgopolov of the Ukraine during the first round of the Mercedes Cup.

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Marijan Murat/European Pressphoto Agency

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say grass is back in fashion, but it’s as strong as it’s been for many, many years as a surface,” said Richard Lewis, chief executive of the All England Club.

It is definitely back in fashion in Stuttgart. The Mercedes Cup was an ATP Tour event on red clay up through last year and was held in July after Wimbledon. Nadal won it twice, in 2005 and 2007, but as of this year, it is a grass-court tournament played in early June as part of the pre-Wimbledon swing.

Building and maintaining grass courts is a specialized skill, and Wimbledon and its grounds staff have played a big advisory role in the transition, even if Stuttgart’s wider temperature range presents some different challenges.

“Wimbledon is our strategic partner, and these courts are planted with the same seeds as Wimbledon,” Edwin Weindorfer, the Mercedes Cup tournament director, said last month in an interview in Stuttgart.

The connections do not stop with the pure rye grass. The tournament, held at the Weissenhof tennis club in the hilly Killesberg neighborhood, also is using the same brand of net posts as Wimbledon as well as the same inflatable tarps, which came in handy when it rained Monday. It is even serving Pimm’s and strawberries and cream.

“Our slogan is ‘Feel the Wimbledon Flair,’ ” Weindorfer said.

Weissenhof members traveled to Wimbledon last year for an interclub match and will get a return visit from All England Club members in August.

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Gianni Casini, the head greenskeeper at Weissenhop Tennis Club, with what he and the tournament director Edwin Weindorfer said is “original Wimbledon seed” planted at the club.

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Peter Jülich for The New York Times

The decision to switch dates and surface had to be made quickly. Weindorfer, a tall Austrian who once played varsity tennis for the University of Georgia, was at Wimbledon in 2012 watching one of his clients, Tommy Haas, play an early-round match when he got a call on his mobile phone from an unknown London number. It turned out to be Lewis requesting a meeting.

“In the second set, I decided Wimbledon is more important than Tommy,” Weindorfer said with a laugh. “I was hoping they didn’t take away my credential.”

The decision to add an extra week between the French Open and Wimbledon had not yet gone public, but Lewis informed Weindorfer of the plan and asked if he might be interested in moving his event.

“Just two months before, we had had an emergency talk with Mercedes because there was concern about the quality of the players at our tournament,” Weindorfer said. “I immediately said, ‘If we can go on grass courts, we will get better players and it will be a huge upgrade for the tournament.’ So I told Richard, ‘I am interested, and I will get back to you in 48 hours. I need to make three phone calls.’ ”

With the backing of Mercedes executives, Stuttgart city officials and the Weissenhof club’s leadership, he told Lewis that he intended to make the move. Final approval came several weeks later when the Weissenhof club membership voted by a near-unanimous margin to make the switch to grass, even though hardly any of them ever had played on it.

“What’s interesting is this club was founded as a lawn tennis club by British military personnel in 1884, so the first surface was grass,” said Hans-Georg Kauffeld, the club’s vice president. “It was at a different place in the city, and then they changed in 1926 and came up here and built only clay courts.”

Weindorfer’s company E Motion provided most of the funding for the project, which he said cost about 1.5 million euros. “Then you have another 250,000 or 300,000 each year because of maintenance, but I already got four or five new sponsors coming in just because of grass and the new deal I signed with Eurosport,” he said.

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Casini filled a machine with fertilizer to care for the club’s new grass.

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Peter Jülich for The New York Times

Stuttgart, for now, is the only ATP event to switch from clay to grass and into the expanded pre-Wimbledon window. Tournament officials in Newport, R.I., home to the only tour-level grass-court event in the United States, considered a similar move but decided against it in part because of weather and tourism patterns. It remains the week after Wimbledon.

“We had half a dozen different people, different countries, and Stuttgart was the one that stacked up from the word go,” Lewis said of the candidate pool.

Stuttgart gives Germany — land of the former Wimbledon champions Boris Becker, Michael Stich and Steffi Graf — a second grass-court event to go with the tournament in Halle, which began in 1993 and has been upgraded to an ATP 500 event along with Queen’s. The additional ranking points give further competitive meaning to the men’s grass-court swing.

“I think the extra points for Halle and Queen’s to move up in categories is hugely beneficial for the sport,” said Chris Kermode, the former Queen’s tournament director who is now head of the ATP Tour. “I think people want to see a variety of surfaces, and through the variety of surfaces you can get a variety of playing styles. Like watching Feliciano López in the final of Queen’s last year, serving and volleying on first and second serves most of the time, which we haven’t seen for a while. And I think having that variety is essential to appeal to a large group of fans.”

Lewis said Wimbledon did not intend to push to expand the tour-level grass-court season further. Players who were asked in Paris about the extra week were generally supportive of the move. Patrick Mouratoglou, coach of the 20-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams, said it gave those who advance far in the draw at the French Open a better chance to recover physically and mentally.

“For me, for anyone to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon back to back is incredible,” he said. “It will still be huge, but with one more week you have more chances to do it. So I think it’s a great idea. They were much too close.”

American tennis officials, who lost a week of their summer hardcourt window, might be less delighted. So might the British Open golf organizers, whose venerable tournament is now in the week immediately after Wimbledon. But Weindorfer has no complaints. His tournament is part of the Grand Slam narrative flow now, instead of marooned on clay well after the French Open.

He has Nadal back and has designs on getting Roger Federer, too, for the tournament’s 100th anniversary next season. “Wimbledon made one move, and it affected quite a lot,” he said, finishing up his tour of the grounds and walking onto the world’s newest grass show court.

“Oh,” he said, smiling and running the sole of his shoe over the natural green carpet. “I think they just mowed.”



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