How court speed played a role in these extraordinary Australian Open finals

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Gilbert calls Federer-Nadal biggest men's match in history (2:08)

Steph Brantz and Brad Gilbert describe the road that got us to the 2017 Australian Open, with Roger Federer taking on Rafael Nadal. What do each of them need to do to be victorious? (2:08)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer's quarterfinal against Mischa Zverev was an old-school, volleying match of beauty.

The two players came forward early and often, and when it was over, 100 points had been decided at net.

"I like when he puts in a nice volley past me," Federer said afterward. "I just think it's a nice play. I think there's nothing you can do about it. That's why maybe I stayed as calm as I did today.

"Maybe it has helped me, too, in my comeback, no doubt about it."

The "it" the 17-time Grand Slam champion was referring to was the positively lethal speed of these blue, Plexicushion courts at the Australian Open.

This fortnight Down Under has been a starry, 10-year reunion for Grand Slam champions of the past. Serve-and-volley has been all the rage, and groundstrokes are exploding through the courts, which players are saying have never been faster.

Federer thinks the trends might be related.

"The older generation -- I'm saying like anything before 2005 -- they are used to faster courts," he said. "From that moment on, it was a switch. We had to grow up in faster conditions."

Thirty-somethings Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena and Venus Williams have all thrived on the super-quick surfaces here.

Maybe it's because they were already playing at or near the turn of the century, when the surfaces at the Grand Slams rewarded big serves and groundstrokes. Serena and Venus won nine of the 11 on the fast grass at Wimbledon from 2000 to 2010. Before Federer won seven titles at the All England Club, Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic cracked more aces than smiles.

"I remember my indoor courts that I used to play on in Switzerland. They were lightning," Federer said. "I mean, I was playing on carpet or something like this that was shiny. You hit a slice, you could stay on the baseline; you knew it was always going to come to you. Then everything changed as time went by."

The Grand Slam tournaments, tired of seeing aces and crackling, three-shot rallies, slowed things down. It's easier than you think: Mixing more sand into the acrylic paint will give the surface more grab on the ball. With advanced strings technology today, players are more adaptable to slow-to-medium courts.

In recent years, the ball, too, has changed. The Wilson ball being used here, players say, is tighter-wound and stays that way longer.

"The biggest thing, I think, is the balls," said Brad Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, and is also ESPN's technical tennis expert. "They're not fluffing up as much as they used to. Games five, six, seven they're still playing like beebees, especially when it's sunny.

"I think, [to] me, those quicker balls are trickier to get used to than the quicker courts."

Court speeds and ball fluff, however, are almost like urban myths -- in the absence of true data, anecdotal evidence is coin of the realm.

Those outer courts, according to the players, were smoking fast.

Jack Sock, after his second-round win against Karen Khachanov on Court 8, said the outer courts were some of the fastest outdoor hard courts he had ever played on.

"I mean, you've seen [some] guys whiff on serves," he said. "You get some shoulder tension on some if you catch a ball late; you feel like you're tearing your rotator cuff.

"I don't know. It's their Slam, they can do what they want. The courts are making it difficult."

Difficult for Sock, who requires extra time to run round his forehand. Difficult too for John Isner, who lost to Zverev because the courts leveled the field by making Zverev's serves more difficult to return.

"I've never played on a court that was that fast," Isner said of Court 8. "I warmed up, and I was shocked. That thing was greased lightning out there."

Out on Court 19, Ivo Karlovic hit 75 aces in a match that took him more than five hours to win, 22-20 in the fifth set against Andrew Whittington.

"The outside courts are running a good 25 to 30 percent quicker," Gilbert said. "The number is more marginal on the big courts. Obviously, the big stars aren't playing on the outside courts, but when I watch Rafa and Fed practice out on Court 16, the ball's really moving out there."

Tournament director Craig Tiley, quoted in Melbourne's Herald Sun on Saturday, insisted the courts were the same speed as a year ago.

The courts were resurfaced, he said, between October and December -- the show courts ahead of the outer surfaces. The timing of the resurfacing, Tiley said, may have created some subtle changes that left the players feeling the courts were faster.

"How courts work on their speed is that when you resurface them," Tiley said, "they take a few weeks to slowly increase [speed] and then they hit a plateau and they stay in that plateau for months."

The "interesting" observations of many players prompted Australian Open staff to test the court speeds.

Early in his career, Nadal used to return serves from far behind the baseline at Wimbledon -- the same strategy that made him a Roland Garros champion. Eventually he learned to adapt to the faster grass court by moving closer to the baseline to take the ball earlier and, in 2008 and 2010, he won Wimbledon.

Three weeks ago in Brisbane, Australia, Nadal was six, seven meters behind the line when trying to return Milos Raonic's massive serves. He lost in three sets. In their quarterfinal match here, Nadal took the ball nearer the baseline and won in straight sets.

The courts are constructed by California Products Corporation -- a firm, oddly enough, that is based in Massachusetts. There is a layer below the paint made of latex, rubber granules and compressed plastic particles. The top is a tinted acrylic emulsion of paint and fine sand particles.

No one loves these fast and loose courts more than Venus and Serena Williams, who won 24 of 25 sets here heading into their Saturday final.

"I think if you look at Venus," Federer said, "she loves the fast courts. She always has. I think it just is natural for her to play well on this surface because maybe there's less thinking going on, you just play with instinct.

"That's maybe what older guys can do very well because they don't get frustrated in faster conditions."

Clearly, all four finalists were helped by the speediness of these courts. But there's a feeling that Venus benefits more from the conditions here because her serve -- five miles per hour slower than Serena's at its fastest -- gets a critical boost.

"We don't see counterpunchers, and we don't see smaller players," Gilbert said.

"The results can back up your theory."

Size, and the more powerful serves it can produce, matters. Believe it or not, Serena, listed at 5-foot-9, was the shortest of the quarterfinalists.

"Roger, more than anything, the quicker balls are helping him hold his ground on the baseline," Gilbert said, in his assessment of all four men's semifinalists, including Grigor Dimitrov and Stan Wawrinka.

"It also helps him hold his serve, which is big for him. He's also got good hands and hits a lot of low balls. Rafa gets a bigger bounce higher off the court, which makes his shots more penetrating. It helps Grigor's serve and groundstrokes big time, and the same is true for Stan."

Federer turned professional in 1998, the same year as Australian Lleyton Hewitt.

"I remember when I came up on tour with Lleyton, things were so different," Federer said. "We had to change our games around to be able to still compete."

And now, at least Down Under, the talented players with the most experience are adapting again.