Baseline Stability, Mental Improvements, Smoking Grass, and Vomiting–Oscar Otte’s Late Breakthrough

Oscar Otte Wimbledon
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The last seed for the 2022 Wimbledon men’s singles, Oscar Otte, broke the Top 100 at 28 years of age. His rise didn’t gain as much traction as that of another recent late-bloomer, Aslan Karatsev, but while it still lacks a huge Slam result or an ATP title, the German is constantly showing he is here to stay. At a pretty advanced stage of his career, Otte made a few key improvements to his game, but we can’t be certain if it all would have happened without one brilliant fortnight at the 2021 US Open.

Oscar Otte Breaking Through

Fighting through a stomach bug to grab the best run of his career

What’s wild is how close it was for this run to finish in the opening round of the qualifying event. Otte saved a match point each against both Renzo Olivo and Constant Lestienne, taking them out in deciding set tie-breakers. Near the end of both matches, he got so sick in the New York humidity and heat that he had to vomit on the court, before coming back to claim these two impressive victories despite the stomach bug. In the last round, he had to face Bernabe Zapata Miralles in a blockbuster matchup between two players who had qualified for Roland Garros and Wimbledon earlier that year.

But the rest was history and after defeating 20th seed Lorenzo Sonego in the opening round of the US Open main draw, Otte also went on to beat Denis Kudla and Andreas Seppi. He was finally stopped by Matteo Berrettini in the last sixteen and somehow, didn’t even make a big ranking jump despite gaining 205 points. That was mostly as at around the same time of the year in 2020, Otte enjoyed a great run in clay Challengers at Prague (lost in the final to Aslan Karatsev), and Aix-en-Provence (won the title over Thiago Seyboth Wild).

Keeping it up in indoor Challengers to secure a long-time goal

With this form going upward was only a matter of time and soon enough, the German claimed three Challenger titles to almost secure a top 100 debut at the end of December. “Always when he was close and he didn’t have much to defend when he was around No. 130, he was playing nervous, he was feeling the pressure” said Otte’s long-time friend Andreas Mies (two-time Roland Garros men’s doubles champion) in an interview with Andrew Eichenholz.

The goal that Otte had been chasing for years used to get him tight whenever he was getting close, but not this time around. The German went a stunning 21 wins to just 4 losses after the US Open, winning Challengers in Ismaning, Ortisei, and Bari. With just fifteen points away from the world’s best hundred, Otte pushed hard to get it done before the end of the season, but the body just didn’t survive the intensity of the previous couple of months and the 28-year-old was forced to retire in the second round of his last event of 2021.

He eventually got it in January, albeit in pretty unusual circumstances. Otte beat Jurij Rodionov but lost to Taro Daniel in the final qualifying round at Adelaide, but with some other rivals dropping points, five days after the loss to the Japanese his spot in the top 100 was mathematically secured.

Where did it come from?

Otte’s ascension started with the fourth round at the 2021 US Open, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any signs pointing to the possibility. In a season that started for him with physical issues and just one win in five events, the 28-year-old picked himself up during the spring, first reaching a Challenger final in Prague (lost to Tallon Griekspoor, who won eight such tournaments that year), then qualifying for the French Open.

A particularly nasty draw had him face Alexander Zverev in the opening round in Paris, but he briefly went 2-0 up, playing phenomenal power tennis and impressing with his hand skills and beautiful touch. He couldn’t keep up the intensity though and was soundly dispatched in the next three sets, but the quality was clearly there.

Wimbledon turned out to be another high point with a successful qualifying campaign and then a 4-6 6-3 6-2 6-7 13-12 win over Arthur Rinderknech. The German then lost to Andy Murray in a stunning five-setter on Center Court, a match that made plenty of fans aware of his talent (and sense of humor, which is perfectly encapsulated by another Mies quote – “He’s a little bit crazy, but really funny.”).

Rally tolerance, far fewer mental hiccups

Otte had simply really improved his baseline game, finding a lot more consistency and the ability to play extended rallies as a bit of a backup plan. The German is a great mover for his height and he’s capable of keeping the ball in play while being pulled around the court, which is definitely a side of his game that was rarely mentioned in the discourse about him prior to 2021. All the power he has is no longer the priority, but more so one of the point-yielding options that Otte has in his repertoire. It was pivotal for him to get a good understanding of the fact he has this huge weaponry, but he doesn’t need to rely on it completely.

A related recent example of a player rising up the ranks is the 21-year-old Francesco Passaro of Italy, runner-up at three Challengers since April this year. The youngster completely turned his game around in the past twelve months or so, going from a grinder to essentially a ball-basher. The power is clearly still fresh to him and while he was adding it to his array of skills, his shot selection flew out the window. Once Passaro learns that he doesn’t have to go for the kill every single time, that’s when he’ll be at his most dangerous.

While Otte hasn’t really played as hit-or-miss as the Italian throughout his career, he found more success when he realized that he’s got the ability to look for other ways to win points and that he can hold his own in baseline rallies against the very best players in the world. Back in the Challenger days, Otte was also famous for his mental meltdowns, one of which you can see in the video below. The German was so frustrated with the number of errors in the second set against Jiri Lehecka at Prague that he threw it away on a double fault (later turned into a point penalty) and even suggested to the umpire that he couldn’t play tennis.

It was something that often held the German back and lost him sets and matches that weren’t supposed to be difficult. But ever since his late ascension and the transformation into a main tour regular, we’ve seen Otte playing with a lot more focus. Even if some big momentum swings appear, they’re not nearly as extreme as what he used to pull off in the past.

Conditions don’t matter

What else makes the German a player than could potentially stick around on the main tour for a long time? His versatility across surfaces. With the big serve, most people associate him with grass and indoor hard courts, but Otte’s game is balanced well enough to allow him to succeed in any conditions. That Ismaning, Ortisei, and Bari stretch on the Challenger Tour had him claim titles in three of the fastest venues on the circuit, but earlier than that both his lower-tier trophies came on clay courts (Lisbon, Aix-en-Provence).

The 28-year-old has only played three Challengers on grass, but still managed to grab a final at Ilkley in 2018, just missing out on the Wimbledon wildcard that is traditionally given to the winner of that event. He’s had a successful Grand Slam qualifying campaign on every surface and even on the main tour, his three semifinal runs were achieved on grass (Stuttgart, Halle) and clay (Munich). While it certainly could be argued that the higher the level, the more he’ll need the big weapons and faster courts to carry him through, he’s clearly competitive on any surface currently used on the professional circuit.

What happens when the US Open points drop?

Otte in the top 100 seemed perfectly natural, but it was easy to assume that after the US Open points drop he’d probably fall back into the depths of the ATP Challenger Tour again. However, as it stands now, it looks like the German has amassed enough great results that even if he fails to defend any of the 205 points (180 for the fourth round, 25 for qualifying) he gained in New York last year, his ranking won’t suffer all that much, still comfortably keeping him in a position that lets you play all tour-level events. In fact, he’s currently 35th in the ATP Race, which only takes 2022 efforts into consideration.

In 2021, he was coming to Wimbledon as the World No. 151 (was one spot lower when he played the qualifying at Roehampton). Twelve months later, the position of Otte in the tennis world is just completely different. While Jon Wertheim recently called him “The best player (especially on grass) you’ve never heard of.” in his seeds report for Sports Illustrated, non-casual tennis fans have really gotten accustomed to the brilliant game of the 28-year-old.

Twelve months after his round two loss to Andy Murray, he comes into Wimbledon as the 32nd seed and for many, a potential dark horse to make the quarterfinals. Carlos Alcaraz is still learning to play on the grass and Otte has a serious chance of upsetting him in a potential third-round encounter. Another meeting with Murray could be looming next, provided they both reach the last sixteen. This time, the storylines ahead of this one would be completely different than in June 2021.

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