Wimbledon has seen four days come and go.
16 of the 32 men’s seeds have been eliminated.
14 of the 32 women’s seeded players have been eliminated.
4 of the top-10 seeds on the men’s side have been eliminated, with Alexander Zverev in trouble against Taylor Fritz.
6 of the top eight seeds on the women’s side have been eliminated.
This is a staggering amount of early-round upsets, with the highest-rated seeds feeling the impact. Seeds 2-6 on the women’s side and seeds 3, 6 and 7 on the men’s side (plus 4, if Zverev loses to Fritz) have failed to escape the first two rounds, ironically the rounds in which seeded players are supposed to have “safe” draws due to the 32-seed system. (Why do we need only 16 seeds again?)
This carnage begs the question: Why are these upsets occurring?
The explanation I am going to offer is that grass presents the best opportunity for the underdog to succeed.
Think about the French Open. Higher-ranked players, the ones who are typically more reliable over the course of an extended match, are operating in an environment where their opponents have to work exponentially harder in order to break down their defenses and finish points.
Rafael Nadal is the perfect example of this, of course. Nadal’s consistency and defensive barriers are far more difficult to break through on clay, rather than grass. In any given match at a Grand Slam tournament, Nadal will face a world-class player who has qualified by ranking or by performance in qualifying. These are the best players in the world. All of these players can play. They all know how to attack and they all can take control of the point— under the proper circumstances, of course.
On grass, higher-ranked players are more susceptible to the attacking mechanisms of their lower-ranked opponents. Its easy to marginalize lower-ranked players when comparing them to the greats of the game, but it is crucial to realize that these are still world-class players who can deliver incredibly high levels of tennis. This is why players such as Federer and Nadal will push back members of the media when they ask them to look ahead in tournaments. Federer and Nadal are fully aware of how strong any opponent could be.
That said, imagine Lukas Rosol and Dustin Brown attempting to replicate what they did against Nadal — at Wimbledon — in a separate context, and more specifically, at the French Open. Not happening. The nature of the surface is that it aids the attack of the lower-ranked players. Consider that Ekaterina Makarova could hit through Caroline Wozniacki at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, but not at Roland Garros. Donna Vekic, who upset Sloane Stephens, is more comfortable on grass than other surfaces. Dominic Thiem is hard to counter on clay, but so much easier to expose on grass. The examples keep coming.
All surfaces slow down the original pace of the ball upon contact with the court. Grass (in most instances) slows down the pace of the ball the least. Clay slows it down the most. If I’m Lukas Rosol, attempting to hit through the court and take down my higher-ranked opponent, doing so on grass is going to be much easier because the surface doesn’t reduce the pace of my ball as much.
The court conditions in early rounds can also work to the benefit of the underdog. Of course, lower-ranked players have to deal with it, but if they can properly manage it, it’s something they can use to exploit the defensive mechanisms of the higher-ranked player. If I’m a lower-ranked player looking to beat a higher-ranked player, I’m certainly going to attempt to move my opponent around the court and attempt to test their ability to handle the slick surface.
CoCo Vandeweghe experienced this firsthand in her first-round match with Katerina Siniakova. Vandeweghe slipped in the first-set tiebreaker when running down a drop shot and injured her ankle, ultimately costing her the match and her tournament — she later withdrew from the doubles.
This is not a tactic to an injure an opponent, but players must take into consideration the realities of the court and realize that if they don’t move their opponent around and test their balance, they are going to be on the receiving end of that tactic.
The final reason a top level player may be prone to an upset at Wimbledon has to do with the fact that the grass-court season is only one month long.
Nadal played Wimbledon in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. He did not reach the quarterfinals in any of these events. In all of these years, Nadal won a grand total of one grass-court match entering Wimbledon.
The lack of form and match preparation can make the difference for top-level players entering Wimbledon. Players are not as accustomed to the way the surface plays, and they are also not as accustomed to handling the tactical variety they are going to see on the surface.
It lowers the level of the higher-ranked player and further enhances the conditions under which a lower-ranked player can create an upset.
Hold your strawberries and cream tight! We are in for a wild ride over the next 10 days!