Tennis’ Forgotten Surface: Carpet

Roger Federer’s last professional tennis match proved to be a momentous occasion. The 20-time Grand Slam champion announced that he would only play one match in this year’s Laver Cup, which would be a doubles match with his great rival and friend Rafael Nadal. It proved to be a fitting ending to his stellar career, in a high-quality affair which encapsulated those inside the O2 arena into the early hours of Saturday morning. Emotions ran high, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house during Federer’s post-match interview. Even Rafael Nadal could not stop the tears flowing, as he bore witness to Federer’s farewell.

“When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life is leaving too because of all the moments that he has been next or in front me in important moments of my life,” said Nadal. And he was right. Nadal’s first Grand Slam main draw appearance came at Wimbledon 2003, a tournament which Federer won. From then on, Federer was there every step of the way, until last Friday. In an act of great selflessness, Nadal came to London only to play with Federer one last time, playing through 2 long-terms injuries and some extremely difficult personal circumstances just to be there for his friend. If you ever wanted any insight into what sort of person Rafael Nadal is, you have it right there.

Federer’s career spanned over 4 separate decades, starting in the 1990s and ending in 2022. He has witnessed great changes in the game of tennis over that time, including drastic variations in court speeds, advancements in racket technology, generations of different opponents, and huge changes to the tennis calendar. Federer’s first ATP Title came back in 2001 in Milan. This took place a different era of the game, showcased by the surface which the tournament was played on: indoor carpet.

Carpet used to be a key surface in professional tennis and is still used regularly to this day at club level in the United Kingdom, especially at bigger tennis centres which use many different surfaces. It is even still used on the ATP Challenger Tour, but was discontinued on the ATP Tour at the end of 2008, as tournaments slowly moved away from using the surface. The death sentence of the surface was signed in 2006, when the Paris Masters decided to change the surface of their tournament from carpet to the more modern acrylic hard courts, citing the increased risk of injuries such as abrasions and burns associated with the carpet courts.

The decision to discontinue the use of carpet courts in professional tennis was also partially motivated by the ATP’s desire to decrease court speed in general, in order to increase the likelihood of longer rallies and longer matches. The theory behind this was that faster surfaces like carpet gave a massive advantage to big servers, as the fast and low bounce made it very difficult to land effective returns and often resulted in much shorter matches, even more so than on grass. Tennis bosses believed that these shorter exchanges reduced fan satisfaction and were, on the whole, bad for the game. This shift towards a slower speed of court has been reflected on the remaining surfaces too, as courts across all surfaces play far less quickly than they did even a decade ago.

The disappearance of such a key surface, despite the logical reasoning behind it, is still a shame. Federer’s retirement made me wonder: are there any other active players with titles on carpet? If so, is there anyone with more than Federer (who has two)?

The data is surprisingly difficult to find. Records related to carpet tennis tournaments are not always easily accessible on the internet and finding the right information requires hours of digging, a perfect activity for a Sunday afternoon. Having done this digging, I uncovered some fascinating pieces of tennis history, all of which links back to Federer and his great career.

There are currently 2 active players who have won an ATP title on carpet: Richard Gasquet and Andy Murray. Both men have only won one, Gasquet in Lyon in 2006 and Murray in St. Petersburg in 2007. Murray and Gasquet, like Federer, both represent a generation of tennis players now past their prime, so it is highly likely that in five years’ time, there will be no active players left with titles on carpet, as the days of it’s use become an even more distant memory.

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering what the link of all this to Federer’s career is. For starters, Murray and Federer have a long history of important matches, including 3 Grand Slam finals and even an Olympic Gold medal match. But there’s more. The last man to ever win a title on carpet was Robin Söderling, in the 2008 edition of the Lyon Open, a tournament which is now played on clay. Söderling had a fascinating career and is one of only 2 men to have ever beaten Rafael Nadal at the French Open, alongside Novak Djokovic. That came in 2009, the year in which Federer won the French Open to finally complete his career Grand Slam. Who did Federer beat in the final? Robin Söderling.

So as we say goodbye to Federer, we’re saying goodbye to one of the last remnants and reminders of tennis’ times gone by. Federer witnessed to the end of one era and the beginning of another in tennis, but despite all of this change, including the disappearance of a surface which once formed a fundamental part of professional tennis, one thing remained constant, and that was Roger Federer.