Matt Zemek

Magdalena Rybarikova will not be favored to beat Petra Kvitova in Sunday’s Birmingham final. She will be seen as a threat at Wimbledon, but more in the role of a dark horse than as a heavyweight first-tier contender. She has dramatically rebuilt her career the past 16 months, and while she has been able to win at least two matches at each of the past three majors — in Paris, Melbourne and New York, on clay and hardcourts — she is far more comfortable on grass courts than on any other surface.

Rybarikova dominated the grass challenger circuit — and then carried that run of form through Wimbledon last year — to build her ranking from No. 453 in March of 2017 to her current home in the top 20. She will have to defend semifinalist points from her 2017 Wimbledon run to maintain that top-20 residence, but getting anywhere close to the top 30 had to have been the farthest thing from her mind when the winter of 2017 was winding down. Rybarikova has built her renewed WTA Tour status on a foundation made of lawns.

The instructive point to make about Rybarikova, who outdueled Barbora Strycova in Saturday’s Birmingham semifinal round, is that she is not a pure power merchant in the way other noted grass-court performers are. Petra Kvitova, whom Rybarikova will face on Sunday in England, fits that identity much more neatly. Kvitova belts the ball so hard and relentlessly on a quick, slick surface that no attempt to defend the court can keep pace with such pinpoint hitting to small targets. Another power-oriented grass merchant is CoCo Vandeweghe, whom Rybarikova defeated in last year’s Wimbledon quarterfinals. Vandeweghe isn’t nearly as controlled as Kvitova is from the ground, but her approach is unceasingly aggressive and her serve is a missile.

2018 Nature Valley Classic - 22 Jun
Both Images – Jimmie 48

 There is very little guile or cleverness to her game.

That’s not a criticism. It is merely a reflection of the reality that Vandeweghe requires accurate power to win matches. The huge server who goes big and relishes the ability to impose power on an opponent is the modern version of a player made for grass, as opposed to a 1980s serve-and-volleyer such as Martina Navratilova.

This week on the WTA Tour, Rybarikova has shown that there is more than one way to win on grass.

Rybarikova’s serve can do damage, and she can flatten out the ball to hit through the court, but she is not the Kvitova lawnmower or the Vandeweghe steamroller who wins by overwhelming her opponents. Rybarikova uses underspin and slice and everything nice, baffling opponents with constant variations of pace. This is how she began her week against Karolina Pliskova, and this is how she knocked the very same Pliskova out of Wimbledon a year ago, in the victory which fueled her semifinal run. In baseball parlance, Rybarikova throws “junk,” which is not a derisive or negative term, but a reference to manipulated-motion, off-pace pitches which confuse hitters looking for a fastball. On a WTA Tour where so many hitters depend on seeing pace and enjoy being able to hit the ball rhythmically from the baseline, Rybarikova refuses to groove her opponents’ shots by denying them the pace they want. Then, when the opponent has been successfully thrown out of her comfort zone with the off-speed groundstrokes, Rybarikova can then use power to pounce on a short ball or an open angle to close down points. She doesn’t use an absence of pace as a total strategy; she has pace, but she uses it only when advantageous, usually to finish points after the “soft junk” has pried open the court.

While Rybarikova has reached the Birmingham final, Anastasija Sevastova has made the Mallorca final by beating Samantha Stosur in Saturday’s second semifinal. (Sevastova will face Tatjana Maria.) If you recall last year’s U.S. Open, you know that against Maria Sharapova (fourth round) and Sloane Stephens (quarterfinals), Sevastova employed a lot of the tactics Rybarikova unveiled at Wimbledon. She did not allow two potent backcourt hitters to get any sort of rhythm or flow. It’s why she dismissed a rusty Sharapova from New York and gave Stephens, the eventual U.S. Open champion, a robust challenge.

Yes, a big serve does more damage on grass than anywhere else. Yes, serve-and-return prowess on grass matters more than on other surfaces. Yet, there is so much more to grass success than quick-strike power. There is more than one way to win on WTA Tour lawns.

Magdalena Rybarikova and Anastasija Sevastova are Defense Exhibits A and B this week in England and Spain.

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