Back to grass roots: Federer pursues records, Djokovic regroups, Murray prepares and more key storylines
Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are among the big names preparing for the prestigious tennis grass season
After three months of sweating it out the hard courts of Australia and North American, and two months skidding across the red clay of Europe, it is at last the turn of grass, even if the ‘expanded’ green season still only lasts a single month.
So it is, for the players, a modest window in which to make their adjustments in movement and tactics, and acclimatise to the low-bouncing spring and sap of turf.
But the extra grass week between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, added in 2015, has brought something of a blossoming of tournaments in the schedule, from the distant eastern Mediterranean Turkish coast to the oh-so-traditional environs of English clubs up and down the country.
After the rigours of the first five months on the road, though, how much rest can the top players squeeze in before having to change both shoes and mindsets? Who will make hay on the summer turf?
For Federer, will rest and recuperation be the perfect launch pad again?
Last year, after a blistering surge to titles at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami, Roger Federer opted out of the entire clay season for the first time. It worked a treat, too: The Swiss returned fresh to sweep the Halle and Wimbledon double without dropping a set. Good reason, then, to repeat the formula after regaining the No1 ranking this February with the Rotterdam title at the age of 36.
So much does he love grass that, after almost 10 weeks away, he will pack in three tournaments, beginning in Stuttgart. And as he trails Rafael Nadal by just 100 ranking points, he can reclaim the No1 again if he converts his first-round loss there last year to a final run.
He took the first step in a rusty three-setter against another man very at home on grass, Mischa Zverev, but a tricky half includes Nick Kyrgios. Should Federer win in Stuttgart, however, it would also be his first grass title outside Halle and Wimbledon, and should he go on to defend at the other two, he could reach 20 grass titles and 100 career titles at Wimbledon. Very neat—and very impressive.
Novak Djokovic: showing his intent
It has been a tough 12 months for former No1 Novak Djokovic, the man who was No2 for the entire six months he played last year but who comes to London’s grass as No21.
In the long stretch following his retirement in the quarters of Wimbledon, he tried going solo on the coaching front, but has now reunited with his old tried and tested team—and after a minor operation to his elbow earlier this year, he picked up his old intensity and focus through the clay swing.
He was desperately disappointed with his quarter-final finish at Roland Garros, but he bounced back with the up-beat decision to take a wild card into Queen’s for the first time in almost a decade.
Djokovic certainly has every reason to be up-beat: grass has yielded some fine prizes, not least three titles from four Wimbledon finals, and he is third among active players for grass titles won behind Federer and Andy Murray.
All eyes on Andy Murray—his home nation hopes
It has been a long, long haul for Murray, too, since his hip began to cause such problems during last year’s clay season. He has not played a tour match since last Wimbledon, had hip surgery, and delayed his planned return in s-Hertogenbosch this week.
When it comes to grass, only Federer among active players has won more: Murray is a five-time winner at Queen’s, twice at Wimbledon, and won the 2012 London Olympics. He is scheduled to return to competition on his home turf in a few days’ time: If and when he appears, there will be few players so under the microscope.
Of course, with a current ranking outside the top 100, Murray will be unseeded at both Queen’s and Wimbledon, and Stan Wawrinka finds himself in the same situation.
Can Wawrinka turn things around with return to grass?
Wawrinka is now down at No263 after his own long-term absence and double knee surgery. He has made tentative returns during 2018, but is currently on a 4-7 win-loss run, and since reaching the semis at Queen’s in 2014, he has won just one match there in three visits.
On paper, it feels as though his game should flourish on grass: He has power off both wings, has more flexibility and variety on his driving backhand than most, and is willing to take the attack to his opponents. Yet one grass final, at s-Hertogenbosch in 2013, is all he has to show in silverware on the green stuff, and he only just makes it past the 50 percent mark in wins at Wimbledon—two quarter-finals, while he has won at each of the other Majors.
No matter: He is clearly taking his preparation for grass very seriously, has been training at Queen’s through this week, and has pulled out of planned clay events after Wimbledon to look after his knees. His many admirers will hope he can finally make his presence felt in the coming weeks.
Kyle Edmund on the rise
There will be great interest in the new top-ranked Briton, Kyle Edmund, ranked No18, with a first Major semi to his name in Australia, a first Masters quarter-final in Madrid, and with two top-10 wins to his name. It has been a significant season so far, and he will hope to translate that, and his big power game, to the grass.
He was knocked out of Queen’s last year in a tough three-setter in the first round by the charismatic teenager, Denis Shapovalov. The young Canadian’s star has also risen since last year: he will take part this year as No23 in the world. In 2016, though, Edmund really stretched Murray, winning the first set in their quarter-final match.
Edmund has only won one match at Wimbledon thus far, his poorest at a Major. With his growing confidence, increasing tactical astuteness, and burgeoning support from his home crowd, he will hope at least to reach the second week in SW19 this time.
There will also be British interest in 22-year-old Cameron Norrie, up to 79 this week and given a wild card into the Queen’s draw. He reached his first semi-final in Lyon last month, beating John Isner.
Who might take up the grass baton?
Grigor Dimitrov is a former Queen’s champion, former Wimbledon junior champion and a semi-finalist at The Championships four years ago. His star rose with his ranking to No3, after his ATP Finals victory in London last November, and his all-court skills will flourish more in the coming weeks than they did on the clay.
Shapovalov, still just 19, is also a former Wimbledon junior champion, and announced his prodigious skill at Queen’s last year via qualifying to beat Edmund and almost down Tomas Berdych before losing the decider 5-7. He struggled with the transition to grass in Stuttgart this week, but make no mistake: He will increasingly make an impression through the coming three weeks.
In a similar mould is fellow single-hander Stefanos Tsitsipas, up to 37 this week from 91 at the start of the year and two top-10 wins to the good. He announced himself with a bang in Barcelona, a final run through three top-20 players. But grass should suit him just fine, and he came through a difficult test in s-Hertogenbosch this week to make the quarters.
Kyrgios made the quarters in his first Wimbledon appearance in 2014, but has lost in the first round at Queen’s in each of the last three years. How will things pan out on his return from yet more injury problems this season? The talented Australian could probably beat anyone—and he plays at Stuttgart, Queen’s and Wimbledon—depending on fitness and a sense of purpose. He won his opening three-setter in Stuttgart, though his hip looks worryingly sore.
The grass, too, is where a few old-hands often find comfort. Feliciano Lopez won Queen’s last year and was finalist in 2014, and he is three times a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon, with the leftie serve-and-volley game made for the turf. He is into the quarters in Stuttgart before heading back to Queen’s.
Juan Martin del Potro is back in the upper ranks after many years of struggle, and has proven that his game can translate to grass—not least in London 2012. Much may depend on his draw, and the weather conditions, for the big man.
The same may be true for Marin Cilic, who converted three straight quarter-finals at Wimbledon into a runner-up finish last year, and he continues to take strides elsewhere. He also has a good record at Queen’s, one title from three finals.
Keep an eye, too, on the ever-improving world No3 Alexander Zverev, primed to build on his first deep run at a Major, the quarters at Roland Garros, young German Max Marterer, Karen Khachanov, and Milos Raonic, hoping to put injury worries behind him and build on previous runner-up runs at Wimbledon and Queen’s.
Who plays where in grass’s six pre-Wimbledon events
W/b 11 June
ATP 250 Libema Open, s-Hertogenbosch: defending champ, Gilles Muller
Top seeds: Adrian Mannarino, Richard Gasquet, Muller, Fernando Verdasco, Tsitsipas
ATP250 Mercedes Cup, Stuttgart: defending champ, Lucas Pouille
Top seeds: Federer, Pouille, Berdych, Kyrgios, Shapovalov, Raonic, Lopez
W/b 18 June
ATP500 Gerry Weber Open Halle: defending champ, Federer
Top seeds: Federer, A Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Pouille, Kei Nishikori, Roberto Bautista Agut, Richard Gasquet, Borna Coric, Tstisipas, Khachanov
ATP500 Fever-Tree Championships Queen’s: defending champ, Lopez
Top seeds: del Potro, Cilic, Dimitrov, Kevin Anderson, David Goffin, Edmund, Berdych plus Kyrgios, Shapovalov, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Milos Raonic
W/b 25 June
ATP250 Nature Valley International Eastbourne: defending champ, Djokovic
Top seeds: Edmund, Shapovalov, Lopez, Filip Krajinovic, David Ferrer, Muller [plus Diego Schwartzman if fit]
ATP250 Turkish Airlines, Antalya: defending champ Yuichi Sugita
Top seeds: Mannarino, Damir Dzumhur, Robin Haase, Sugita, Joao Sousa, Dusan Lajovic
W/b 3 July