The desire line of tennis, ca. 2010.
July 5, 2010 7:47 PM   Subscribe

“I was thinking about those cow paths while watching Wimbledon this year.” —What the grass begins to tell us about how the game of tennis has changed in the past 30 years.
posted by kipmanley (23 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A very small bit of information that is so interesting...
posted by Huck500 at 7:52 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is a famous (and mostly apocryphal) set of stories about universities – sometimes it’s Tufts, sometimes Irvine, sometimes somewhere in … Denmark – that allegedly left grassy areas without sidewalks.

Okay, so I remember this story only it involved someone famous and Princeton/Yale/Harvard. For some reason it feels as if it was from the mid-20th century and the famous person being an economist? If this ends up being a poorly remembered myth I'll be disappointed.
posted by geoff. at 7:57 PM on July 5, 2010

geoff.:"Okay, so I remember this story only it involved someone famous and Princeton/Yale/Harvard. For some reason it feels as if it was from the mid-20th century and the famous person being an economist? If this ends up being a poorly remembered myth I'll be disappointed."

I was reading something similar just today in Stewart Brand's "How Buildings Learn" (1994):
"Pave where the path is. An oft-told story (perhaps apocryphal) tells how a brilliantly lazy college planner built a new campus with no paths built in at all. She waited for the first winter and photographed where people made paths in the snow between the buildings. Next spring, that's where the paving went. Some design is better if it's postponed." (p. 187)
Since he thought it was apocryphal, too, and he cites a lot in that book, wouldn't be surprised if it was – mostly – false. At the same time, I wouldn't be too surprised if it has happened, once or twice.
posted by barnacles at 8:02 PM on July 5, 2010

We talked about the campus path thing on Metafilter before:

Here is me trying to remember it in metatalk.

I think the difference in the way tennis is played is maybe why I am not as into men's tennis. Women's tennis seems like a more varied game, with more nuance. Those moments when someone rushes to the net and taps it back, unexpectedly breaking the rhythm of rapid hard vollies, are really breathtaking.
posted by mai at 8:05 PM on July 5, 2010

This is an interesting observation. You can also see these patterns as probability curves (i.e. probability that a tennis player will occupy that particular part of the court).
posted by carter at 8:08 PM on July 5, 2010

> Modern technology has created a tennis monoculture, one that is best seen in paths of dead grass.

I used to watch my fair share of pro tennis, but I gradually lost interest as extended volleys became a thing of the past. As early as the '90s you had guys like Goran Ivanišević, whose sole strategy was acing their way to victory.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:19 PM on July 5, 2010

Ok, so this year's Wimbledon final wasn't great but last year's Federer/Roddick? Awesome.

Back in the day it was fun trying to guess if players were going to rush the net, though, and kind of exciting when they did. I think the main thing that slows the game down now are all the first serve misses. But watching some clips from 1980, you see they did that a lot then, too. I'd like to see some stats as far as first serves that are good now vs. then.
posted by starman at 8:29 PM on July 5, 2010

Anyone else notice how the ball boys had made less of a path in 1980? It looks to me like the center (centre, since it's Wimbledon) Court was used a whole lot less back then.

And this is on the campus of Southern Methodist (Mall? Commons? I didn't go to school there.) It always seemed about as close to the 'path where they walk' idea as anywhere (notice the people cutting across the grass in the foreground?)
posted by Some1 at 8:29 PM on July 5, 2010

That's a really interesting insight. It makes me want to look for other sorts of cow paths in other areas.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:31 PM on July 5, 2010

You can read more info about desire lines here and previously.

whoa... deja vu
posted by Rhaomi at 8:43 PM on July 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

As boring as that particular final was, tennis right now is as fascinating as it has ever been. Federer has begun to look human; Del Potro would be killing grass everywhere if it weren't for his wrist; Nadal is taking advantage of this lull; and in the meantime guys like Meltzer and Berdych are lurking around the perimeter. And I haven't even mentioned any of the up-and-coming Frenchmen!

Berdych came to the net, and Nadal hit a lot of absolutely inhuman passing shots. They were the highlights of the match, all of them.

But lamenting the lack of serve-and-volley just means you aren't watching any of the great serve-and-volleyers right now. It takes real judgement and athleticism to get to the net----now lets see if anybody can actually hold the net against Nadal.

To me: the best time to watch tennis in years.
posted by odasaku at 9:00 PM on July 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Modernity always tends toward monoculture. Why is that.
posted by amethysts at 9:26 PM on July 5, 2010

Okay, so I remember this story only it involved someone famous and Princeton/Yale/Harvard.

Le Corbusier is kinda famous. He did the Carpenter Center at Harvard. The thing that struck me about that building, is how many cow paths were off the planned walkways. You can see one here on the right. There used to be one here, too, as I recall, making a beeline to the right for that black door. But it seems they've done the sensible thing and fenced in the walkway.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:58 PM on July 5, 2010

Nice link. Thanks.
posted by homunculus at 10:27 PM on July 5, 2010

Modernity always tends toward monoculture.

My wife is a huge Federer fan, so she was pretty upset that he lost so early this year. I sometimes hassle her a little bit about the sports pundits who have claimed that he's the best player ever. I point out that Henry VIII played the game 400 years ago. For all we know, there might have been a phenomenal player back in the 17th century, and that I want proof.

I also have to wonder if this guy's conclusions aren't a little bit confirmation biased. It doesn't take into account other conditions, like rainfall. I'm pretty sure I heard that this is the driest Wimbledon in a long time. On the other hand, anyone who has followed tennis for years probably doesn't need to be convinced that players spend more time behind the baseline than they used to. Blame the switch from wooden rackets back in the 80's.
posted by crunchland at 2:29 AM on July 6, 2010

I'm not disagreeing that there is less net play these days, but comparing this year's grass patterns to those of 1980 is misleading. The championships in 1980 were frequently interupted for rain and had average temperatures that peaked at 19 degrees C (and fell as low as 10 degrees C). When rain did stop play (or when it rained in the preceeding weeks), the court was covered by dragging a large tarpaulin over the playing area that just lay there on top of the grass.

This year, temperatures were high (as high as 30 degrees a couple of the days) and there wasn't a drop of rain. Also, in the run-up to the championships, the centre court was protected from rain by a roof, not just a cover on the ground. The result has been a much drier court to start with.

2003 was a hot summer too. Check out the court then. And in 1976, it was virtually ALL dust by the end!
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 4:15 AM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can also see these patterns as probability curves (i.e. probability that a tennis player will occupy that particular part of the court).

Tennis players as subatomic particles!
posted by TedW at 4:38 AM on July 6, 2010

Tennis has become so damned brutal recently. It tires me just to watch it.

Sure, Pistol Pete was pulling out regular passing shot zingers 15 plus years ago. Lendl before that. But now there's a host of players who can blow their opponent away with a baseline shot, while their opponent is also manning baseline, in a relatively good position, not even off balance. Including the women. Incredible.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:26 AM on July 6, 2010

It's pretty telling when a 24-year-old player has bad knees. Lord knows what he'll do when he reaches the ripe old age of 30.
posted by crunchland at 7:32 AM on July 6, 2010

People have been complaining about changes in tennis since its heyday in the 70s. The pattern of grass wear is simply the highest level symptom that things are different now, but there's a big leap between "different" and "monoculture."

To the casual fan, yeah - there used to be players who would hang out at net and players who would hang out at the baseline. Hanging out at net used to be a viable play in the days before improved rackets, strings, training, nutrition, etc. Now? It's not even a viable play at the rec level. Net play's frequency back in the day was nothing more than an exploiting a loophole. That loophole's closed, now.

Yes, people need to earn their way forward in different ways now, but that doesn't mean everybody plays the same. You could take a dozen players with the same high level playing style, and each of them will bring very different things to the table, and you'd be dumb to play each of them in the same way.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 10:31 AM on July 6, 2010

There was less wear on the base line and more in the centre in 1980. I can see an environmental effect causing either of those but not both simultaneously.
posted by Mitheral at 8:33 PM on July 6, 2010

Seems like it would be a good time to raise the net a foot or so.
posted by wobh at 9:30 PM on July 6, 2010

The bit about campus pathways may be urban legend, but there was recent work done using slime mold to model the most efficient rail paths to major areas of the Tokyo transit system. The resulting network was very close to the system as it is currently built.
posted by msbrauer at 2:53 AM on July 7, 2010

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