Wimbledon Tennis 2018

Scratching The Surface: How Tennis Players Thrive On Certain Courts

The very best players rise to the top no matter the conditions, able to find ways to deliver their best game irrespective of venue, atmosphere and even opponent.

Alas, not everybody is Roger Federer, although that would at least make for a competitive Wimbledon. Different playing surfaces are the biggest factor in affecting player performance.

Hard court is the bread and butter of the ATP tour, although there are variations within that form of surface. Many develop an aptitude for performing on clay, while others eagerly await the arrival of grass courts on the calendar.

 

The Grass Is Greener

However, there are few players among the ATP tour who would consider themselves as specialist grass-courters, and with good reason.

Players can feasibly go through an entire season and accumulate all of their points on either clay or hard courts, avoiding the other surface with steadfast resolve.

If a player only deigned to venture out onto grass courts, they'd find themselves very busy around June but with little else to do for the rest of the year.

Federer has become synonymous with Wimbledon (winning 8 titles will do that), but the Swiss legend has also claimed 11 titles across the two hard court majors.

Those who thrive on grass have to find ways to survive on other surfaces if they are to have success throughout the year.

Federer heads the betting markets for Wimbledon, as is customary, but the usual suspects behind him (Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic, Novak Djokovic) regularly challenge across all surfaces.

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The lack of grass tournaments is bemoaned by many, usually those players who are adept on the surface. If grass had equal weighting to other surfaces, Feliciano Lopez would likely be reflecting on a career spent in the top 10 rather than sniffing around its edges.

Lopez claimed his maiden ATP500 title at Queen's last year, with the veteran powering past a quartet of players ranked in the top 15.

Lopez is an anomaly in terms of Spanish players, with his compatriots generally more at ease with the grind of a clay court. Lopez's more attacking approach can be exposed on the unforgiving clay but enables him to either carve out winners or set up clinical volleys on grass.

It helps that Lopez has a vicious serve that is easier to fall back on, on grass rather than other surfaces.

Lopez is a notable exponent of the serve-and-volley approach that used to be inextricably linked to Wimbledon, although it is sliding out of fashion.

 

The Dying Art Of The Serve-Volley

Its diminishing popularity is disheartening for a number of reasons. Tennis thrives on the clash of styles, and watching players both employ and respond to serve-and-volleys can be an engrossing experience.

Also, it still works. In fact, the serve-and-volley approach can often be a great leveller between players usually of disparate ability on other surfaces, with the strategy negating many elements of the opponent's game because the points can be over so quickly.

Nadal can testify to that, having lost to Dustin Brown at Wimbledon in 2015. The victory from the then world number 102 was an outrageous display of bold shot-making and attacking strategy, with Brown a renowned maverick who can fluctuate between excellent and erratic.

Nadal has further evidence to testify to the virtue of serve-and-volley. In 2017 he demonstrated that he is a mere mortal on grass, with Gilles Muller resilient and exquisite in a 6-3 6-4 3-6 4-6 15-13 victory in the last 16 at Wimbledon.

The epic encounter wasn't characterised by poor play by Nadal, but rather by Muller's continual ability to pull out mighty serves and spectacular winners.

On any other surface, Nadal would fancy his chances against Muller and Brown (and Lukas Rosol and Steve Darcis, two other generally unspectacular players who found new heights to overcome Nadal at Wimbledon).

Of course, on clay, Nadal would fancy his chances against all four of those players occupying the court at the same time. That may be slightly hyperbolic, but Nadal has exerted such a tight stranglehold that he has almost squeezed the life out of every French Open since he won his first in 2005.

Eleven titles later, it is impossible to gauge if there is a worthy successor to the title 'King of Clay' as Nadal's supremacy has distorted all concept of what it means to be a clay-court specialist.

 

All Hail The King Of Clay

Among all the shouty adoration of Roger Federer and Andy Murray at Wimbledon, it is easy to forget that Nadal has a brace of Wimbledon titles of his own and will always be considered among the favourites in London.

However, the Spaniard is indubitably more terrifying to play on clay, to the point that Roger Federer has even stopped entering the French Open in recognition of the futility of it all.

The slower nature of clay rewards players with outstanding athleticism, trustworthy defensive skills and strong mental fortitude. Nadal has all of this in spades, with the former two making winners on any other surface turn into returns of consummate ease for Nadal.

The mental resilience means that Nadal remains patient during the long rallies and picks his moment to strike with deadly precision.

Nadal's ridiculous physical strength sometimes overshadows his technical ability to shift between defence and attack seamlessly, while the topspin he can generate makes him the complete player on clay.

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The relative lack of speed robs big servers of their ability to boom down ace after ace, which means that players used to holding with reasonable ease find far more of their serves coming back to them on clay.

A look at the players who consider clay their favoured surface finds common themes emerge; the likes of Albert Ramos, Pablo Cuevas and David Ferrer have been able to sustain themselves in the higher echelons of the world rankings because of their topspin forehands.

Dominic Thiem has similar weapons in his armoury and looks set to win the French Open as soon as Nadal calls it a day, although it does look increasingly likely that Nadal will just win the French Open from now until the end of time.

Thiem is particularly striking in that he is extremely dependent on the ranking points that he accumulates on clay, unable to translate his game well to hard courts or grass.

Thiem's struggles on hard court are slightly odd, with a powerful serve and forehand that should give him the ability to dictate points. Perhaps it is a question of strategy, with Thiem so comfortable with his tactics on clay that he is unable to adapt successfully on different surfaces.

 

Could Edmund Be A Star?

Kyle Edmund is an atypical British tennis player; with Wimbledon swinging around and a British player ranked 17 in the world, you'd expect the national press to be bigging up Edmund as a potential title contender.

Of course, Edmund may well go deep at Wimbledon with his game that can trouble anyone. Yet Edmund plays his best game on clay and may rank the French Open as his best shot of a Grand Slam title (again, once/if Nadal gives up).

Edmund has already reached the Australian Open semi-finals and is priced at odds of 80/1 to go a couple of steps further in next year's competition.

Yet Edmund became comfortable on clay at an early age, finding that the slower courts gave him more time to uncork his forehand with both precision and power. With improved athleticism and a refined backhand, Edmund has all of the tools to be a threat on clay.

Of course, good players generally thrive on any surface, but it is the familiarity that can often breed extra confidence when a player takes to their preferred surface.

Take Victor Estrella Burgos, a hardy exponent of clay courts across the globe. The former top-50 player won the first three iterations of the ATP 250 tournament in Quito, a Nadal-esque level of dominance.

While Estrella is handy on all clay, he found a second home in Quito by adapting to the staggering altitude as well as the playing surface. Whether Nadal and Federer could adapt to such an environment may remain one of the great unanswered questions of our time; however, you'd suspect that they might do just fine.

 

*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*