During the Wimbledon fortnight (June 22 through July 5), the sporting world turns its attention to what has become an anachronism in tennis: a tournament played on grass courts.
Grass, of course, was the original surface for the game, which was invented, as "lawn tennis," in the U.K. in the late 19th century. At one point, three of the four Grand Slam tennis events were played on grass. (The U.S. Open switched to Har-Tru clay in 1975 and is now played on hard courts; the Australian Open switched to hard courts in 1988).
In the U.S., grass surfaces make up less than 1 percent of the nation's tennis courts. Most are found at chi-chi private clubs, like the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills in Queens, N.Y., Merion Cricket Club outside of Philadelphia and Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass. These courts are costly: Merion reportedly has a $12,000 initiation fee and $3,000 in annual dues.
But there are still a few places where the tennis-playing public can pay as little as $20 an hour to experience the game as it was played in the 19th century.
The most famous grass courts are at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., where the first U.S. National Tennis Championships (now the U.S. Open) were held in 1881. The 13 grass courts now host the Campbell's Hall of Fame Tennis Championships right after Wimbledon, the only grass-court Association of Tennis Professionals tournament in North America. The public can play for $90 an hour.
In Long Island's chic East Hampton, the Buckskill Tennis Club has three grass courts. The pro shop, with a fireplace and dark wooden beams, has the feel of a laid-back ski lodge – fitting since the facility is used as a skating rink in the winter.
Florida is home to two grass court facilities that are open to the public. Saddlebrook Resort, 30 miles north of Tampa, was founded in 1986 under the direction of Harry Hopman, an Aussie tennis great who captained the Australian Davis Cup team to 16 titles. U.S. players James Blake and Mardy Fish train at the resort, which has two Wimbledon-style grass courts.
Fisher Island Club, located in Biscayne Bay south of Miami, is a private resort, but its two grass courts are made available to guests of the Fisher Island Hotel.
The most unlikely public grass courts have to be the Wimble-Don Grass Courts in Baker City, Ore., five hours east of Portland and two hours west of Boise, Idaho. The four courts – the only natural grass courts in the Pacific Northwest – are owned by a local jeweler named Don McLure and are maintained by nonprofit group SAGA (Save the Grass Courts Association). The court cost per hour is a nominal $20. The atmosphere is casual – some folks play barefoot. The original owners, who sold to McLure in 2006, built the courts because they believed grass was a more forgiving surface on knees and hips.
If not for the gravitas and tradition of Wimbledon, grass might have already gone the way of the Dodo bird. The men's pro tour only plays five out of 61 tournaments on grass (excluding the Grand Slams). The women play three out of 51 (excluding the Grand Slam events). By contrast, the men play 23 clay-court tournaments, and the women play 19.
Some reasons: Grass, faster than clay and hard courts, is expensive and time-consuming to maintain. They must be mowed and watered with care. Not to mention protected: Wimbledon has guard dogs whose primary job is keeping foxes – whose females' urine proves deadly to grass – off the grounds. Grass courts visibly wear out during a two-week championship, going from emerald green to dusty brown. Also, the bounces on grass courts can be dodgy: Balls naturally skid below knee height, and bumps, which are commonplace, send shots awry.
But even Wimbledon has succumbed to modernity. In 2001 officials installed 100 percent perennial rye grass, which has turned out to be a slightly slower surface, more akin to hard courts.
The top five:
1. Saddlebrook Resort, Tampa, Fla.: Slideshow
2. Fisher Island Club, Miami, Fla.: Slideshow
3. Buckskill Tennis Club, East Hampton, N.Y.: Slideshow
4. Wimble-Don Grass Courts, Baker City, Ore.: Slideshow
5. International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport, R.I.: Slideshow
In Pictures: U.S. grass tennis courts where you can play