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#IHaveQuestions: Whatever Happened to the Clay Court Counterpuncher?

Counterpuncher’s Log. Roland Garros, Day 6:

“We cannot get out. I repeat: we cannot get out. They have taken Lenglen, Chatrier and Court 2. Radwanska, Jankovic and Halep fell bravely while the rest of us retreated to the third round. We still hold court, but hope is fading now. Wozniacki’s party played yesterday but none returned. We cannot get out. The end comes soon.

We hear the grunts, grunts in the deep. They are coming.”

“They,” in this fantastically (and tennis-tically) adapted Lord of the Rings-style doom log, are the huge hitters, or “ball bashers” of women’s tennis.

Their victims? Counterpunchers.

The site? The slippery rubble known best in tennis as clay courts.

It’s only day 6 — exactly half-way through the seven-round Grand Slam tournament — and there are some noteworthy gaps in the draw. Agnieszka Radwanska, who amid coaching experiments has struggled with her form all season, fell in the first round to otherwise Annika Beck.

No. 3 seed and defending finalist Simona Halep came out flat and was blown off court by an inspired Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. No. 5 Caroline Wozniacki lost to nemesis Julie Goerges, while Angelique Kerber and Carla Suarez Navarro followed suit today, each against (relatively) bigger hitting opponents.

All these players, who have an average career high ranking of 3.6 and a combined total of 54 WTA titles, can all generally be classified as counterpunchers: a brand of player who wins more of their points redirecting pace instead of creating it, and defending instead of attacking. So why would they find so little success on this of all fortnights, on a slow surface that should seemingly benefit their defensive approach?

To underline the misfortune of these top tier counterpunchers, let’s have a look at the stats from the matches that saw their bids cut short in Paris:

Player Winners Unforced Errors Differential
Radwanska 11 19 -8
Beck 41 27 +14
Halep 5 15 -10
Lucic-Baroni 29 27 +2
Wozniacki 16 24 -8
Goerges 39 30 +9
Suarez Navarro 11 28 -17
Pennetta 20 25 -5
Kerber 22 31 -9
Muguruza 33 38 -5

The winners and unforced error differentials don’t lie – none of Radwanska, Halep, Wozniacki, Suarez Navarro or Kerber tasted defeat playing at their best. However, tennis is a dialogue: the level of a player’s opponent matters just as much as the level of the player themselves, and the two often act in tandem. The victors in these matches all had shockingly high winner counts, dramatically eclipsing the defensive and aggressive efforts of the opposition.

Beck, who isn’t usually known for huge hitting, found some otherworldly gear in her win over Radwanska, hitting almost four times as many winners as the Pole. Lucic-Baroni balanced a higher number of errors with six times as many winners as Halep, who, despite being one of the best clay court movers in the game, was helpless to such indomitable offense. Goerges too hit new heights against Wozniacki, defeating her with a near identical scoreline to her Stuttgart victory four years ago on the back of an exceptionally high winner count.

Pennetta and Muguruza might have finished with winner-unforced error differentials in the negatives, but they hit nine and ten more winners than either Suarez Navarro or Kerber, and, ironically, baiting them into a surprising number of unforced errors in the process.

In the past, the WTA’s counterpunchers have managed to win matches with exceptionally low winner counts. Yet, in a apparently controversial quirk of tennis, an epic backhand down-the-line winner dispenses the exact same number of points as a meek, whiffed forehand into the net. Ergo, having a low error count can lead to winning a match just as easily as a bushel of winners.

This is the counterpuncher’s credo.

While “winning” and “not losing” may be synonymous for these defensively styled players, it relinquishes a certain locum of control, something that the most successful players of the last decade have used to Major advantage. One can argue that a “true” counterpuncher last won a Grand Slam title in 2004 — Anastasia Myskina at the French Open.

Classifying a player, however, is a dubious and often moot process within the tennis community. Stereotyping in tennis — as in society — leads to generalizations, allowing for one small label or characteristic to define a larger body of people or things. Rarely can one label accurately account for everyone to which it has been assigned.

Serena Williams, for example, is one of the biggest hitters ever, yet has been so successful because she’s also capable of defending as well as the best. Kerber is a much more aggressive counterpuncher than Wozniacki, while Radwanska plays with the court craft that Halep forsakes for (relatively) more power.

Like Sara Errani, who is one of the few more defensively-minded players left in the 2015 French Open draw, Suarez Navarro is of the dirtballing brand of counterpuncher who, when given the time, can build points akin to picking the lock of a steel door — as opposed to simply bashing it down.

Yet when they face big hitting or “on fire” opponents on clay, they have been unable to play their own game and their defenses were easily shattered — just ask Errani about her 2013 semifinal against Williams herself.

The characteristics of clay seem, hypothetically at least, to lend themselves to the defensive, reactive athlete. The bounce is higher and a shot loses much of its pace thereafter, making shots seemingly slower and rallies apparently longer. On the ATP, quick-moving defensive players have dominated big clay court events for ages.

But this is the WTA we’re talking about. Such convention need not apply.

So why have the big hitters emerged as clay court champions?

The WTA’s counterpunchers excel in their ability to redirect the pace of their opponents’ flat, heavy shots. With typically solid technique, they’re able to limit their errors until their opponent hits one first, or they can wait for a weaker shot to attack.

In that sense, a counterpuncher’s defense and counterattacking are suddenly limited, not accentuated, by clay.

While the slow pace of shots on clay makes it easier for the Radwanskas and Wozniackis of the world, the bounce is much higher, requiring immense upper body strength to redirect. Contrast that to a low or medium bounce which caters to a conventional defensive swing. In addition, clay is slippery, making it more difficult for counterpunchers to change direction on the move. Side-to-side movement is therefore far less explosive.

On offense, their typically flatter attacking shots lose pace, which accounts for the lower winners totals seen in the earlier chart. This makes it easier for slower, big hitting opponents to do their own defending while using their superior pace to turn the tide of the rally in their favor.

The result? Counterpunchers have to go for bigger shots on clay, which they’re inclined to miss. Halep herself remarked that she had been trying to play with more power on clay, but it backfired:

Thus, what outdoor red clay tends to do to its counterpunching patrons is highten the errors and reduce the winners. Kerber was successful on the slick green-clay surface of Charleston and the quick indoor conditions of Stuttgart, but was upended early in her following clay tournaments; Wozniacki and Halep followed similar patterns.

No doubt these players will be looking forward to their return to the grass and hard courts, where they have — ironically or not — reaped most of their greatest career achievements.

What do you think of the changing dynamics in clay court tennis? Sound off in the comments!

About Jeff Donaldson (35 Articles)
Queen's University '15. Tennis Canada. @jddtennis/@donaldsonjd

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