The grass court season is on the cusp of its climax. On Monday, the world’s finest will take to tennis’ biggest stage at the All England Club. As such, the final battle lines are now being drawn. The Aegon Open in Nottingham, one of the last grass tournaments ahead of SW19, is now down to its final two. We look back on the semifinals that decided the finale line-up, as well as the crucial encounter to come. Who will triumph on the eve of Wimbledon?
Nottingham: The Final Battle Lines Before Wimbledon
The Aegon Open
It has been a high-octane week of tennis at the ATP 250 event, and the semifinals proved no different. Pablo Cuevas, despite his high seeding at the event, has surprised many critics with his performance. And on Saturday, he secured his first grass court final with a 3-6 7-6(3) 6-4 victory over the much more grass-centric Gilles Muller. Muller, one of a dying breed of “serve and volleyers”, reached the final at ‘s-Hertogenbosch and so after a close victory over Mikhail Youzhny, was fully expected to outmaneuver clay court specialist Cuevas on the turf of Centre Court.
“I won two tournaments on clay. I always play more comfortably on clay,” Cuevas admitted post-match. “I was born playing on clay but this is my first time with confidence on grass. Now having played four matches here, the feeling is good.”
After receiving a bye in the first round, Cuevas had defeated Stephane Robert, Dan Evans, and Marcos Baghdatis to reach the semifinals. When asked what was behind this fruitful vein of form, Cuevas’ answer was simple. “I worked on my grass game in Uruguay,” he said. “Match by match I have moved better and I’ve got confidence with the ball. I’m more comfortable with my movement on grass now.” The magnitude may be incomparable, but as Nadal did in 2008 to take the Wimbledon crown, Cuevas seems to have made key adjustments to his clay court game for more success on the grass.
But it was arguably Cuevas’ determination and stamina – typically clay court specialist characteristics – that earned him a way back into the match on Friday. At 4-4 in the second set, he boldly staved off three break points. Muller, on the other hand, had only dropped three points on his serve in the whole set. Yet in spite of Muller’s dominance, Cuevas’ resolve held and he snatched the second set on a tiebreak.
In the third set, it was then Cuevas who made the crucial break. After that, the 30-year-old kept his composure and served the match out comfortably. However, for all his serenity, such a positive outcome in Nottingham has even surprised the Uruguayan. “I came to Nottingham to play matches before Wimbledon,” he said. “Winning matches is very good preparation, but I did not imagine that I will play the final in my first tournament on grass of the year. It’s perfect.”
Pablo Cuevas has certainly defied his critics. He will face Andrey Kuznetsov in Round 1 of Wimbledon, and with the top seed in his section being Kei Nishikori – a man who is yet to progress past the fourth round of the Championships – Cuevas could be eyeing up an unprecedented appearance in SW19’s second week.
Earlier on Friday, Steve Johnson defeated top seed Kevin Anderson in three tight sets. Just hours later, he was then back under the scrutiny of the Centre Court crowd in his semifinal clash with Andreas Seppi. However, Johnson delivered a routine 6-4 6-4 defeat of the Italian. It was a physically grueling day for Johnson. Yet he was convinced that his mental durability was the factor that got him over the line in both clashes.
“Keeping my composure and coming back from the darkness delay last night and the rain delay today up a set,” he said, in response to what he thought was the key behind his results. “You never know how those are going to turn out. Fortunately, I came out with good starts in both and was able to get back in the swing of things.”
The rain delay had disturbed Johnson’s semi final clash with Seppi early in the second set. It is an external factor that habitually plays havoc with players’ rhythm at Wimbledon. Johnson’s adaptability could be a crucial advantage.
The semi final also signified another formidable serving display from Johnson. He only faced one break point on his serve all match, taking an imperious 88% of points on his first serve. With victory over six foot eight Kevin Anderson, the American has surely also proven his returning credentials.
Having only turned professional in 2012, and with no ATP title yet to his name, there may be worries that Steve Johnson could be overawed in the Aegon Open final. Yet Johnson, whilst conceding the impressive displays of his opponent, appeared assured. “It’s going to be my second [ATP tour] final so I’m going to feel more comfortable,” he said post-match. “I’m definitely feeling confident but Pablo’s played an outstanding tournament as well so it’s hopefully going to be a great match and I’m going to be a bit more comfortable in my second final than I was in my first.”
Nottingham is also a venue of past successes for Johnson. “This is a site that I have pretty fond memories of,” he said, smiling. “Back in 2013 I won the Challenger here to get into the top 100 and get a wildcard to play my first Wimbledon all at the same time, so it’s one of those things that I’ll never forget.” He will surely draw on such fond memories for his battle on Saturday.
Johnson will face Malek Jaziri in the opening round of SW19. The Tunisian’s most useful tool on the grass – his low, cutting slice – should be comfortably nullified by Johnson’s equal proficiency in that shot type. The seed in Johnson’s section is Gael Monfils, who hasn’t played competitively since the clay of Rome back in May. The Californian looks poised to finally fulfill his potential on grass on one of sport’s biggest stages.
Looking Ahead to Saturday…
Only 13 places separate Steve Johnson and Pablo Cuevas in the ATP rankings. The two however, have greatly disparate playing styles. Johnson will bring much more of a traditional grass court game with his stinging serve. He has racked up 46 aces on route to the final. Cuevas on the other hand, with his slighter frame and newfound mobility on the grass, will look to lengthen the rallies and find openings to counter-punch. Johnson’s powerful forehand could overwhelm the Uruguayan and preclude any such openings. But conversely, as the American attempts to shuffle around onto that lethal forehand, he will need to be acutely aware of the space that he leaves on the right hand side of the court. This is a space Cuevas could certainly seek to exploit. It will be an intriguing battle of wills and tactics. Expect both men to be utterly dogged in their search for glory on the eve of Wimbledon.