Grass courts present new challenges
The grass is slower and the bounces higher, but knowing how to play on the surface still counts for something these days. A few players consistently do well at Wimbledon, while others do not have the results their rankings might suggest. Here's a look at who has the best grass-court records on tour.
He may no longer be No. 1, but Roger Federer still leads the field on grass. He has 14 titles on the surface and a winning percentage of 87.4 percent, the best in the Open era. With seven Wimbledon titles -- more than the rest of the tour combined -- he's going to be hard for the others to catch in this category. On the court, Federer is no longer as far ahead of everyone else, but this is still the surface on which he is the most effective.
The names that follow are also familiar. The Big Four are the top four, as usual, but not in their usual order. Behind Federer is defending Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, with a winning percentage on grass of 83.1 percent. That shows how well the 27-year-old has carried national expectations season after season, with a Wimbledon title, a final, the Olympics and frequent runs at his usual lead-up tournament at Queen's Club. His serve and counterpunching game get a little extra weight from the grass, which also accentuates his variety on his groundstrokes. The local support doesn't hurt, either.
Murray observes the change in surface has a big effect. "A lot of people try to say that the surfaces, they are all very similar now, but from a player's perspective, there is a huge difference between playing clay-court and grass-court tennis. The movement is totally different," he said. According to ladbrokes, Murray is a 3/1 favorite, second behind Novak Djokovic. Federer, for what it's worth, was given a 6/1 odds to win.
Next is Rafael Nadal, who would be higher than 78.1 percent except that he hasn't won a match on grass courts since 2012. Before that, he consistently contended for the title, playing with a more offensive approach than he does elsewhere. But though his record is strong compared to the rest of the field, his winning percentage on grass is still less than his overall record of 83 percent, which is an Open era best. It's the same with Djokovic, whose No. 4 position reflects his overall strength as a player rather than any specific grass-court prowess. But it should be noted Djokovic was granted the top seed when Wimbledon begins next Monday.
Following the Big Four, there is a more unexpected name at No. 5, Lleyton Hewitt. It has been 12 years since he won the title, but the 33-year-old Hewitt has still won 76.6 percent of his matches on grass, and these days -- like Federer -- he performs better on this surface than anywhere else. Though he fell in the first round of Queen's to another grass-court aficionado, Feliciano Lopez, Hewitt knows how to prepare and will be one of the unseeded floaters in the draw.
"Some practice sets over the next week and a half and just get more and more comfortable with the grass," Hewitt said. "Then over five sets, anything can happen."
It's not surprising to see Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's attacking play take him to No. 6, or Tomas Berdych's big-hitting game among the top 10 grass-court records -- both have had big runs at Wimbledon in previous years, though Tsonga has often been affected by injury. But between them are David Ferrer and Juan Martin del Potro, whose unexpectedly high winning records reflect the increasing tendency of players to have similar results across most surfaces. Del Potro will not play Wimbledon this year after undergoing wrist surgery, but showed his potential a year ago in a lengthy five-set semifinal against Djokovic.
A few grass-court specialists do emerge. No. 10 Richard Gasquet and No. 11 Tommy Haas get an extra edge (though Haas will undergo shoulder surgery and miss the rest of the season), while Lopez and Nicolas Mahut are noticeably more successful on the turf. Lopez benefits from his lefty serve and slice backhand, while Mahut can play his net-rushing game more effectively.
A player's grass-court record reflects both ability and suitability. How good they are overall, as well as how good grass is for them. But how much better a player is on grass is indicated by how much higher their winning percentage is on the surface than elsewhere. Tsonga, Gasquet, Haas and Hewitt all have better winning percentages on grass than any other surface. Lopez and giant server Ivo Karlovic have won 12 percent more matches on grass than they have on other surfaces, while Mahut has won 16 percent more.
These are the players the big names do not want to see in their section of the draw. "You can face somebody like Karlovic," said new top-10 member Ernests Gulbis. "Like some who they don't really play well on other surfaces, but when it's fast indoors and fast grass courts, they play well in these other tournaments when they make points."
But there are also those who find it tougher to adjust.
"It's not that easy," Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka observed after his opening match at Queen's. "It's a little bit faster, but I enjoy."
Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov are top players without top grass-court records, though Raonic and new Queen's champion Dimitrov are expected to eventually do big things at Wimbledon. Though younger players often take a while to get used to the rhythm of the surface, two who have adjusted quickly are Jerzy Janowicz, who reached the Wimbledon semifinals last season with just one previous appearance at the tournament, and Bernard Tomic, who has been to the fourth round and the quarterfinals but continues to be wildly inconsistent.
But these variations are accounted for because, unlike the other Grand Slams, Wimbledon looks at grass-court results to determine its seedings. This year's grass-court performances, as well as those from the previous two years, are given extra weight. This year, the effects are significant. Djokovic is expected to be seeded No. 1 instead of Nadal, with Murray and Federer moving to Nos. 3 and No. 4, respectively, ahead of Wawrinka.
Wawrinka does not object to the changes, saying, "I knew that with my past two years on grass didn't have any results, so for sure my ranking will drop a little bit for the seedings."
A change in surface also means a change in opportunities. For some players, it's not just grass, it's also their turf.