After spending most of the past two years struggling with injuries, former Top 20 player Florian Mayer is rising like phoenix from the ashes — or rather, on the grass court. After qualifying successfully in Stuttgart and winning four matches at the ATP 250 in southern Germany, the 32 year old travelled to Halle, entering the tournament with a protected ranking and a few days later, the grass connoisseur finds himself in the final of an ATP 500 tournament for the first time. René Denfeld recaps the rebirth of the German veteran with the unique swings.
Florian Mayer‘s fairytale run to the championship match at the Gerry Weber Open has ticked all the important boxes.
“It’s unbelievable — and at home, here in Germany, on grass,” Mayer said after his straight-set win over Dominic Thiem in Saturday’s semifinal. “It’s my biggest final ever — before that, I played two semifinals in Beijing and Hamburg. It’s an amazing feeling for me in the late autumn of my career. I’m just incredibly happy.”
The two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist is more than adept when it comes to playing on grass — all his opponents stated it throughout the past week, and the German himself knows that he can weave his opponents into a web of slices, jumping backhands and sneak attacks into the net, yet fire away with his accurate first serve to get cheap points when necessary.
“The feeling on the grass is always there — it’ll never go away,” the 32-year-old said after his opening round win against Brian Baker on Tuesday.
For a long time over the course of the past few years, it didn’t necessarily look likely that Mayer would return to the big stage — or much of a stage at all. His 2014 season came to a sudden halt when he had to withdraw for his third round match in Miami against Novak Djokovic due to a ischiopubic edema — with conservative treatment of the ailment taking far longer than expected, the German was sidelined for over a year and eventually returned in Monte Carlo in 2015.
Mayer eventually played 13 tournaments last season with his best result coming, perhaps unsurprisingly, here in Halle, losing in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Roger Federer. His season ended, though, on a depressing and worrying note as had to retire from his first round match against Martin Klizan at the US Open trailing 0-3 in the fourth set.
Afterwards, the German didn’t play another tournament until Bucharest this April — and it was only at that point that he felt that he could give it another go after an injury-ridden two years.
“Sure, it was a tough time, I’ve been injured again for a long time [at the end of 2015],” the former World No. 18 explained about being sidelined again until April this year — this time with a torn right adductor tendon.
“I started in Bucharest and Munich and I noticed that I’m feeling pretty well, maybe even better than after coming back from the ischiopubic issue in 2015 — also in terms of my fitness I felt okay and my game was there. I just noticed that I’m appreciating it all more, also the tournaments and that I shouldn’t take it for granted to be playing in the main draw here. Who knows how often that’s going to happen? Or [playing] in Wimbledon. I just appreciate it more and I’m enjoying it more — and sure, a nice goal would be just to remain healthy [and] have fun. In terms of my ranking, let’s just say [until spring next year] to play my way back into the Top 100 — just to give myself some time.”
After his current run at the Gerry Weber Open, Mayer might be well ahead of the steady schedule he set out for himself — he’ll make it back into the Top 130 on the back of the final, and with a title, Mayer is certain to return to the Top 100.
Needless to say, the 32-year-old was already elated after his quarterfinal performance against defending finalist Andreas Seppi, where he produced one of his best serving performances to date — hitting a total of 16 aces, he never faced a break point in a 7-6(4), 6-3 win.
“[It’s] an unbelievable feeling right now — today I served unbelievable, I never served that well,” Mayer said after his straight set win over the Italian on Friday, exploiting the opportunity provided to him in the draw after Kei Nishikori‘s withdrawal. “It’s like this is the first time I have had that sort of luck, and maybe I have earned it a little after having so many injuries during the past year or two. I’ve made use of the draw and semifinals is incredible for me — many points and it helps me incredibly for the rankings!”
“The next goal is Wimbledon, I won’t be seeded and I can draw anyone, including Djokovic but I’ll try to make the most of Halle and Wimbledon because I know I need the points as a foundation. Afterwards, I’ll head back to the clay and play a few challengers — I know that’ll be brutal and I could potentially lose to anyone there.”
During Saturday’s semifinal encounter against Thiem, it felt like the German was controlling play from the get-go, keeping the No. 3 seed guessing and never allowing his Austrian opponent any rhythm to start dictating with his heavy groundstrokes. Mayer was well aware that he had a chance to play spoiler to the Austrian’s breakthrough summer, particularly on green lawns of Halle.
“It was at least 50-50, I’d say because I know at some point he had to become tired,” Mayer said. “He wasn’t at his best today which isn’t supposed to lessen my performance — of course, on clay I’d be the obvious underdog against Dominic but here in Halle on the quick grass courts, I gave myself a 50-50 chance before the match.”
The same can be said tomorrow, as many will see young Alexander Zverev as the favorite heading into the final of the Gerry Weber Open but Mayer has enough grass court smarts and experience to make life difficult for his young, talented opponent — with Thiem confirming that it will be a close affair.
“He serves and returns well — and got a lot of first serves back into play,” the World No. 7 explained. “He’s got this way of playing on grass that’s making things very uncomfortable — very flat, a lot of slice and he follows the ball up well, even in situations when you don’t expect it. You hit a shot, maybe a slight floater, and you think he’s still at the baseline and suddenly he sneaks into the net and puts the volley away — he [has] a great vision. The only way is to put him under constant pressure, so that he cannot dictate play himself. I’m not sure [about tomorrow’s result] — I’m expecting a fairly open match.”
It will be interesting to how Zverev is going to adapt to Mayer’s unconventional, yet tricky game on the grass — a contrast to his upset of Federer this afternoon — especially considering the two have never played each other. The 19-year-old’s rise up the rankings has come at the same time as the man 13 years his senior was forced to watch the game from the sidelines.
“I don’t have a lot of experience when it comes to Florian, [as I’ve] never played him,” Zverev said. “I know that he’s been serving really well this week, played well from the baseline and that’s why I’m expecting a really interesting match.”
Mayer, on the other hand, is very happy to continue playing his role as slight underdog as the tournament heads into the final day.
“I think it’s going to be a very tough match,” he said. “He’s a young upcoming German player. He will be Top 10 for sure in the future. I think he will be a little bit the favorite. Maybe the pressure is a little bit more on his side to win his first title, so we will see. I will give my best and then we will see what happens.”
Regardless of tomorrow’s outcomes, the past fortnight has been an impressive return to his grass form for the German veteran, already winning a total of eight matches — and it has put him back into the right frame of mind to compete at the top level after months of doubt.
“As a tennis player you rarely have it the easy way,” Mayer said. “The are ups, downs, wins, defeats, injuries and you just start thinking when you’re 32 years old, out with injury for nine months and things just don’t seem to fall into place. But I played well in Munich [on clay], now in Stuttgart and here and I can tell my game is still there. Sure, grass gives me more chances and I might have to adjust my schedule so that I play more on faster surfaces with a low bounce — but right now, I think I’ve got all the possibilities to get my ranking back up there.”
With the way Mayer has been playing and relishing his time out on the grass courts, it’s certainly palpable that he’ll be able to mix it up with the top for a couple more years — particularly if he manages to walk away with the giant green Gerry Weber trophy tomorrow.
Florian Mayer and Alexander Zverev will be facing each other at 3 pm local time in Halle to battle it out for the title.