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Jan-Lennard Struff ends Andrey Rublev’s once-promising clay-court season early
But maybe the net-rushing German offered a lesson: Even today, you can’t win majors with baseline power alone.
Published Jun 01, 2021
WATCH: Struff holds off seventh-seeded Rublev for a major upset in the first round.
The Bullring at Roland Garros is gone, but its hard-edged intimacy lives on inside the relatively new Court 14. There are no frills here: Just a rectangle of orange clay surrounded by a low rectangle of concrete bleachers. The seats may be inflexible, but there’s not a bad one in this small house.
The first match on 14 on Tuesday suited the surroundings perfectly. Jan-Lennard Struff and Andrey Rublev played hard, straight-ahead, no-frills power tennis. Neither possesses much finesse or has any desire to change the pace in a rally. The German and the Russian love to hit their forehands and two-handed backhands as hard as they can, so that’s what they do, over and over and over.
Does that sound like a recipe for monotonous tennis? It was anything but. Rublev and Struff threw haymakers at each other for three hours and 46 minutes, but the suspense didn’t end until Struff had drilled his final serve down the T, and Rublev had sailed his final return long. The two played 340 points, and each won 170. They were nearly equal in the winner department as well: Rublev hit 65, Struff 63. Rublev broke serve more often than Struff—four times to three—but Struff found a way to get one when it mattered most, in the fifth set, and rode it to a 6-3, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 3-6, 6-4 win.
“It was definitely a very, very tough match,” Struff said. “I played Andrey twice this year, lost twice in three sets, played twice a very good first set but couldn’t get the job done. Today I managed to beat him.”
“It’s a huge win for me in a Grand Slam against a Top 10 player.”
A month ago, this isn’t how many of us thought Rublev’s clay-court season would end. He began it by recording his first win over Rafael Nadal, and reaching his first Masters 1000 final, in Monte Carlo. That victory felt like a harbinger of bigger things to come. Rublev had won a series of 500-level events over the previous two years; he had reached three straight Grand Slam quarterfinals; he had established himself inside the Top 10; and now he had beaten Rafa on clay, 6-1 in the third set.
Rather than a harbinger, though, that win turned out to be a peak for Rublev. Because he hadn’t expected to beat Nadal in the quarters in Monte Carlo, he didn’t pull out of the following week’s tournament in Barcelona. Instead, he traveled there, played a tired match, and lost to Jannik Sinner. In Madrid, he lost in a third-set tiebreaker to John Isner, who thrives in that tournament's altitude. In Rome, Rublev lost to an inspired and tireless Lorenzo Sonego, who was playing in front of his home fans.
In Paris, his earlier momentum gone, Rublev got a tough draw in Struff, a player who had already pushed him to three sets two different times this year. After dropping the first two sets, Rublev had two break points down 3-4 in the fifth. Struff saved one with a big forehand; on the second, Rublev’s backhand pass floated just wide.
Instead of building on his win over Nadal, Rublev’s clay season ended up being a series of tough breaks. This is just the way the tour goes sometimes, as the Russian would surely agree.
“I think we played good level today,” Rublev said. “It’s not easy. He’s a really tough opponent for the first round, really tough, plus he’s playing better and better. He’s improving and he’s winning really great matches.”
“Was many good rallies, good intensity. Was really unlucky—it was a really tough match, tough opponent for the first round and tough match.”
Rublev was unlucky, but he was also outplayed in one important way today. Struff attacked the net relentlessly. He wasn’t perfect up there, but he won 30 points at net, compared to just 10 for Rublev. Perhaps more important, he kept Rublev under constant pressure.
By contrast, Rublev played his usual power-baseline game. On one of the most important points of the match, at 6-5 in the second-set tiebreaker, with a chance to level the match at one-set all, Rublev found himself at net, with a chance at a makeable backhand volley. Instead of putting it away, though, Rublev popped the ball up and Struff hammered a backhand pass for a winner. With that shot, one-set-all turned to two sets to love for Struff.
Rublev’s spring was series of bad breaks, but it also may be a lesson for the future: Whether it’s learning to hit a drop shot, or a slice backhand, or to play the net, you need to be able to do something different now and then to win at the Grand Slam level. The player who beat Rublev in the Monte Carlo final, and who has ended up having the breakthrough spring, was Stefanos Tsitsipas. It’s probably not a coincidence that he’s comfortable mixing in slice and rushing the net.
“I don’t know yet,” Rublev said, when he was asked where he was heading next. “I don’t know what to do now. I didn’t speak with my team, so from there we’ll make a decision and we’ll make a plan.”
Surely Rublev thought he would be in this tournament for far longer, and that his spring wouldn’t end so abruptly. But there will more clay seasons come, and maybe he can learn something from the man who beat him today: You can’t win Slams with baseline power alone.