High risk usually equals high reward, but over the years, on grass courts, taking chances in the form of attacking tennis has left some players looking at passing shots flying by them.
Last week’s finals on the ATP tour, in Stuttgart and ‘s-Hertogenbosch, though, almost had a throwback feel to them, with serve-and-volley tennis, slices and approach shots on full display.
But can those tactics equal eventual success at Wimbledon, the game’s most prestigious event, anymore? And how many players have been left on the outside looking in as grass-court play has slowed down?
The losing Stuttgart finalist, Feliciano Lopez, and the Ricoh Open champion, Gilles Muller, are always on the attack, with solid results to support that strategy during the grass-court stretch between the French Open and Wimbledon. But when it comes to the biggest prize in the game, it’s baseline play that’s been rewarded at the All England Club the past few years, with either Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray winning the title five of the past six years, and Rafael Nadal taking the title in 2008 and 2010.
Of course, the player filling in those gap years has been Roger Federer, whose all-court playing style on the surface has translated to seven titles in 10 finals played. He’s lost twice to Djokovic and once to Nadal in title matches.
Would a faster-playing Wimbledon have made the difference in those encounters? Federer is more likely to go on the attack than his fellow members of the Big Four. Three more titles equal a “La Decima” of his own, mimicking Nadal’s recently accomplished feat at the French Open.
Grass-court tennis has followed suit with the changes in the men’s game, with advances in technology being more conducive to extended rallies from the baseline. And at Wimbledon, a different blade of grass put into use more than a decade ago has put the players on more equal footing, bringing a halt to the serving-contest direction the game appeared to be headed in.
In 2002, the Wimbledon final featured Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, the first championship match to feature two baseliners since Bjorn Borg beat Jimmy Connors for his third consecutive title. Federer’s first Wimbledon victory came against hard-serving Australian Mark Philippoussis, and in each of the next two years he beat Andy Roddick in the final.
Then, in 2006, he faced then-two-time French Open champion Nadal, which cemented the fact that the days of Boris Becker/Stefan Edberg-type finals were surely a thing of the past.
If the court conditions hadn’t undergone such a drastic change, would a player hitting such extreme ground strokes have been able to win a few rounds, much less make a final?
And could some of the players still bucking the tide by serving and volleying today have made their presence felt at Wimbledon?
Take, for instance, Lopez. The Spaniard, a three-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, has made four finals on grass in the past several years, including Stuttgart last week, when he fell to Lucas Pouille in a three-set final. Could faster conditions have been the determining factor in a major breakthrough?
In 2013, Sergiy Stakhovsky handed Federer his earliest loss at a Grand Slam in a decade when he beat the Swiss star at Wimbledon in the second round. The sleek serve-and-volleyer from the Ukraine has a grass-court title under his belt, which came in 2010. He’s still capable of causing some damage, but perhaps if he played in a different era he’d be considered a Wimbledon contender.
The always-entertaining Dustin Brown has defeated Nadal twice on grass, in Halle in 2014 and at Wimbledon the next year. The grass-court season has traditionally been the German’s time to shine, with the soft courts providing the perfect setting for his particular brand of tennis.
Murray’s conqueror at this year’s Australian Open showed what he can do with the conditions are at a pace to his liking. Mischa Zverev has made significant strides over the past 12 months. With his ability to keep his opponents off-balance by taking away their reaction time, he can make inroads on the grass, as seen in his semifinal showing in Stuttgart this week. He fits the mold of a powerful grass-court specialist, playing a style that would’ve reaped great benefits in the past.
A player that clearly understands the nuances of grass-court play is Nicolas Mahut: All six of his career singles finals appearances have been on the turf. A former Wimbledon doubles champion, Mahut is perhaps best known for his epic match against John Isner at the 2010 edition of the tournament. Under different circumstances, perhaps Mahut enters that match as a defending champion.
This isn’t to discount the ability or accomplishments of Djokovic, Nadal or Murray, who’ve shown they will make whatever adjustments are necessary in order to win.
In another time, though, perhaps those three are joined by the likes of Mahut or Brown as a Wimbledon champion, which would redefine legacies—and build ones, too.