As the circuit moves from clay to grass, some things remain the same. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have continued to be the talk of the #TennisTwitter streets. The two polar axes of the ATP Tour have shared the past six major titles, the world number one ranking, and all of the blinding attention that comes with winning and accolades. Federer skipping the entire clay season for the second year in a row to prepare for grass-court tennis, or Nadal withdrawing from the Queen’s Club tournament after winning his 11th Roland Garros title, seem more of the norm than an aberration these days.
It was just 12 years ago these two men began to set the standard for the modern quest to dominate across all surfaces. Back then the transition between Roland Garros and Wimbledon was a 15-day gap. Fans would breathlessly wait to see Nadal take his first strokes on a grass court within a mere 72 hours of watching him lift his latest Roland Garros trophy. Of course Federer and Nadal made everything look easy back then, but now in the shadow of Father Time, we can possibly begin to appreciate their efforts from a more holistic viewpoint.
Halle, Germany, is one of the picturesque tournaments ATP players can choose from when beginning their grass-court preparations. Since 2015 the tours have lengthened the time between the clay and grass seasons, which now allows most players a chance to compete at two or more grass tournaments before Wimbledon. Besides being known as the site of Federer’s most successful tournament in his career, Halle is also renowned for its rich history in education and economics. Dominic Thiem was to continue his education in grass tennis… until a game Yuichi Sugita gave him a lesson on the surface.
Sugita is known as something of a grass-court specialist. His breakthrough into the top 100 of the rankings was buoyed by his first ATP tournament trophy at Antalya on grass. On paper one could say this was a bad loss for Thiem. Even though Sugita’s style of play fits grass courts very well, he had lost nine straight matches on the ATP Tour coming into Halle. Thiem also alarmingly created only one break-point opportunity throughout the match; during the first set he won only three return points off Sugita’s serve.
Coming into the match with Sugita, Thiem had compiled 36 wins to lead the ATP tour in match wins for 2018. He has quickly been accorded the adjective “consistent,” even though he does not have a Masters 1000 title and has yet to make a quarterfinal in a major outside of Roland Garros. His counterpart in consistency, Alexander Zverev, also lost early in his Halle campaign. Both seemed to be recovering from their highs on clay, and both had parts of their lower bodies taped in their first matches on the evergreen surface. Signs of adaptations — to sliced groundstrokes, crisper footwork, and striking balls that are no longer bouncing towards the heavens — emerged in Halle, but not enough to last very long. Unfortunately this leaves Halle with two fewer top-10-ranked players for fans. It points the spotlight back toward Federer possibly winning a tenth Halle title.
Thiem can take solace in the fact that he has plenty of time to rest properly and adapt with eyes focused on Wimbledon. Even the GOATS didn’t learn to hack surfaces without a few bumps along the way. Thiem needs to know he is not going to figure out the grass formula right away.
He received a healthy reminder on Wednesday.