The transition from clay to grass is a notoriously difficult one. Some players simply cannot calibrate themselves to the hallowed turf of Wimbledon, Queen’s, and Halle. In the 1960s, Manuel Santana famously denounced the surface by coining the phrase “Grass is for cows”, and it has been echoed ever since by the likes of Ivan Lendl and Marcelo Rios. Even Marat Safin, touted by former Great Britain Davis Cup captain Paul Hutchins as “a threat to win Wimbledon”, famously rampaged that he “hated” grass in a 2004 press conference. Some clay court specialists, including 1994 French Open runner-up Alberto Berasategui, have not even bothered entering Wimbledon. The move from clay to grass is undoubtedly a much-maligned one. So, who of the ATP’s elite is coping best?
The Austrian’s switch has perhaps been the most eye-catching of the ATP tour. Despite his deep run into Roland Garros, making for diminished preparation time on the grass, the 22-year-old seamlessly adjusted his game in Stuttgart, where he scooped his fourth ATP title of the year. Thiem’s maiden grass-court title also notably included a 3-6 7-6(7) 6-4 victory over Roger Federer. “On grass, I still feel like I am the underdog against a lot of players,” said Thiem post-match. This equivocal faith was certainly not on display against Federer, with Thiem battling back from a match point down in the second set tiebreak having led five games to love. In both this clash and his final against Kohlschreiber, the World #8 also impressively adapted to Wimbledon’s age-old foe: rain delays. Victory in Stuttgart was followed by a run to the semifinals of Halle. Thiem himself has admitted that over the past two years, he has underperformed on grass and came to Stuttgart “without any expectations”. But however unlikely it may seem, success seems to await Dominic Thiem on the grass of SW19.
The 19-year-old’s meteoric rise has been astounding. And on the grass of Halle, this rise continued. Zverev dethroned Federer on what has been his most prolific territory, with the Swiss boasting a 54-6 win-loss record at the tournament. In the first set, the ATP tour’s highest-ranked teen dropped just four points on serve. Across the whole match, Zverev also staved off six of seven break point chances. The rift between youngsters and the tour’s established elite can often be traced to how both handle themselves on the big points. The composed German broke this trend. Despite defeat in the Halle final to fellow countryman Florian Mayer, with his first top 10 scalp Alexander Zverev has proven himself to have the temperament–as well as the weapons–to be a serious threat.
Having enlisted the expertise of John McEnroe, the Canadian has certainly added another dimension to his game. His display at Queen’s, especially against Nick Kyrgios, provided an ominous preview of the feel as well as power he now seems to wield, and it took an utterly spectacular passing shot display from Andy Murray to finally halt the Canadian. Raonic now has another week of training with McEnroe; in that time his net play decision-making can surely only improve. The only slight concern for McEnroe will be his pupil’s dip in first serve percentage in the deciding set against Murray. But compare this to the deficiencies Raonic has had going in to past Championships, and the danger the 25-year-old poses this year becomes clear.
And the rest…
Yen-Hsun Lu continued his imperious run on the grass Challenger tour. After being a finalist at Manchester and taking the title in Surbiton, Lu added to his impressive Challenger trophy cabinet with victory on the grass of Ilkley’s Aegon Trophy. Dustin Brown–conqueror of Rafael Nadal last year–also seems to have hit some form in the run-up to Wimbledon, securing his first Challenger title of the year in Manchester. Despite his lowly ranking of 80 in the World, Florian Mayer could also be a dangerous Wimbledon underdog. He will be traveling to London off the back of victory in Halle, his first ATP 500 title, and SW19 has seen some of his best Grand Slam success, inclduging two quarterfinals appearances (2004, 2012). Then on the other end of the age spectrum lies Kyle Edmund. The young Briton has exhibited some fine tennis on clay, most notably in the first two sets of his eventual defeat to David Goffin in the Davis Cup final last year, yet his recent form points to an equal proficiency on grass. In the opening round of Queen’s, Edmund defeated Gilles Simon, a player ranked 67 places above him. He then backed up this milestone victory with a commendable display against Andy Murray, taking a set off the British #1 and forcing him to bring out some of his very best tennis. The 21-year-old also confidently dispatched Lukas Rosol on Monday in round one of the Nottingham ATP 250. It could be a breakthrough Championships for the home crowd hopeful.
Wimbledon Men’s Dark Horses are Adjusting to Grass
In 2005, after almost dethroning Federer in the Halle final, Safin overcame Mark Philippoussis in round two of Wimbledon. “Two weeks ago,” said Safin after the match, “I couldn’t really find myself comfortable on that surface [grass] until I played in Halle. I beat some tough players there. All of a sudden I feel comfortable. I felt really comfortable moving on it. All of a sudden all this came to me and I feel pretty good.” The epiphany was short lived. In the following round, he was defeated in straight sets by Feliciano Lopez, “rediscovering his hatred for grass” as The Guardian put it. Players’ relationship with grass is a fragile one. In 2016, it will be fascinating to see which of the Wimbledon men’s hopefuls of Raonic, Zverev and Thiem maintain some constancy in this ever-fickle grass court world.
Nottingham will be the final test of players’ grass-court worth before the Championships. It is a large- 64-player draw, where many try to play to get adjusted to the surface. Want to find another dark horse for Wimbledon? See who looks comfortable on the grass there.