Tennis, I am fond of saying, is a dialogue. It is not golf, in which the player plays the ball and only the ball, without another opponent forcing the next shot to acquire a certain trajectory. In tennis, two people have a say in the outcome. One person might utter more words and ask more questions, but he or she can’t filibuster and take up the entirety of the proceedings. The other person always gets a chance to speak.
On Sunday in the final of the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany, Borna Coric hollered back at Roger Federer. His unofficial words: “I have watched you win grass matches. I know your playbook!”
Coric followed that playbook to a T and captured his first grass-court title, denying Federer a 99th career title and ruining the fantasy of a 100th championship at Wimbledon for the Swiss. (More on that later.)
Tactics have their own place in this match and why it unfolded the way it did, with Coric winning in three sets. Trenton Jocz, a former colleague of mine at a previous place of shared employment, noted that Coric forced Federer to defend the full width of his forehand (deuce) corner. He played closer to the baseline and didn’t cede ground, enabling him to stay on top of points as grass requires. Yet, what is more instructive about this match — as is often the case on grass — is the “easy to say, hard to do” reality which decided it: Coric won more big points.
Some might think this is lazy analysis, but is there any other, more expansive way of explaining why Player A won and Player B lost than to say that Player A won more big points? Why complicate the issue? We know that grass rewards a huge serve — but also a blistering return of serve, stinging the server with its pace — more than other surfaces. Coric very plainly brought those two weapons into the four-point sequence which turned a Federer advantage (two set points for the Swiss) into a first-set victory which dramatically changed the equation of the battle. Had Coric not won that breaker, he would have had to play two near-flawless sets to pull out the win. As it was, he was able to absorb a bad eighth game in set two, punctuated by a flubbed volley, digest the loss of a set, bide his time in set three, and eventually pounce on his first break point when Federer couldn’t find first serves. Coric took that first — and only — break point of the match and rode it to the finish line.
Federer, as is well known, succeeds on grass because he so consistently wins big points. Grass, more than any other surface, continuously reminds players that even if they are stronger from the backcourt, an opponent’s formidable serve represents an ultimate equalizer. On the flip side of that reality stands another timeless grass truth: On lawns, a player can very easily not lose serve for multiple sets and still lose. Federer didn’t lose his set until the sixth game of set three on Sunday, and he lost. Federer’s idol, Stefan Edberg, memorably lost the 1991 Wimbledon semifinals to Michael Stich without ever losing serve in a four-set match.
Stich won three tiebreakers.
This match might not have been a typical grass contest in the sense that a lot of long baseline rallies emerged. In terms of the scoreline and that central matter of “opportunities taken (or lost),” it was a vintage grass match.
Coric did what Federer has done so many times: Sneak out a first-set tiebreaker win (Federer did this multiple times at Wimbledon last year), endure the rough patches, and prolong the contest long enough to get — and pounce on — a break chance to turn the tide. Winning tiebreakers on grass enables the winner to wait for an opportunity. Losing a tiebreaker shrinks the margins and means that brief lapses in future sets don’t decide mere sets; they decide matches.
In the great comparison between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — masters of separate kingdoms on grass and clay — every tennis fan will have a preference of what represents greater dominance. I am not going to resolve this question; I will merely mention an essential difference between clay and grass to shed light on what Coric achieved against Federer:
The difference between the attritional tennis of clay and the shotmaking tennis of grass is profound in the physical dimensions and abilities required by each form of tennis. Clay is the surface tailor-made for long points and anyone who can defend at the highest possible level. It is the surface which rewards stamina more than any other and rewards those whose strokes don’t break down after many hours on court. Nadal is so clearly the best in his field at exhibiting all the characteristics which go into dominant clay tennis.
Grass — even in a match with a lot of baseline rallies, as seen in Coric-Federer — is the surface where the brief lapse or magical shot instantly creates or wipes away an opportunity to gain scoreboard leverage. The huge serve or the huge return — on points which end as quickly as they begin, the antithesis of the long, grinding clay-court exchange — prominently shift the balance of power in a grass match. Everyone in the stadium knows the serve and return are paramount on the growing green blades, which is why the ability to step to the service line and nail that first serve represents such a profound demonstration of tennis prowess on grass. It is what the moment demands. Answering those moments is a fancier way of saying what simply can’t be avoided on grass: Winning the big points.
This is where assessing Federer becomes simultaneously easy and complicated.
Though commentators and fans across the world expect Federer to always win the one or two points which matter most in a grass-court match, it remains that Federer — like Pete Sampras before him — has had to play and win many tiebreakers to build his grass empire. Whereas Nadal brutalizes his opponents in 6-2 sets which take 50 minutes on clay, Federer’s key to grass success is the ability to win two more points than the other guy. He entered Sunday’s match having won 16 of his last 17 tiebreakers in Halle, which is ridiculous. He had won all three previous tiebreakers in Halle over his first four matches of the tournament. He won a third-set tiebreaker on June 16 in Stuttgart against Nick Kyrgios, and then a second-set breaker to win the Stuttgart final against Milos Raonic. People expect Federer to win grass tiebreakers, just as they expect Nadal to win every set on clay, just as they expected Novak Djokovic to come through every tough situation in 2015 and 2016.
Yet… tennis remains a dialogue.
No matter how proven one player might be in a small-margin sport, the other player on the court gets to change those margins, and in four points at the end of the first set on Sunday, Coric did exactly that. It wasn’t the outcome which normally occurs, but on grass, “normal” doesn’t mean much on the one or two points which generally decide the whole shebang.
For Coric, this tremendous victory should offer ample inspiration for the future. Coric had to dig deep into his tennis toolbox, and he found winning solutions under considerable scoreboard pressure. The next challenge for him is to take this increasingly resourceful game and apply it to five-set matches. Coric has failed to gain traction at majors. He got blitzed by Diego Schwartzman at Roland Garros. He has never made the fourth round at any major. He is only 21, but like another 21-year-old — Alexander Zverev — there is way too much talent to not make second weeks at majors. Perhaps his evolutionary arc is beginning to bend in the right direction. Sunday’s match certainly curved the way he hoped it would.
As for Federer, let’s tackle the various (over)reactions from a match lost on grass, largely due to the inability to close down one point (6-5 in the first-set tiebreaker) at net.
Did Federer overplay this week in Halle? Please. He played only four matches in Stuttgart. Winning Stuttgart unavoidably made Halle a tougher task, both physically and especially mentally, but that was known going in. Federer losing his first match in Stuttgart last year (to Tommy Haas) enabled him to be much fresher for Halle, which he won convincingly. Saying that any tennis player “overplayed” suggests an unwise scheduling decision. After two months away from tour, why shouldn’t Federer play two weeks of grass prep tournaments before Wimbledon? It is not worthy of serious debate.
On a similar note, should Federer or his fans be concerned about his game? Only if his tumble in the third set against Coric reflects physical diminishment, which it did not seem to do. The idea that Halle should be attacked with the same intensity of Wimbledon is ludicrous on its face. The reality of Halle is that it involves daily play, whereas Wimbledon offers days off. Moreover, at Wimbledon, Federer will play on the first Monday as defending champion. This means that if he makes the fourth round, he will have a two-day break following his Friday third-round match. If these two weeks of play mean anything in relation to Wimbledon, they will force Federer to move smoothly through his first week. If he somehow gets roped into a pair of five-setters in week one, that could catch up to him in week two. Other than that, however, fitness shouldn’t be a concern.
The draw is the big concern for every main Wimbledon contender.
Two more notes about Federer:
1) If he had won title No. 99 on Sunday, the hype surrounding title No. 100 at Wimbledon would have been enormous, quite possibly a distraction. Now Federer doesn’t have to deal with that media avalanche. Moreover, a loss on grass before Wimbledon — which helped him last year — should similarly give him the timely reminder about the margins which can easily cut against him. This loss should not be seen as a sign of impending decline at Wimbledon. Federer should be a lot more concerned with his overall level of play, which was not great the past two weeks and really hasn’t been great for most of the year. Even Indian Wells (when Coric similarly took a break lead in the third set, but didn’t finish the way he did in Halle) was a struggle-bus tournament at times.
2) Remember 2017, and how the Donskoy and Haas losses in Dubai and Stuttgart kept Federer fresher for the following tournaments on his calendar? This year, a full week in Rotterdam and a full week in Stuttgart created a different domino effect for subsequent tournaments in Indian Wells, Miami and Halle. What we are seeing from Federer is a natural dose of reality: not that his tennis is suffering (it isn’t — had he won one more point against Del Potro in Indian Wells, his season would be as good as one realistically could have hoped for), but that his powers of recovery aren’t as immediate as they once were. This is how life is supposed to be for a normal 36-year, 10-month-old man… even though Federer transcends normalcy so many times.
Sunday, he didn’t… and a deserving Borna Coric is the main reason why.