One of the most important aspects of every sport is the surface in which the game is played on. When fans talk about a sporting event or game they’re attending or watching prior to game-time, the conversation most likely will be about the players and coaches of each team and how they’ll impact the game, but not often about the playing surface itself. The fields, courts and rinks that each individual sport is played on are all unique and tailor-made for their sport. Ice hockey is played on, well, ice, basketball is played on a hardwood court, and baseball is played on grass with a dirt infield. All of those unique playing surfaces contribute to the pace and tempo at which they are played. Two sports in particular where the playing surface can directly impact the game being played are tennis and soccer. The F2Freestylers, whom I mentioned in my first blog post, teamed up with Unibet, an online gambling company based in Europe, to explain how the playing surfaces in tennis and soccer can impact the game.
Though not the most popular in the United States, tennis is one of the world’s most unique and interesting sports because of the variety of playing surfaces that are used throughout the season. There are three different types of playing surfaces: hard, grass & clay courts. Of the sport’s four Grand Slam tournaments, the French Open is played on clay, Wimbledon is played on grass, and the Australian & US Opens are both played on hard court. On top of the fact that these surfaces all obviously look different, they are also completely different in terms of how the ball bounces off of them. According to the video by the F2, the ball bounces highest off of clay because of its loose surface and travels slower due to the clay particles staying in the fuzz of the ball. When the ball hits clay, it digs into the ground, and this decreases the ball’s speed after a bounce and increases its exit angle. On hard courts, the ball also has a high bounce, but doesn’t lose speed after bouncing off the ground because the ball can’t dig into the surface like it does on clay. On grass, the ball doesn’t lose much speed just like a hard court, but the exit angle is significantly lower than the other two courts. This is the case because the individual blades of grass cause the ball to have very little friction after hitting the surface, which helps maintain its high rate of speed.
This still from the F2’s video shows how the bounce of a ball bouncing on clay impacts its velocity and exit angle (YouTube/F2Freestylers)
All of these unique traits may suit one player’s game more than the other, which may explain why Spain’s Rafael Nadal is so dominant on clay, why Serbia’s Novak Djokovic is so dominant on hard courts, and why Switzerland’s Roger Federer is dominant on grass. Each different surface fits the play style of these three stats, which is why they find it easier to win on one surface than the other.
While the effects may not be as obvious or tangible as those in tennis, the playing surface in soccer is extremely important to the outcome of any given game. According to the video, home teams in soccer are allowed to manipulate the field in any way they want to. They can decide if the grass is extremely short, long, or if it even is natural grass in the first place. Spanish giants Atletico Madrid used this to their advantage in the Champions League semifinal matchup against German powerhouse Bayern Munich. Bayern are the most dominant team in Germany’s Bundesliga, and their entire game revolves around quick passing and possessing the ball. For the home leg of the semifinal, Atletico kept their stadium’s grass longer than normal, which hindered Bayern’s ability to quickly move the ball around. Atletico won the match 1-0, with the lone goal coming from midfielder Saúl Ñiguez. Although they finished the match with 69% possession, Bayern’s players complained after the match that the grass on the pitch was too long for their liking, but did the pitch actually impact the game?
Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez (#17) celebrates with his teammates after scoring against Bayern Munich (Goal.com)
To answer this question, the F2 & Unibet arranged a match between a semi-professional team and an amateur team. To compare, think of the matchup as a minor league hockey team playing against a beer league team thrown together by a few buddies. The first half of this match was played on a beautiful, well-groomed pitch, but the second half was played on a torn-up pitch similar to what the amateurs play on every week. In the first half, the semi-pro team ran rings around the amateurs, and the score at the break was 1-0. The semi-pros had 72% possession, completing 93% of their passes. In comparison, the amateurs only completed 64% of their passes. However, the game completely changed in the 2nd half. The semi-pros didn’t adjust to the new, worsened field conditions, and the amateurs ended up equalizing and owning 56% of the ball in the 2nd half. The game finished 1-1, supporting the statement that the condition of the field does in fact have an effect on the outcome of a match.