And then it will change again after Wimbledon as the tours enter hard court season,
Now that the French Open is over, the official European spring clay court season has concluded also. The one thing we learned from this year’s time on clay is that Rafael Nadal is still its king, and that Dominic Thiem is the closest to Nadal out of all the pretenders. We’ve learned that Fabio Fognini, when he wants to be, is an artist and a champion, and that Novak Djokovic may be able to win Slams on hard courts, but he’s not yet ready to claim the title of the world’s best on the slow stuff.
The end of the clay court season generally ushers in the start of the very short grass court season, generally centered in Great Britain, but where there are also a few tournaments on the Continent and the United States. As always, the grass court season peaks at England’s premier grass court event held at Wimbledon simply called “The Championships,” with an epilogue at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, back in the colonies. We’ve become accustomed to seeing the great clay courters in the quarters, semis, and finals of all the big clay court tournaments, but because of the difference in the surfaces, those who are best on the green grass will be different from those who dominated on the brown clay.
In general, great clay courters come from the countries that have a lot of clay courts where the players learn to play. I’d include most of the European countries on that list, particularly Spain, Italy, and France, and to a lesser degree Austria, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and The Netherlands. The other area that clay courters perfect their game is in South America, particularly Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, and Chile.
Grass courts, which used to dominate international tennis, now account for only Wimbledon and some other smaller, less important tournaments. Since the United States and Australia changed the playing surface of their respective Open Championships from grass to hard courts (the U.S. Open did have a 3-year hiatus where it was played on a clay-like har-tru surface in the ’70’s), grass has become a niche game requiring the ability to volley well, serve well, move well, and have an all-court game which would include the ability to hit groundies with both topspin and a slice, and the players who benefit from it are few and far between. For most, it’s a mixed blessing. But in general, those from Australia and South Africa, with a few Americans, will find their chances improved on the faster surface.
So, with the advent of the grass court season, who can fans expect this slick, fast surface to help, and who will probably find some difficulty picking up as many wins as they have on the slow stuff? Let’s take a look: (Note: The Big Three win on all surfaces),
1. Kevin Anderson
The tall, South African possesses a giant serve which is particularly effective on grass, and he has had a lot of experience on the surface. I’d expect Anderson to outperform his clay court results by a great margin.
2. Jon Isner
Isner has one of the best serves of all-time, and it works awfully well on grass courts. His serve is so effective that he could go a week or two without losing serve. So if anyone is going to beat the tall American, they’re going to have to do so in tie-breakers.
3. Milos Raonic
Raonic is another tall server who benefits from the tendency for the ball to slide and not bounce on the slick grass. Additionally, Raonic has a great slice backhand which reacts particularly well on grass, as it slides barely above the ground and makes an opponent get really low to lift the slice up over the net.
4. Alex de Minaur
The young Aussie possesses an all-around game that includes his ability to hit slices off of both wings, particularly on his backhand, that stay low to the ground as they bite into the turf. His serve, although not as big as some others, benefits because he has learned to slice wide off the deuce court, which opens up the entire court for him to volley into. As other players will try to win from the baseline, de Minaur will slice and dice, come to net, and put away easy volleys, always the best strategy on grass.
5. Kyle Edmund
The Aussie turned Brit will benefit from the grass simply because he has played on it virtually his whole life. He’ll chip and charge, and will benefit from being a good volleyer. A perpetual second round loser, look for him to move much further in grass court draws.
6. Reilly Opelka
Opelka is 7’ tall, and hits huge serves. This kind of game will always be helped by playing on grass, although it might be a bit of a mixed blessing because, if balls come back and fail to bounce, it might be a bit of a challenge for a player of his height to get down and volley.
7. Sam Querrey
Querrey should have similar experiences on grass as Opelka, although Querrey does rely a bit more on his big forehand than Opelka. Querrey should have little trouble winning his service games, but I think he appears to be more on the downside of his career than some others, and the physical requirement of playing on grass: bending low, volleying, and having steadfast footwork, might not help him any.
8. Steve Johnson
There is no other player on the Tour who I have picked on in my writings more than California’s Stevie Johnson, so it’s nice to say something nice and positive about him. Johnson lacks the ability to hit a topspin backhand, which has hurt him as he has battled the world’s best players on hard courts and clay courts. But his slice backhand, which he has perfected his entire career, is a huge benefit on grass, as it digs into the grass and slides, rather than bounces, forward. This will keep his opponents off balance and if he ever comes up against a tall player (aren’t all Tour players tall?) that player will have a hard time bending his knees low enough and frequently enough to lift those shots over the net and compete effectively.
9. Ivo Karlovic
Dr. Ivo has had one of the most fearsome serves on the Tour for twenty years now, and it helps him greatly on grass. No player is going to want to play the big man on grass at Wimbledon, but, like Querrey, at forty years old now, the grass will be a mixed bag. Will the benefit he gets on his serve outweigh the cost of having to get low to volley? Only watching will tell.
GRASS WILL HURT
1. Dominic Thiem
Over the past four years Thiem has shown that he is one of the two or three best clay courters in the world. Unfortunately, his long strokes and propensity to stay on the baseline will not translate as well to winning on grass. As the ball slides, Thiem will have to speed up his strokes, which is a near impossibility for the Austrian, since his back swings are so long. He’ll still be a terror to play, but he won’t be a finalist at Wimbledon.
2. Guido Pella
The Argentine, who is quickly climbing up the rankings ladder, is a true clay courter pinned to the baseline bombing groundstroke after groundstroke. Like Thiem, he rarely comes forward, and he’ll feel rushed trying to crush groundie after groundie. I’d bet against his ranking climbing until the summer U.S. and Canadian season arrives.
3. Fabio Fognini
Fognini has all the talent in the world and if he’s playing well the surface shouldn’t matter. But like Thiem and Pella, he will feel rushed when trying to execute his booming ground strokes. It won’t hurt him if he can hit immediate winners, but if he has to hit three or four in a row, the smaller amount of time that he has to set up will eventually mess up his timing.
4. Matteo Berrettini
Like all other clay courters, the Italian should be fine for a shot or two. After that, the long backswings will get in his way, and lacking the ability to win easy points off of his serve, he should look forward to leaving the grass and coming over to the States for the har-tru and hard courts this summer.
5-7. Marco Cecchinatto, Juan Ignacio Londero, Juame Munar
Each of these guys has put together a nice year so far, but they’re going to have trouble adding a lot of ranking points as play switches to grass. Like Fognini and Berrettini, these guys are true clay courters, and not only will they find their timing destroyed, but they might also have trouble with the footing. Watch to see if these guys fall down. Most clay courters do, and if you see that, you’ll know that their frustration is starting to get to them.