/ Tennis

Wimbledon on defensive in grass row

Updated: Wednesday, 26 Jun 2013 21:39 | Comments

Victoria Azarenka injured her ankle playing against Maria Joao Koehler Maria Sharapova receives attention during her second-round defeat
Victoria Azarenka injured her ankle playing against Maria Joao Koehler Maria Sharapova receives attention during her second-round defeat

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All England Club chief executive Richard Lewis tonight stood by the quality of the Wimbledon grass on a day when seven singles players withdrew from the championships due to a range of injuries.

From the moment Steve Darcis withdrew prior to his second-round clash because of a shoulder problem, the talk around Wimbledon was about the condition of the courts and whether they were dangerous.

That seemed to be the view of Maria Sharapova as she fell to a surprise defeat against Michelle Larcher de Brito, with lip readers picking up her saying "This court is dangerous", a quote she did not later deny.

Former professionals including Boris Becker and Tim Henman had their say in response, claiming the courts were fine, and Lewis did the same.

In a statement released by the club, Lewis said: "There has been a high number of withdrawals at the championships today and we sympathise with all the players affected.

"The withdrawals have occurred for a variety of reasons, but there have been some suggestion that the court surface is to blame. We have no reason to think this is the case."

The All England Club has a new head groundsman for this tournament, with Neil Stubley, who has spent many years on the staff, having succeeded Eddie Seaward.

There is no suggestion that the quality of surface has dropped, though, according to Lewis.

He added: "Many players have complimented us on the very good condition of the courts.

"The court preparation has been to exactly the same meticulous standard as in previous years and it is well known that grass surfaces tend to be more lush at the start of an event.

"The factual evidence, which is independently checked, is that the courts are almost identical to last year, as dry and firm as they should be, and we expect them to continue to play to their usual high quality."

The fact remains, though, that the seven players to have withdrawn in a day is a grand slam record in the open era.

The seven that fate did not favour were Darcis, women's second seed Victoria Azarenka, Marin Cilic and Yaroslava Shvedova, all of whom failed to start their matches, and men's sixth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner and Radek Stepanek, who all began but failed to finish.

Bernard Tomic, slated to face James Blake in the third round tomorrow, also retired today after getting hurt in the men's doubles, but he remained in the singles draw.

And although Sharapova saw it through to the end of her match, she was still not happy with the conditions.

The Russian had an eight-minute injury time-out on her way to the shock loss and could not hide her unhappiness at the state of the court.

Her fall prompted one supporter to shout "Sort the court out", and when asked about the "dangerous" comment afterwards, she appeared to confirm it by saying: "Well, after I buckled my knee three times, that's obviously my first reaction.

"And because I've just never fallen that many times in a match before.

"I don't think I've ever fallen three times in a match before in my career, so that was a little strange" - Maria Sharapova

"I don't think I've ever fallen three times in a match before in my career, so that was a little strange.

"It was a bit slippery on the outside."

Caroline Wozniacki played and lost on the same court as Sharapova and also tumbled as Petra Cetkovska saw her off, but she did not look to blame the ground beneath her afterwards.

"I think it's very difficult to say because I played my first match. Obviously, I slipped on the match point in my first match, too," she said.

"I don't know if it's the courts or if it's just us or if it's the gripping is different. I'm not sure."

Former British number one Henman was sure, though, telling the BBC: "The courts are in the same shape they always have been. It's bizarre how all these injuries are happening this year."

According to former Wimbledon champion Becker, the problem is not in the court but the preparation.

With just two weeks between the end of the French Open on the red clay of Paris and the start of Wimbledon, players have a slender window to get used to the grass.

"Grass-court tennis is different to other surfaces, it is only two weeks of action after a long clay court season. Players need to give themselves more of chance. The grass is the same, the groundsman is the same" - Boris Becker

"Grass-court tennis is different to other surfaces, it is only two weeks of action after a long clay court season," he said. "Players need to give themselves more of chance. The grass is the same, the groundsman is the same."

Lewis also had support from sixth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the sixth seed who limped off the Centre Court during his game with Ernests Gulbis.

He suffered knee and wrist problems during the match, but had no issues with the grass, instead choosing to cite an old tendon injury which flared up.

"There is nothing about this court. They're great," he said.

"The only thing we can say is the weather we have since a couple of weeks (ago) is that it's humid and cold and windy sometimes."

Stubley, who has been on the Wimbledon staff for almost two decades, spoke to the Daily Telegraph this week about the challenge of preparing a durable surface.

"Every year, we try and improve our cultivars. When I started, we would have four or five days of really good courts," he said.

"We're now getting to maybe day 10 or 11, so we're almost grabbing an extra week. Ultimately we would like to get through the whole fortnight that way, but whether that's possible I don't know.

"You find that the grass technology improves but the players are getting bigger and stronger so it kind of balances."

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