For Iga Swiatek, tennis’ queen of clay, cracking grass remains elusive.
The three-time French Open champion has never reached the Wimbledon semi-finals, a run that was extended on Tuesday after she lost to Elina Svitolina.
She is at least a junior champion here and by reaching the quarter-finals, she improved on previous years. But her win percentage on grass is 11 per cent lower than on other surfaces.
Over on the men’s side, another player very comfortable on clay had a pitiful Wimbledon. The world No 4, Casper Ruud, a Roland Garros finalist in each of the past two years, went out in the second round to Liam Broady, a player ranked 138 places below him. After which, Ruud said that Broady was “no doubt a much better grass court player than myself” and for that reason, he didn’t really consider it an “upset”.
This felt like a curious claim given the rankings and pedigree differential. Broady’s best at a grand slam is the third round, he has never been ranked higher than 116 and at the age of 29 has only played two grand slam matches outside of Wimbledon, losing them both. Ruud, meanwhile, is not simply a clay-court specialist — he reached the US Open final last year and has been ranked as high as No 2 in the world. His win percentage on grass, though, is 28 per cent worse than on other surfaces, the second-biggest negative difference of this year’s seeded players (from an admittedly small sample size of matches).
How can it be that a surface can make such a difference to two players (and many of the ones in the graphic above)?
To zoom out a little bit, players thriving on clay but struggling on grass has been a theme in tennis forever. In fact, it used to be a much bigger issue before Wimbledon changed to a slower type of grass in 2001 and there was a general homogenisation of the surfaces to make the sport less dominated by big serves. In the 1994 Wimbledon final between Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic, the longest rally was six shots.
At around that time, clay-court specialists often skipped Wimbledon and, in 2000, three of them, the Spaniards Alex Corretja, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero boycotted the tournament in protest at the tournament’s seeding system, which was based not just on world rankings but also grass-court pedigree. The trio were all ranked in the top 20 but anticipated being demoted in their seedings and in some cases not seeded at all (this was the last year of 16 rather than 32 seeds).
Two years later, Wimbledon came up with its bespoke seedings formula, which was based on a more scientific combination of world ranking and grass-court results. But it remained the only major to not base seedings exclusively on rankings for another two decades, changing the policy only in 2021 in recognition of how much more similar the sport’s surfaces and conditions had become. This is evidenced partly by the fact that over the past 14 years, three men have won both the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — a feat achieved by only two men previously in the Open Era (Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg). Sampras, for instance, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, didn’t even reach a French Open final.
And yet, here we still are in 2023 with high-profile players struggling so badly to make the adaptation.
It should be said that even if the surfaces are more similar than they once were, there are still important differences.
Broadly speaking, grass is the quickest of tennis’ three surfaces and the bounce is the lowest (clay is the opposite on both counts), favouring big servers and those who like to hit the ball flat or with slice rather than topspin. In 2018, the ITF produced a report that showed there were around double the number of aces at Wimbledon compared to the French Open. “This demonstrates the influence of the speed of the court, as grass has the highest court pace rating (CPR) of the grand-slam surfaces and clay has the lowest,” the report said. Matches are also more drawn-out at Roland Garros — 10 minutes longer on average last year for instance, reflecting the fact there are generally shorter rallies on grass.
Nadal is the paradigm for this (remember him destroying Federer’s single-handed backhand at Roland Garros by looping forehands up above his head), but Ruud is another one with that kind of game and he broke down his grass-court struggles into three main areas: movement, a related lack of confidence and assuredness on the surface, and his shots being less effective.
“The toughest thing is that especially with my forehand, I use my legs a lot, I use a lot of force from my legs,” he said.
“Let’s say I’m running out to my forehand, I push off with my right leg mostly. Then when I land, I’m depending on that first step being quite quick and recovering back to the middle.
“Every time I try to do that on grass, I have a feeling when I land I’m going to slip and have a nasty fall. I don’t dare to play the same shots I do on hard court and clay.”
As for his heavily topspun forehand, Ruud said: “It doesn’t mean you can’t play well here, but it’s just the shots with topspin aren’t as effective as on clay.”
It’s worth pointing out that Ruud played no warm-up events on grass, which hardly suggests he had committed to trying to master the surface. But his hero growing up, Nadal, has shown that it is possible if you really wanted to make the adaptation from clay to grass. Nadal did so back in the day, when there was only two weeks rather than three between the French Open finishing and Wimbledon starting.
Nadal is a reference point for Swiatek, too, and in contrast to Ruud, she did make adaptations to playing on the grass this year. She said early in the tournament that she was learning to take smaller steps before she hit the ball. She explained that she was used to playing on a hard court where you can slide into the ball — especially when close to the sidelines. She said she couldn’t do that here because she didn’t know how to quickly get back to the centre of the court. She explained that she was learning how to take smaller steps to stop, hit the ball and then recover.
Ultimately, that lack of comfort on grass cost her against Svitolina when she was late to too many of her shots and kept making errors. The low-bouncing ball also gives her less time to tee off on the forehand and the heavy topspin she applies is less effective on the low-bouncing grass.
There is a theory, though, that part of the problem some players have is mental — that they lack belief on grass. This was definitely Broady’s view in relation to Ruud. “I don’t see why somebody who has been in the finals of the French and the US Open can’t do it here,” said Broady, whose slice and swinging leftie serve match up well to the grass. “He’s too good a player not to transition onto another surface. It’s just whether he’s willing to believe in himself and find a way to adapt his game to another surface.”
Matteo Berrettini, who is now considered a grass-court specialist having reached the Wimbledon final and twice won Queen’s and whose win percentage on grass is 18 per cent higher than on tennis’ other surfaces, offers a useful reference point for those looking to improve on grass.
“I used to struggle on grass my first year, 2018,” says Berrettini, who, after a difficult 2023 so far, reached the fourth round this year before losing in four sets to world No 1 Carlos Alcaraz. “I felt like I didn’t have enough time. I grew up on clay. My forehand, my serve even, was just shaped for slower surfaces.
“Then I don’t know what happened actually. I just changed my attitude a little bit. I felt like playing aggressive, it’s really important here. You don’t have to stress out that much during the matches.
“Sometimes the opponent is just serving better than you, you’re returning… You have to let it go. You have to be ready for the important moments. Then it’s about confidence, like playing and playing.”
Berrettini also benefits from being naturally aggressive and grass is a surface that rewards the attacking player, as it is much harder to defend on than other surfaces because of the low bounces and relative quickness. Players like Ruud that like to stand a long way behind the baseline to give themselves more time is a winning strategy on clay, but a much lower-percentage one on grass, as Medvedev found to his cost for long stretches against Christopher Eubanks.
The big-serving American is another case study on how to learn to love grass. The man who went from calling grass “the stupidest surface to play on” a few weeks ago to winning the title in Mallorca and reaching the Wimbledon quarter-finals.“I might say it’s my favourite surface now,” he then said.
“It was like I didn’t trust my movement, the ball was staying so low, it wasn’t as fast as I thought it was going to be,” Eubanks added. “But with each week I could take a step back and say, ‘Wow, I feel more comfortable than I did last week’.”
Brad Gilbert, the former world No 4 and one-time coach of players like Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, is dismissive that in the modern game players should struggle so badly to adapt to grass. “It would make sense if you were playing before 2002,” he says. “When you had to serve and volley and the ball didn’t bounce. But what it comes down to now is that you don’t believe. You just think, ‘Oh I don’t play well here’.
“I like to think of some tennis as poker. You can talk yourself into a good hand being a lousy hand.”
Gilbert also counters Ruud’s suggestion that he is hampered by not having grown up on the surface. “A million years ago there were three slams on grass and people grew up playing on it,” he says. “Now you have one little four-week period on grass. No one learns to play on grass anymore; 2020 there was no grass, so you have a lot of players who haven’t played a lot on it. It’s about how you can adapt.”
Alcaraz is another good example of this. The world No 1 has played far more on clay and hard courts and is more natural there. But he has adapted this tournament, coming to the net more and trusting himself to slide, something Novak Djokovic, the grass-court master, acknowledged. The low-bouncing balls also suit Alcaraz’s extremely effective drop shots. Interestingly, Alcaraz has a nine per cent better winning percentage on grass than other surfaces — the highest positive difference of any of this year’s seeded players (again, though, from a small sample size).
Overall, then, what are the kind of adaptations one can make to thrive on grass? And what are the kind of attributes that lend themselves to someone who will excel on the surface?
Starting with the first question, Matt James, who is the UK National Tennis Centre (NTC) base coach and has worked previously with Emma Raducanu, says: “When I’m working with players, one of the things we always talk about on grass is about being comfortable hitting more slices and also being ready to receive those shots,” he says.
“Because the ball bounces lower, the players who do well on grass will often have a good slice — Tatjana Maria can slice on both wings and made semis last year. You have to be ready for that more on the grass.
“The preparation is the main thing there — can you anticipate the ball you might have sent out? Is it a low shot that your opponent is more likely to slice in response? If so, you should be already thinking I need to split in a lower stance. And then as soon as you see it, it’s about being in a bit more of a squat position, an acute knee bend almost. The main thing then is to stay low. That’s what a lot of people get wrong — they go for the slice but if they’re not comfortable they come up and out of it, whereas it helps to be a bit more comfortable staying low before and after.”
The importance of staying low is something other players have mentioned when explaining tweaks to their game.
“The only adjustment I made is I’m trying to stay lower and just be more aggressive, to take control in these first shots,” says the No 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka.
In order to stay low, “It’s about mobility with the hips, the knees,” says James. He uses the example of the 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska. “She used to be able to get so low to the ground that she’d almost be playing it off the floor. Her right knee would be touching the floor on the backhand sometimes. That almost offsets the fact that the grass will keep the ball so low and means you can almost hit a normal shot. That’s quite a big advantage. Whereas taller players, if the ball is bouncing a couple of inches lower, then the net comes into play massively for them. It’s a lot tougher for them to get the ball up and down. Or they’re just looping it up. So that’s a pretty good tactic to use against those taller players.”
Movement generally is seen as key when understanding why some players thrive and why others don’t on grass. “The most important thing on the grass is feeling comfortable with the movement,” says Mary Joe Fernandez, a Wimbledon semi-finalist in singles and doubles. “You can be the fastest player out there, but if you don’t feel like you can stop and be balanced and stable, you struggle. Jessica Pegula has talked about that. She said that more than five years ago she slid and hurt her knee and has never felt secure since.
“I remember from my days, if I fell during a match, you could write me off. The ones that do the best are the ones that let it loose, aren’t afraid to fall, that are comfortable sliding on the grass — look at Djokovic, sliding all the time. Alcaraz, sliding all the time. Andy Murray. The ones that really know how to manage their footwork properly.
“Then you need weapons and to be aggressive, but the number one thing in my mind is to feel aggressive and be secure with the movement.”
The conditions this year have been especially challenging, with the dank weather of the first week making the courts more slippery. James adds that the grass tends to be more slippery where it’s freshest, meaning conditions are generally tougher in the first week and in the corners of the courts where there’s less play.
“I think as the tournament goes on, I think us players, we feel more comfortable moving on the grass,” Djokovic said on Tuesday. “So for some of us, like (Jannik) Sinner, for example, and Alcaraz, they like to slide. I think you become more comfortable going for the slide.
“Maybe at the beginning, you feel like walking on eggs a little bit because the grass is also more slippery at the beginning, particularly if you play indoors under the roof.”
One of the keys to mastering movement on grass is feeling confident getting the first step right and being able to push off. This is something Ruud admits he struggles with and James Blake, the former world No 4 who never got beyond the third round at Wimbledon, says: “For me, it was that first step. That first step was always difficult because I felt like if I push off so hard, I’m going to end up slipping more. So you have to change a little bit the way you move and I think that frustrates some people.
“The movement is the biggest difference on grass now because it’s not the speed of the court anymore. The speed used to be a big issue with how low the ball stayed, with serve and volley being the preferred method of winning points. But now with the slowness of the courts, it’s more about the movement.”
“You do see players that don’t really trust their movement, their shoes, the grass,” says James. “They’re taking more adjustment steps — instead of the one or two adjustment steps they would take on the hard, it’s three or four and the shuffles are a lot smaller and they’re not prepared to sprint into the shot. They’re doing lots of little steps to try to stay balanced.”
Another challenge when playing on grass is the fact that as a natural surface, it is prone to quirks like the odd strange bounce.
Sinner, who is into the semi-finals after reaching the quarters last year, says that to do well at Wimbledon “you have to be very friendly with the grass”.
“This is a quote that Darren Cahill (one of his coaches) gave me,” he explained. “Because you are going to have chances, but sometimes there are some bad bounces or you might get unlucky a couple of times because your opponent is serving well. You have to always have the right mindset, which is very important.”
“You can have some bad bounces, weird things happening at any time,” says Caroline Garcia, the world No 5 who has never reached a Wimbledon quarter-final. “So you have to try to be more positive and really sometimes let things pass.
“You can be perfectly in the point but just mess up your timing. There are not too many rallies, so it’s hard to find some rhythm.”
Daniil Medvedev, who has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with both grass and clay, is into the Wimbledon semi-finals for the first time this year. Before this tournament, he had never moved past the fourth round here before. He puts part of that down to accepting the surface’s idiosyncrasies: “Both grass and clay, compared to hard courts, because it’s a natural surface, has more difference in the bounces.
“Sometimes a player can slice, and out of three times, two times it’s probably going to slide through the court because that’s how grass court is. Then for whatever reason, you don’t know why, it’s going to stop. It’s not easy to adjust. Some people like it less than others.
“I think for me, the main adjustment is the rhythm. As I say, when someone plays well on grass, it’s tough to return the shots because they can sometimes slide through the court, sometimes stop.
“The second round with Adrian (Mannarino), I managed to be the one who I think was giving him trouble playing long, strong, then sometimes mixing up with the dropshots, even going to the net maybe more often.”
On a more basic level, a big serve that skids through the court remains a huge advantage on grass. Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion with a swinging leftie serve that is perfect for grass, says: “I do have a left-handed serve, which is different, as well, compared to others. When I’m playing pretty fast, it’s tough for the opponent.”
James says that a good serve remains a cheat code on grass: “If you have a kick serve with a lot of topspin that will be great on clay, it will bounce up off the surface. On grass, if you have that brute force — look at Ivo Karlovic, who got to the quarter-finals here — that’s a huge advantage. The surface almost adds pace to the ball, not exactly, but it comes through quicker than any other surface.
“A good slice serve as well, it will skid away from the opponent a little bit more, so that’s when you’ll see a bit more serve and volleying when they can move the opponent out of position. Some players will hit more aggressive second serves on grass because the potential upside is greater than other surfaces and so it’s deemed a risk worth taking.”
One of the biggest changes on grass over the past 20 years is that, due to it playing slower, it is much more risky to get up to the net and try to volley. Instead, the staple play is the serve followed by a big forehand. This favours players like Katie Boulter, whose best results have come on grass — including reaching this year’s Wimbledon third round. “I think I’m an aggressive player,” she says. “I just enjoy going for it. On a grass court, I feel like I have more of an opportunity to play my game.”
For some players, the grass court season is liberating, offering a new start after the gruelling clay swing. “When you come on the grass, you have one month of a new chapter, a new season,” says Garcia. “It doesn’t really matter how you played before.”
Returning to Ruud, he said after his early exit that it was a good thing players like Broady could cause these sort of upsets. And there’s something in that — that even with tennis tournaments being more and more alike, there are still enough differences to make them uniquely challenging.
And to succeed on the grass, remember: get low, stay low and embrace the chaos.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)