As ATP tour shifts to grass, good times begin for the likes of Roger Federer, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios

School teachers have a habit of giving out advice about the most random things imaginable, and for some reason, those unique pearls of wisdom stay with you. One of the more memorable ones in my experience involved a teacher asking us to look at trees, or any form of greenery, whenever we felt blinded or unsettled by the glare of the sun.

 As ATP tour shifts to grass, good times begin for the likes of Roger Federer, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios

File image of Roger Federer. Reuters

If you’ve ever tried doing that, you’d know that it works. When out in the blazing sun, you feel soothed the moment you fix your eyes on something green.

For tennis fans that have been fed a constant diet of harsh, grueling, unforgiving claycourt tennis the previous two months, the first few tournaments of the grasscourt season have a similar effect. After all those endless hours of baked red dirt, the pristine lawns of Stuttgart, Nottingham and ‘s-Hertogenbosch look cool and refreshing in a way that nothing else can.

That’s not to mention the quickness and relative effortlessness of grasscourt tennis. While clay makes you labour long and hard to win each point, grass allows you to cruise through entire matches with a big serve-forehand one-two punch. It all looks so easy – both on the fans’ eyes, and the players’ bodies.

Do the players themselves welcome the grasscourt season with as much relief? Maybe Rafael Nadal doesn’t, but quite a few others do – if their Instagram posts superimposing heart emojis on basic grasscourt pictures are anything to go by. And if Nick Kyrgios’ Instagram posts are anything to go by, then we know that at least one player in the world was practicing on grass even the start of Roland Garros.

Kyrgios, of course, has a game perfectly suited to the quick courts (he even referred to himself as “one of the best grasscourters in the world” on Saturday), so it makes sense that he’d be itching to ditch clay and run to grass whenever he can. The Australian first made a name for himself with his shock win over Nadal in the 2014 Wimbledon fourth round, and his unique gifts (big serve, big forehand, deft volley) have threatened to set the grass on fire ever since. It’s another matter that he has repeatedly flattered to deceive, as he did just last week – by losing in the Stuttgart first round to Matteo Berrettini.

Which other players would be welcoming the start of the grasscourt season? The most obvious answer is Roger Federer. The eight-time Wimbledon champion is coming in on the back of a semi-successful claycourt season, where he reached the French Open semi-final and managed to make his groundstrokes behave for the most part. But even if he had lost all his matches on clay, he would’ve been considered one of the favorites in every tournament leading up to (and including Wimbledon); that’s just how good he is on the surface.

Federer has decided to skip the Stuttgart tournament (which he won in 2018) this year, and will begin his grasscourt campaign at Halle – his home away from home. The Swiss has won the event an astounding nine times, and his bid for a 10th doesn’t look too daunting; he’s been handed a fairly manageable draw this year.

Federer played non-stop for two weeks to start his grasscourt season last year, and that run ended in burnout – he lost to Borna Coric in the Halle final before suffering an unexpected Wimbledon quarter-final exit at the hands of Kevin Anderson. Giving Stuttgart a miss might be a good decision from the perspective of his health and age; we know he has the tools to succeed on grass even if he doesn’t have a whole lot of match practice behind him.

The other two members of the 'Big Three' – World No 1 Novak Djokovic and World No 2 Rafael Nadal – won’t be playing any event before Wimbledon, which has worked for them in the past. That would ostensibly leave Milos Raonic, Dominic Thiem and the Next Gen as the best bets to join Federer in the grasscourt winners’ circle over the next couple of weeks.

But Thiem, who was scheduled to play in Halle, eventually decided to pull out citing fatigue. And former Wimbledon runner-up Raonic, who reached the Stuttgart semi-final this week, is down with another injury (back) so he may be a question mark right now.

What of the Next Gen? Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev both lost early this week – Tsitsipas to Nicholas Jarry in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Zverev to Dustin Brown in Stuttgart. While neither loss is a cause for alarm bells as players typically take some time to make the transition from clay to grass, Zverev’s listlessness in the face of Brown’s high-flying circus act is a worrying continuation of his year-long slump.

They are both playing again this week; Tsitsipas is headlining the Queen’s draw as the top seed while Zverev is in Halle, where he is projected to face Karen Khachanov in the semi-final. Speaking of Khachanov, he followed in the footsteps of Kyrgios by losing to Berrettini in Stuttgart, by an even more lopsided score. Grass has never seemed likely to reward the Russian’s big-swing groundstrokes, so his time on court this week might be short-lived again.

A player whose time in the sun doesn’t seem likely to be short-lived – whether on grass or anywhere else – is Felix Auger-Aliassime. The Canadian has used his big serve and quick-strike groundstrokes to storm into the Stuttgart final, where he will face Berrettini. A win here would be a landmark achievement for the teenager, who has been touted to achieve great things for years now.

Borna Coric has reached the semi-finals of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he is currently locked in a battle with Adrian Mannarino, and later he will be traveling to Halle to defend his title. But this time it will likely be an even tougher task for the Croat youngster to spoil Federer’s party; he is slated to face the Swiss in the semis rather than the finals.

Denis Shapovalov, the Next Gen player whose game seems most suited to grass, stumbled out of the gate as he lost to Jan-Lennard Struff in the Stuttgart first round – strangely, his third loss to Struff in as many months. He is doing well in doubles though, having reached the final with Rohan Bopanna, and would be hoping to turn his season around at Queen’s. The problem? He is slated to meet Juan Martin del Potro first up.

Nobody knows quite what to expect from Del Potro, as is usually the case with the oft-injured player. The Argentine did well to reach the Rome quarter-finals (where he had match point over Djokovic) and the Roland Garros fourth round, but he didn’t seem in the best physical shape as he was going down to Khachanov in Paris. He has done better on grass than clay in recent years though, so if he regains his mojo it could spell trouble for the rest of the field.

Del Potro’s fellow members of the early 30s club – Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka and Kevin Anderson – are also in Queen’s, with the latter two projected to meet in the quarter-finals. But none of them is expected to set the courts in London alight immediately; Anderson is coming off an injury layoff, Wawrinka has never done particularly well on grass, and Cilic has been struggling for form all year.

There are also players who could loosely be called grasscourt specialists – Adrian Mannarino, Feliciano Lopez, Gilles Simon and Grigor Dimitrov (the latter two more because of their surface-conducive styles than their results). Mannarino has a shot at his first career title in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, while Lopez lost to Lucas Pouille in the Stuttgart first round. Simon and Dimitrov meanwhile will be in action at Queen’s this week.

Clearly, there a lot of players jostling for space in the crowded grasscourt swing that seems to end before it begins; just two more weeks of these charming little events on grass, and Wimbledon will be upon us. There have been calls to extend this period on the calendar, but those calls are likely to go unanswered because of the packed schedule of the tennis season overall.

Nevertheless, the players have learned to make do with this short preparation time on grass (which was even shorter before Wimbledon decided to delay the tournament by a week from 2015 onwards), which doesn’t leave us much reason to complain. So what if it gets over too soon? The lush greenery and perfectly manicured lawns are always a sight for sore eyes, as is the tennis on display – we know there will be plenty of buttery-smooth Federer volleys and eye-popping Tsitsipas dives to make it worth catching every second of the action.

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Updated Date: Jun 16, 2019 11:59:55 IST