If you've been following this year's Wimbledon in any way, you've probably heard complaints/insinuations about the speed of the surface at the tournament. The grass is reportedly playing slower than it has ever been according to outside observers, and that has apparently stripped the Championships of its novelty factor.
The players have by and large refuted that assessment, saying that the perceived reduction in speed is primarily because of the balls and the cold conditions. But during the quarter-final match between Roberto Bautista Agut and Guido Pella, it was hard to shake off the feeling that this wasn't quite traditional grasscourt tennis. Change the colour of the surface, and the two men may as well have been playing at Roland Garros rather than SW19.
There were rallies – countless, endless, and seemingly tireless. Both Bautista Agut and Pella traversed the entire width of the court as they pushed and pulled each other to every corner, trying to get one extra ball back in play. The best attacks were blunted by the most dogged of defence, and would-be winners were turned into point-starters. This was grasscourt tennis at its most alien. Or shall we say at its most modern?
The process of the homogenisation of surfaces that started two decades ago is showing a greater effect with each passing year. It’s not necessarily that the courts are being slowed down every year; the perceived slowness this year might is just a matter of speculation until we receive some kind of confirmation about it from the officials. But the fact that there is generally more uniformity across surfaces means that the players are now more comfortable and adept at bringing out their skills at a variety of places.
Bautista Agut and Pella have been using their trademark consistency and defence to trouble their opponents throughout the tournament, just like they have been doing all year on other surfaces. And they played in idiosyncratic fashion even during the quarter-final; turning the contest into a baseline battle of attrition, the two men combined to take the net out of the equation with their deadly and accurate passing shots and lobs. Neither player came forward to put away a lot of volleys, because the risk of doing so was always too high considering what was coming from the other side of the net.
The two, aged 31 and 29 respectively, have had breakthrough seasons; Bautista Agut reached his first ever Slam quarter-final at the Australian Open earlier in the year, while Pella won his first career title in March. Is it really surprising that they both made simultaneous breakthroughs at Wimbledon 2019, reaching the quarter-finals for the first time? While neither of them would have been pegged as a potential semi-finalist at the start of the tournament, the fact that they have become so consistent lately suggested that a big result was always around the corner.
Pella had a big result on grass last year too, as he knocked out 2017 runner-up Marin Cilic in the second round. He couldn’t go much further that time, but he’s steadily grown into an all-round force ever since, matching wits with the best players in all kinds of conditions.
He’s also shown a greater stomach for a fight than most; he came back from two sets to love down against both Cilic last year and Milos Raonic this year. And even after going down two sets to love against Bautista Agut on Wednesday, he beat back the fatigue to steal the third and make it a contest.
“When I play a tennis match, if I don’t lose the final point, I still have chances, you know?” Pella said after the match. “In Grand Slam, like I said in previous interviews, maybe you can lose the first two sets, but the other guy has to win another one. So it’s very tough to win matches here at Grand Slam because you have to win three sets. That’s a lot of work.
“Every time I find myself in this situation, in this difficult situation to be two sets down, I try to keep fighting because the other guy can’t relax.”
That’s a fabulous attitude for any player to have, and it’s easy to see that his failure to cross the line in the quarter-final wasn’t due to any shortage of gumption. It was the physical aspect where Bautista Agut had the edge; the Spaniard just had too much firepower, especially on the forehand side, for Pella to keep retrieving the ball over five sets.
Curiously though, it was Bautista Agut who should have been a little disadvantaged – at least on paper – if they were indeed playing on a grasscourt that behaved like clay. Despite hailing from the land of the greatest claycourters in history, Bautista Agut has never had the most consistent results on dirt. His flat shots don't lend themselves well to a high-bouncing surface, and it is no surprise that only one of his nine career titles have come on clay.
The Spaniard hasn’t been particularly threatening at Wimbledon either. His movement on grass has always been a little suspect, which is understandable given that players who haven’t grown up on the surface aren’t immediately comfortable running around and changing direction on it.
But it’s been getting easier every year, and this week his persistence has finally paid off. Bautista Agut acknowledged as much after the match, saying, “With experience of coming year by year to the grass, I really learn more about the movement on the grass. I feel I can play a solid game also on the baseline and I can really develop the good things I do here on the court here on grass.”
He’s certainly been doing a lot of ‘good things’ on grass lately. Bautista Agut hadn’t dropped a set before the quarter-final despite facing quality opponents like Karen Khachanov and Benoit Paire. His deceptive power and mad scrambling along the baseline have combined to form a very difficult proposition for opponents to deal with, and the flatness of his shots means that they stay low and skid through on more than one occasion. Even if Wimbledon is playing slower this year, it certainly isn’t producing as much bounce as clay – which makes flat shots as effective as always.
Why exactly does Bautista Agut hit so flat, despite having played extensively on clay right from the start of his career? According to the man himself, it is all down to the weight of his racquet.
“The club I grow up, there is 15 clay courts,” he said after the match. “There is no hard court, no grass court. I think because I played since I was very young with a very heavy racquet, and that means if I would play with a lot of spin, I could not move the ball, no? I think that’s why I play that flat.”
It’s an interesting explanation, and one that could come back to haunt even the World No 1 Novak Djokovic, who Bautista Agut plays next. The Spaniard has famously defeated Djokovic the last two times they’ve met – both on hardcourt – and it is possible that the dynamics of their rallies will be similar on grass too.
But even if Bautista Agut doesn’t get the win, he’s still done enough in this tournament to make the whole world sit up and take notice – and to put his bachelor party plans on hold. He had planned to go on a pre-wedding vacation with his friends in Ibiza this week, because he didn’t expect to go so deep at Wimbledon. Suffice to say his friends, who had already landed in Ibiza, have decided to fly back.
Friday will be the biggest match of Bautista Agut’s career, and he has no regrets about canceling the stag party. “It feels better to be here in London,” he said.
Of course, it does
Updated Date: Jul 11, 2019 12:34:20 IST