As swiftly as it comes, it goes. The fresh, manicured lawns of grass court tennis might be a curse for some players, but it is also a blessing for others — one that only lasts for a mere few weeks.
Although the season has been extended by an extra seven days this year, grass courts are a unique surface that continue to occupy just a small chunk of the tennis calendar. Due to their expensive upkeep and exhaustive maintenance, national tennis federations and tournaments around the world have opted for the relative inexpensiveness of clay and hard courts.
In addition to the operational differences required for grass court play, playing on the surface also requires a completely different repertoire of skills.
The bounce of the ball on grass is predictably low and its speed after the bounce is shockingly fast. The surface is slick, and difficult to move on; bad bounces could stem from an arbitrarily dense section of the court. In contrast to the high bounces, slow speed and monotony of clay court rallying, grass courts require quick instincts and creative improvisation. In the modern game of athleticism, endurance and baseline aggression, grass can often provide a unique challenge to even the sport’s most accomplished players.
Nevertheless, tennis-ing on the sport’s most polarizing surface is an essential component for the professionals trying to make a good living. Some careers have been made on the grass courts of Great Britain and northern Europe, while some prefer to write off the fleeting season in favour of the other two surfaces.
This week on TTI’s #SaturdayNightShots, we’ll be having a look at the hits — players you can expect to turn up over the next few weeks — and the misses — players who probably believe that grass is for cows and cows only — of grass court tennis.
First up in part one of this two-part mini-series: #men.
5. Nicolas Mahut
One of the most important ingredients in the recipe of a grass court ATP pro is a one-handed backhand, and Mahut has that. The versatility of the one-handed backhand is essential for the low and occasionally awkward bounces — slicing backhands on low shots requires less of the exhaustive effort requires to hit topspin and produces just as lethal a response.
While Mahut makes fine use of his backhand, it’s is naturally aggressive and net-attacking game that yields much more results on grass than other surfaces. His serve gets a boost and he takes away opportunities for bad bounces or tricky baseline rallies by coming into the net as often as he can. With fine hands and quick reflexes, opponents often struggle to make the pass. While he may be known in pop culture for playing the longest tennis match ever, in tennis he’s known as a grass court specialist.
4. Philipp Kohlschreiber
Kohlschrieber is a noted “underachiever” in tennis, as he possessed a vast array of skills on court but not always being able to put them together. On grass, they seem to come together much more frequently. The German has an exceptional record on grass — far superior to his hard and clay records — makes use of his skills at the net and, of course, the low contact point of his one-handed backhand. Having two grass tournaments in his home country this year should provide additional moral support.
Expect him to have quite a few matches under his belt before heading into Wimbledon.
3. Bernard Tomic
Wimbledon was the site of tennis wild-child Bernard Tomic’s first major breakthrough. He defeated then No. 5 Robin Soderling in the second round before making his way to the quarterfinals, losing there in a highly competitive match to eventual champion Novak Djokovic.
Tomic’s style of play on grass is hypnotizing and sleepy — in the nightmarish sort of way. While he doesn’t venture into the net as often as most grass court aficionados, he is comfortable slicing and dicing his way at the back of the court until his opponent gives him the chance to unload on his heavy, flat forehand. Tomic has never been a fan of clay court tennis, and often finds his year revitalized when his shoes hit the tennis’ grass pitch.
2. Feliciano Lopez
Big servers don’t always do well on grass — although this one does.
The quick pace and low bounce of the surface makes it difficult for big swinging giants of men’s tennis to hit their groundstrokes, even if their serves yield major benefits. Lopez, an exceptionally proficient server himself, has no such problems.
Armed with a lethal lefty serve that is often jam packed with pace and spin, Lopez makes use of frequent short replies from his opponent by closing in on the net or approaching with his sharp sliced backhand. He made two finals on grass last year, winning one of them, and has a packed schedule on the British lawns this year. Can he maintain the winning formula that took him to a career-high ranking this year?
1. Roger Federer
I mean, duh.
Tied for the most Wimbledon titles in the Open Era and owning a 65-match win streak on the surface between 2003-2008? There are more grass court records for Federer, but I don’t have will power to list them all. His attacking game, serve, volleys, variety and shot production all lend themselves to the intricacies of grass.
Now — perhaps more than ever — is he one to watch in the coming months? Almost all of the top men’s players have some proficiency on grass courts; Djokovic is by no means a grass court specialist, yet makes do with exceptional efficiency anyway — but Federer’s is the most natural. While, with age, his aptitude for clay courts is declining, grass is much less physical and his large fan base should (rightfully) expect his better results in this coming double-fortnight.
Honorable mention: Milos Raonic
He has a big serve and posted his best ever major result at Wimbledon last year, but until then had unimpressive results on the lawns. His big swings left him vulnerable when an opponent managed to return his serve, but his improved net game should benefit him this year — if he’s recovered from his minor foot surgery that kept him out of Roland Garros.
3. Tommy Robredo
Robredo is the clay courter’s clay courter — naturally, he’s no grass court apologist.
His grinding style with heavy topspin loses its efficiency, and his extreme backhand grip makes the lower balls more difficult to manage. With his age, it’s unlikely we’ll see him add much more to his game to adapt to a surface where he’s had minor results throughout his exceptional career.
2. Dominic Thiem
The exciting, up-and-coming Austrian has plenty of upside to his game: a laser-like one-handed backhand, and an extremely spinny forehand that stings through his preferred clay courts with outstanding weight. On grass however, his game doesn’t translate. Thiem’s serve might get him out of tough service games, but his returning is currently mediocre and he doesn’t have the experience on grass to make an impact just yet.
1. Fabio Fognini
Do we ever really know when Fognini is going to show up? He posted some strong clay court results this year, but crashed out of Roland Garros early. He’s never enjoyed grass court tennis, as per his results, and the surface tends to bring out the indecisive and wildfire side to his already polar game. His play at the All-England Club last year made headlines for the wrong reasons, but it’s hard to say with Fognini — maybe this is the year he wins Wimbledon?
Honorable mention: Rafael Nadal
While Nadal’s made the final in Stuttgart this week, over the past three years he has been a write-off this time of year due to injuries. He’s a paramount clay court player, but has made it work on this fundamentally opposite surface in his career. He’s due for a solid grass court season, but does his poor form on clay this year follow the same opposition on grass?
Honorable mention #2: Benoit Paire
Which men will love the lawns? Sound off in the comments!