It’s Queen’s for Murray, Halle for Federer, but Pouille, Muller, and Zverev could throw down gauntlets
The British world number one will look to retain his Queen's Club crown, while the 35-year-old will be in action at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle
The two biggest grass events in the run-up to the oldest Grand Slam at Wimbledon get under way this week. Both the Gerry Weber Open, spreading itself in the rural German countryside of Halle, and the Aegon Championships at the Queen’s Club, which is squeezed into the heart of London’s Kensington, enjoy huge followings. And each has grown used to hitting the headlines with the best grass-court players of their generation.
World No1 Andy Murray and former world No1 Roger Federer are two of the most successful men of the Open era—with only John McEnroe edging Murray into third place.
Last year, Murray went 12-0 on home soil, winning Queen’s and Wimbledon, and in sheer numbers, he is the best British grass player of all time: More titles than Fred Perry—eight of them, the same as McEnroe—and more match-wins—102 to Perry’s 79.
As he begins the defence of his titles this month, he could overtake McEnroe, and if he is to maintain his hold on the No1 ranking, achieved with such effort from the grass swing through to the World Tour Finals last year, he needs to perform at his usual formidable level. He has a stern test to do so.
After playing fellow Brit, Aljaz Bedene, who has enjoyed some fine results in recent months, Murray could face the big-serving Sam Querrey, who beat Novak Djokovic in the third round of Wimbledon last year.
Then it could be the unseeded Gilles Muller, who arrives hot-foot from winning the s-Hertogenbosch title. But then an alternative is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, another fine grass player, twice a semi-finalist at Wimbledon and a finalist at Queen’s.
In the semis, there could be the equally dangerous Nick Kyrgios or former Queen’s champion, Marin Cilic. Follow that with world No3 Stan Wawrinka, who himself has a tough opener against Stuttgart runner-up Feliciano Lopez, and the hurdles are considerable.
However, even if he does win his sixth at Queen’s, Murray is a long way off the man who will attempt to win his ninth title in Halle this week. Federer has an all-time record of 15 grass titles and 152 match-wins on grass, and to give that some context, the next on the list, Pete Sampras and Bill Tilden, are the only men to have made it to 10.
That lead may well have been even greater had the mighty Swiss, a seven-time Wimbledon champion from 10 finals, and silver medallist to Murray’s gold at the London Olympics, had not faced such a tough season during 2016.
After his semi-final run at the Australian Open, he injured his knee and required surgery, then did not play until the clay swing after gastric and back problems delayed his return. He managed just five games on the red stuff, and withdrew from Roland Garros, finally making a return on grass, where he reached the semis in Stuttgart, Halle and Wimbledon.
Yet it had become clear that he was carrying some residual problems: His service action looked compromised, and after a fall late in his five-set loss to Milos Raonic and the All England Club, Federer pulled the plug on his entire season.
It was a significant sacrifice: He could not take part in the Rio Olympics, and would drop to No17 in the rankings, his lowest in over 14 years.
But that extended break, and the rest and recuperation it allowed, worked wonders. Such was his comeback to win the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami, that he decided to take off another extended break—the entire clay swing—to focus once again on grass.
Not that the return to Stuttgart last week went entirely to plan: a loss from match-point up to old friend and adversary Tommy Haas in his first match.
That may put a little more pressure on his opening matches in Halle. He has points to defend—a not unimportant consideration as players jostle for the top spots in the seedings for Wimbledon—and he needs competitive matches to sharpen his game for the special requirements of grass. Everything is a little faster, slicker, and more low-bouncing, and makes great demands of the legs and back.
On top of that, Federer’s forthcoming challengers need a signal that he has found his grass groove, and at Halle, that will be discovered early. After the 68-ranked 33-year-old Yen-Hsun Lu, the Swiss could run into one of the most improved players this year, the elder Zverev brother Mischa, in the second round.
The German was ranked 152 this time last year, is now 31 after beating Murray at the Australian Open to reach his first Major quarter-final. He made his career-second final in Geneva last month, and this week reached the semis on Stuttgart’s grass. His serve and volley tennis, honed in plenty of doubles tennis, should thrive on Halle’s grass, too.
The quarters promise another Stuttgart semi-finalist, Benoit Paire, defending champion Florian Mayer, or eventual Stuttgart champion, Lucas Pouille.
The highest seed in Federer’s half is No3 Kei Nishikori, though with the always-dangerous Ivo Karlovic lurking. The big Croat has three grass titles to his name and was runner-up this weekend in s-Hertogenbosch.
In the bottom half, Dominic Thiem, fresh from a stunning clay season, is the highest seed, and two-time Halle champion Haas is back in action as he continues his farewell tour at his special home event.
The 39-year-old Haas does have some tough opposition, however: after Bernard Tomic comes Gael Monfils or Richard Gasquet. Deeper into his half is unseeded former champion Philipp Kohlschreiber, another player fond of the grass, plus the younger Zverev, up to No10 after winning the Rome Masters, one of three titles this year.
The young German star was also runner-up here last year in only his second appearance, beating Federer in the semis.
So, like Murray’s hopes of improving that grass record, Federer’s will be tested. Ahead of the tournament, however, in typically pragmatic mood, he saw mostly positives.
“I love playing here. I’ve played here so well so often in recent years that I think, yes, I can come in here with good confidence. It’s important for me, especially after the Stuttgart week, to come here and make sure I win this first round match, get on the way, and make the right decisions on the tennis court, with the right focus and mind-set, a point by point mentality.
“I think that’s what was a little bit off, understandably so, in Stuttgart. So learn from that week and move forward in a better way. But I think the eight wins here and the history I have, coming here so often and feeling so comfortable, is definitely a benefit.”
Main-draw play begins in London and Halle Monday.