Just like that, the clay is history, the grass is where we’re at now.
It has to be the toughest and quickest transition of the tennis season. No wonder skipping the clay court season entirely has become an appealing option for some players. It cuts out all the work on the dirt that almost immediately goes out the window when it’s time to start constructing points on slick lawns.
Look, we know the grass tends to favour a certain type of player. Big servers. Players who can slice and keep the ball down. Good volleyers.
But we’ve also seen many players find ways to make themselves into good grass players, or at least find ways to be competitive than many believe they should be. The best example of that has to be the greatest clay court player of all time, Rafael Nadal, and it’s no wonder that coming off his 12th French Open title members of our grass season panel believe that Nadal could dethrone defending champion Novak Djokovic and win Wimbledon for the first time since 2010.
“I love the way Rafa looked in Paris,” says IMG tennis director and tennis broadcaster Jimmy Arias. “He served bigger at the French, he was willing to step into the court and rip forehands more than he usually does. I think he’s probably going to win Wimbledon.”
Arias has a supporter in Sportsnet’s Arash Madani. “The epic semifinal match last year between Nadal and Djokovic really ended up being a coin flip,” says Madani. “With Nadal coming into the grass court season playing at a championship level, winning Wimbledon again is a legit possibility.”
Djokovic defeated Kevin Anderson in straight sets to win at the All-England Club last year, the fourth time the Serb has won Wimbledon. He’s got lots of threats to his title to worry about other than Nadal, starting with eight-time champion Roger Federer.
If Federer is on, he can beat anybody on grass,” says Canada’s Sharon Fichman, who just finished competing in WTA doubles during the clay season.
Tennis Canada writer Tom Tebbutt says “it’s pretty clear Novak’s biggest challenger has to be eight-time winner Roger Federer. But an outsider like Milos Raonic has the experience and Stefanos Tsitsipas has the recent record of success in Slams to also pose a threat.”
Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron, however, says this could be the year somebody outside the big names of men’s tennis could break through on the grass.
“The match at the French Open between Tsitsipas and Stan Wawrinka was arguably the match of the year so far,” she says. “Sure, Tsitsipas lost, but it’s only a matter of time before he has his Slam breakthrough and I see it happening on grass.”
Second only to Djokovic’s ability to defend has to be the readiness of Serena Williams to pursue her record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title after a very forgettable performance at Roland Garros. Williams has played little this year, and mused after the French Open about possibly competing in one of the pre-Wimbledon grass events for the first time in many years in order to get some matches in.
“When Serena is on, she’s practically unstoppable,” says Fichman. “But there are a number of players coming into Wimbledon with a ton of momentum, Ash Barty among them.”
Tebbutt says “it’s hard to see her being fit enough to win seven matches at Wimbledon. But Serena is so exceptional she can make any prediction look foolish. Still, my money’s on Father Time.”
None of our panelists picked Serena to win Wimbledon this year. Only Arias sees her going as far as the final.
“For the last 15 years, if there was a Slam I was pretty sure Serena would win it,” he says. “I think she’s going to at least make the final because I feel like while clay wasn’t going to quite work this year, she can still use all that power on grass.”
Canadian players didn’t have much success during the clay court season, although there were some positive results. Our panelists seem to believe that a well-rested and healthy Milos Raonic, one of those who skipped all the clay events, could be in line to represent his country most forcefully in the grass season.
“It’s like we’ve all forgotten he reached the finals (at Wimbledon) three years ago,” says Madani. “Raonic is the highest seeded Canadian and has the most experience. (Denis) Shapovalov is in a slump, Félix (Auger-Alliasime) has played little on the grass and (Bianca) Andreescu’s shoulder remains an issue. It sets up for Raonic to go the deepest.”
Cameron also believes too many have forgotten just how good Raonic can be on grass.
“With all the excitement surrounding Canada’s youth movement of Félix, Denis and Bianca, I still think a rested and healthy Milos will have the most successful grass court season,” she says. “Reaching two quarterfinals, the semifinals and finishing as a runner-up all in the last four years, Wimbledon is still Raonic’s best hope for a Slam.”
Fichman, meanwhile, thinks Shapovalov’s game fits the grass perfectly.
“Grass may be his favourite surface. He didn’t have the most successful clay court season so he’ll be hungry for wins and relatively fresh physically,” she says. “He’s got a ton of versatility and his one-handed slice backhand can be devastating on grass.”
Meanwhile, let’s not forget Canadian doubles specialist Gabriela Dabrowski, who is quietly having a strong season and is now ranked 10th in doubles. She and partner Yifan Xu made the quarters at the French, and in mixed, she and Mate Pavic made it to the final before losing to defending champions Latisha Chan and Ivan Dodig.
Last year, she and Xu made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon, so she’s proven that she finds the surface comfortable.
With grass events in Stuttgart, Hertogenbosch, Halle and Antalya, Turkey, plus Queen’s Club and Eastbourne in England, we’ll be watching the results to see who’s looking good on the green stuff. Remember, Angelique Kerber’s Wimbledon triumph last year was preceded by a run to the Eastbourne semifinals.
Then again, Anderson lost his only match at Queen’s Club last year before making a run to the men’s final at the All-England Club.
The grass season is more unpredictable than any other time of year in tennis. We’ll see if that holds true again this year.
(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)