Grass and London weather challenge tennis’ top men

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
rafael nadal

Nadal won at Queen's club in 2008 and went on to win Wimbledon

The matches are totting up on the draw sheets at the Aegon Championships despite obligatory rain breaks on every day thus far.

As the tournament confirms the quarter-final line-up in its bulging 64-man draw, the impact of the weather on the demanding grass of Queen’s Club has had its impact on all the major players.

The transition from two months on clay to barely a month on grass is one of the hardest in the tennis season. For those who played deep into the second week of Roland Garros, the time for adjustment is very short indeed.

Rafael Nadal, for example, bowled up late on Monday having completed his victorious run in Paris fewer than 24 hours before. No wonder he wanted to get his feet on that famous Queen’s turf the moment he arrived, despite the small impediment of rain, court covers, and absence of a net.

The transition is not made any easier by the speed of the Queen’s Club grass: they are famously fast. It is helped even less when the weather veers between warm sunshine and heavy showers, humid stillness and gusty breezes. By Thursday, the temperatures had plummeted, and even the ball girls had to wrap up in towels.

So the grass is slippery, the sap still heavy, and the rainy residue is giving the surface an unpredictable grip. By any measure these are taxing conditions and the grass season already requires the full gamut of tennis skills for one to be successful.

The slickness of the surface reduces the high bounce and speeds up the shoot-through, so low slice and rapier-sharp drives deliver more rewards than on clay. Rallies are less likely to extend into long baseline attrition and end with an outright winner—a fast serve, volley or forehand, or a dying drop, slanted slice or low-angled backhand.

Feliciano López and Michael Llodra have both made straight sets progress to the quarters here with such serve-and-volley tactics and elegant and precise single-handed backhands.

This is also an environment where fast and nimble footwork rather than lunging slides is paramount. It is where fast hands and a great touch help to make last-minute adjustments to the extra zip that grass’ greasy surface delivers.

This has favoured the quick-footed, fast reactions of the compact Dudi Sela who out-sliced and out-manoeuvred the fast Andy Roddick, who simply could not get his serve firing in the cool, damp and blustery conditions. Roddick’s practice partner, Sam Querrey, did better, hitting 12 aces to seal his quarter-final place.

On the practice courts, too, the all-court lessons have been tried and tested in tactical drills by all the top seeds: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Nadal, and even Marin Cilic, whose height makes the need for physical adjustments around the net a particular disadvantage. It is no surprise that the practised Llodra got the better of him.

Nadal these days is one of the most natural all-courters in this week’s competition. For when it comes to footwork, speed, agility, touch at the net and, now, a fast-improving swing of a wide serve, he has the full package.

He was severely challenged by Denis Istomin, whose potent serve and classic sliced drives cut through the Nadal defences time again. Nadal was clearly unhappy with the conditions: it was damp, cold and very gloomy.

Istomin put up a gallant fight, coming back from a break down in the final set, but Nadal resisted, and keeps alive his hope of following his unbeaten clay season with the perfect transition to what is the polar opposite of tennis surfaces.

Nadal won here in 2008 and went on to win Wimbledon. Judging from his black expression, nothing less than perfection—and a similar result—will do for the new world No.1.

But Mardy Fish, another American totally at home on grass and who beat Andy Murray on Friday, may yet rain on his parade.

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