Dominic Thiem was just a clay-court specialist… until he made the U.S. Open quarterfinals and played an epic 4:49 match against Rafael Nadal.
Ashleigh Barty was never going to do anything on clay… until she won Roland Garros.
Jo Konta wasn’t going to do anything on clay, but then came Rabat, Rome, and Roland Garros.
Now, Matteo Berrettini — the owner of one main-draw tour win on grass a week ago — has won 10 sets out of 10 to win the Stuttgart Open on grass.
The point of all this? No, it’s not that we shouldn’t label players as surface specialists if their results warrant the designation… or at least, that notion doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.
The more precise point to be made: We shouldn’t give up on players relative to specific surfaces. We shouldn’t write off players because of limited results in the past.
Barty showed that an offensive slice can make a perfectly comfortable home on clay.
Konta’s aggressive and largely flat pinpoint hitting — a style of play more readily associated with hardcourts — brought the Brit within an eyelash of the French Open women’s final and delivered a huge clay season.
Berrettini’s variety, shown in Stuttgart, should naturally translate to grass. It didn’t do so in previous years, but finally had a coming-out party this past week in Germany. There is a difference between saying “He hasn’t played well on grass” (which was accurate preceding this week) and “his game can’t translate well to grass or function well on grass.”
Lesson learned, oui?
Thiem on hardcourts — an evolution which began last September in New York and carried through to his Indian Wells championship this past March — offers the big-picture reminder about surface-specific results: While the nuances of tennis are different on various surfaces, and while each surface will expose weaknesses or enhance strengths to certain undeniable degrees, it remains that tennis is tennis no matter where (or on what surface) the sport is played. If you are a really good tennis player, you might not dominate on all surfaces, but you WILL have a reasonably decent comfort level on all surfaces.
Matteo Berrettini and the man he defeated in the Stuttgart final, Felix Auger-Aliassime, are quality tennis players. They don’t have to be limited to any surface. We might project certain results for them on one surface which differ from others, but for both men, the universality of their tennis matters more right now than the differentiations among surfaces which might persist.
Other pros don’t have to limit themselves by surface. The two tours have plenty of examples in 2019 of players who are busting free from previous constraints.