A long shot on grass

A Seshan | Updated on June 27, 2014

Roger Federer lifts the men’s singles Wimbledon trophy in 2012 after beatingAndy Murray. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Will Roger Federer grab an eighth Wimbledon, after lifting the Halle grass court trophy for the seventh time this year?

Tennis grand slam players have had only two weeks to transition from clay at the French Open to the grass surface at the ongoing Wimbledon (till July 6). This gap will be increased to three weeks from next year to help players adjust better to the surface change.

Grass, once the mainstay of tennis courts everywhere but increasingly rare, is the fastest surface with the ball bouncing to knee-level. On hard courts, it could be between the knee and the shoulder, and on clay courts it is above the shoulder. This makes the play technique on grass different from that on other surfaces — it is relatively more aggressive.

Slowdown on grass

Points in Wimbledon were scored quickly in the past. Champions Boris Becker and Pete Sampras, for instance, would win a point with four or five shots. Now long rallies are seen more often. TV channels flash the number of shots when a rally is long. The slowing of the games with longer rallies is meant to promote the entertainment value of the sport. Eminent commentators, once leading players themselves, have said the grass is different from how it was in the past and the balls are heavier, contributing to the slower pace. Many are calling it the homogenisation of surfaces — faster courts becoming slower.

In tennis history, only six players have made a successful transition from clay to grass, winning the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back — Rene Lacoste (1925), Fred Perry (1935), Budge Patty (1950), Bjorn Borg (1978, 1979 and 1980), Rafael Nadal (2008 and 2010) and Roger Federer (2009). It is called the ‘Channel Slam’.

Warm-up to Wimbledon

In the fortnight between the two Slams, there are four grass court warm-up tournaments for men, of which the ones at Queen’s Club, London, and Halle in Germany are especially patronised by leading players. But the probability of these finalists winning the Wimbledon is not high as happens in the Rome Masters vis-à-vis the French Open. All the top players participate in the Rome Masters, played on clay.

In the warm-up to Wimbledon, however, the high-ranked players are divided between London and Halle. Since 2000 only Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Murray have won back-to-back at Queen’s Club (called Aegon Championship) and Wimbledon. This year, Grigor Dimitrov was the champion in London, while it was Roger Federer in Germany. Dimitrov became a sensation after beating Alexandr Dolgopolov, Stanislas Wawrinka and Feliciano López Díaz-Guerra.

According to the draw, and going by the seeding, the quarter-final line-up in Wimbledon is likely to be: Novak Djokovic-Tomáš Berdych, Murray-David Ferrer, Wawrinka-Federer, and Milos Raonic-Nadal. Till a few years ago, Djokovic, Murray, Federer and Nadal constituted the quartet in Grand Slam semifinals. That quartet’s grip has loosened in more recent times.

The draw has put Murray in the top half with Djokovic, who won the Wimbledon in 2011 and was runner-up last year. ‘Rafa’ Nadal is in the bottom half with seven-time champion Federer.

In worrying form

World No 1 Nadal, fresh from a record ninth French Open title, exited right at the opening from the grass at Halle this year in a straight-sets loss to World No 85 German Dustin Brown. His previous two visits to Wimbledon were disasters, losing to low-ranked players in the first two rounds. He has the toughest draw, facing the challenges of Ivo Karlovic, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Raonic before meeting Federer in the semifinals.

Djokovic has not played a grass court warm-up since 2010. The 27-year-old Serb, the top seed for Wimbledon, won the last of his six majors at the Australian Open in 2013. But he was thwarted in his latest attempt to win his first French Open to become just the eighth man to complete a career Gland Slam. That also happens to be his seventh defeat in 13 finals at the majors. Even more worryingly, Djokovic has now lost five of his last six Gland Slam finals. He will likely face a repeat of last year’s final against the defending champion, Murray, in the semifinals.

Meanwhile, Murray, the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win the Wimbledon when he trounced Djokovic in straight sets last year, goes into the contest in a worrying form. He lost in the third round at Queen’s Club to the 35-year-old Czech player Radek Stepanek. Murray has been seeded third for Wimbledon. The latest Queen’s champion, Dimitrov, though could be Murray’s biggest pre-semifinal threat should the former get past Ferrer; he already has a Wimbledon title to his name, albeit in the boy’s singles.

Federer once more?

Federer may be confident about an eighth title, having captured the Halle grass court trophy for the seventh time. The father of twin daughters was recently blessed with twin sons and that has probably spurred his resurgence after a lacklustre showing in recent times. More importantly, he’d like to add the 18th Grand Slam title to his existing record as Nadal is closing in on him with 14 titles.

Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep are in the race for the women’s title, the first having an edge over the others. Ivanovic won the championship on grass at Birmingham recently.

(A Seshan is an economic consultant and tennis fan)

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Published on June 27, 2014
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