Back to grass roots as Murray, Federer, Kerber and Bencic begin title defence
Marianne Bevis examines the many solutions to the problem of making a transition between two of the biggest tournaments in tennis in the space of three weeks
The move of Wimbledon’s sacrosanct fortnight last year opened up three weeks of preparation on grass after more than two months on the red clay. And that has brought something of blossoming of green lawns across Europe.
Of course three weeks instead of two still leaves a modest window for players to make their big adjustments in movement and in tactics, and acclimatise to the silent spring of turf and the zip and skid of balls through the court.
Some even began their transition before Roland Garros was done: the first of three Challenger tournaments, beginning in Manchester, showed just the kind of skills that shine on green. Dustin Brown’s acrobatic serve and volley skills won him the event last weekend to rocket him 30 places up the rankings.
Brown has also achieved his best Grand Slam results at Wimbledon, beating Rafael Nadal in the process. As he said: “The grass court season is my season… It would be nice if there were a lot more tournaments on this surface.”
There once were, of course: The US Open was played on grass until 1974, while the Australian Open stuck with it until 1987. Now, it is only one Grand Slam, the oldest, and arguably the most famous—the Championships at Wimbledon’s All England Club—that provides the ultimate challenge in grass-court tennis.
So what do these scant three weeks hold in the run-up to July’s crowning glory? After the rigours of three clay Masters and the French Open, how much rest can the top men and women squeeze in before they have to change their shoes and their mindsets?
Some have always revelled in this season. Take Roger Federer, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, runner up last year, who is also an eight-time winner in Halle. The other ATP500 event, played in the same week in London, is Queen’s, and that is where another grass aficionado has shone. Andy Murray has won the Aegon Championships four times, has won Olympic gold on Wimbledon’s grass—beating Federer in the final—and won the Wimbledon title in 2013.
These two, then, topped last year’s grass table, but Federer’s record 15 grass titles—in the shortest surface swing of them all—dwarfs Murray’s six, as do his 142 match-wins on the grass.
Federer’s form, however, is still to be tested this year. He has thus far played only four tournaments after an injury and illness blighted season. But even before these physical hits, Federer’s clay schedule had been trimmed and his grass season expanded to begin a week earlier—playing in Stuttgart for the first time. It will, in the event, become an important element in his Halle defence and Wimbledon ambitions.
Murray, after a long and gruelling run to his first French Open final, is resting up to recharge his batteries. He will no doubt be grateful for the ‘extra week’ before he heads to home turf for his Queen’s defence. He knows the grass of the Kensington club like the back of his hand, so his focus will be on recovery and recuperation: The tennis will follow.
Of course these two are not the only Wimbledon champions. World No1 Novak Djokovic and this week’s No4 Rafael Nadal, have enjoyed victories in London—the latter at Queen’s too—but neither is scheduled to make an appearance before Wimbledon this year.
Nadal, who was champion at Stuttgart last year, was due to play Queen’s but pulled out after his shock withdrawal with wrist injury during the French Open.
Djokovic has, in recent years, bypassed tour tournaments in favour of exhibition events—a couple of nothing-at-stake matches to adjust to grass. It certainly has not done him any harm: He has won three of the last five titles in SW19.
The same is true of the women’s No1 and defending Wimbledon champion. Serena Williams has won four of the last seven titles at the All England Club, but has not played a grass warm-up event since 2011, when she was making her return from a year’s absence with injury and illness.
However, unlike the men’s tour, several women have made big strides at Wimbledon. Petra Kvitova has broken the Williams’ glass ceiling to win the title twice. Agnieszka Radwanska gave Williams a run for her money in the 2012 final, won Eastbourne last year and reached the final in ‘s Hertogenbosch.
Meanwhile, last week’s French Open champion, Garbine Muguruza, made the Wimbledon final last year. All three are playing a grass tournament before Wimbledon.
The Australian champion, world No4 Angelique Kerber, has made the quarters and semis at Wimbledon, and is defending her Birmingham title next week.
Another fan of grass, teenager Belinda Bencic, has been dogged by injury in recent months, but makes her return after a breakthrough season on grass last summer. She reached the final in ‘s Hertogenbosch, and went on to win her first title in Eastbourne, beating Radwanska in the final. Now ranked No8 in the world, she begins her defence this week.
Indeed aside from Djokovic and Williams, there are few top players who are not taking advantage of this expanded grass swing: some, like Federer and Bencic, Juan Martin del Potro and Caroline Wozniacki, are making returns from injury with two tournaments.
So there are many solutions to the same problem of making a successful transition between two of the biggest tournaments in tennis—and all in the space of just three weeks.
Who plays where in grass’s 10 pre-Wimbledon events
W/b 6 June
WTA Aegon Open Nottingham: defending champ, Ana Konjuh (out injured)
Top seeds: Karolina Pliskova, Johanna Konta, Wozniacki, Monica Puig
WTA Ricoh Open ‘s Hertogenbosch: defending champ, Camila Giorgi (absent)
Top seeds: Bencic, Jelena Jankovic, Kristina Mladenovic, Jelena Ostapenko [NB Kiki Bertens withdrawn with calf injury]
ATP Ricoh Open ‘s Hertogenbosch: defending champ, Nicolas Mahut
Top seeds: David Ferrer, Bernard Tomic, Ivo Karlovic, Steve Johnson
ATP Mercedes Cup, Stuttgart: defending champ, Nadal (absent)
Top seeds: Federer, Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem, Gilles Simon
W/b 13 June
WTA Premier Aegon Classic Birmingham: defending champ, Kerber
Top seeds: Kerber, Simona Halep, Bencic, Carla Suarez Navarro, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lucie Safarava, Elina Svitolina, Pliskova
WTA Mallorca Open: first year
Top seeds: Muguruza, Ana Ivanovic, Sara Errani, Jankovic
ATP500 Gerry Weber Open Halle: defending champ, Federer
Top seeds: Federer, Kei Nishikori, Tomas Berdych, Ferrer, David Goffin, Thiem, Gael Monfils, Borna Coric
ATP500 Aegon Championships Queen’s: defending champ, Murray
Top seeds: Murray, Stan Wawrinka, del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Milos Raonic, Cilic, Richard Gasquet, John Isner [Nadal withdrawn]
W/b 19/20 June
WTA Premier Aegon International Eastbourne: defending champ, Bencic
Top seeds: Radwanska, Bencic, Kvitova, Timea Bacsinszky, Roberta Vinci, Suarez Navarro, Safarova, Errani
ATP Aegon Open Nottingham: defending champ, Denis Istomin
Top seeds: Kevin Anderson, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Johnson, Vasek Pospisil
W/b 27 June