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Grass proves slippery for Tsitsipas

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

One could certainly say that a lot of ATP players have games which do not fit with grass. Dominic Thiem is one. Kei Nishikori is another. Fabio Fognini is another. Diego Schwartzman is another. Stefanos Tsitsipas, however, is NOT a player whose game is out of place on lawns. His fluid strokes, attacking style, and his willingness to come to net all represent portions of a grass solution. The way he plays fits this surface like a glove.

Yet, you can have a game made for grass and still struggle on the surface.

Ask Matteo Berrettini, who hadn’t done much on grass before Stuttgart and Halle this year. Ask John Isner, who finally made the deep Wimbledon run in 2018 which had eluded him for over a decade.

Grass is slippery for shoes, but it can also be slippery in the sense that it is elusive and hard to pin down for top pros.

Tsitsipas learned this lesson on Monday in his loss to Italy’s Thomas Fabbiano.

Tsitsipas’s main weakness is his return of serve. It was exposed on the low-bouncing grass of a Day 1 Wimbledon playing surface. He was late and off balance on a lot of return points. You can say what you want about the speed of a grass court, but what people often neglect to mention about grass — especially on the first few days of a grass tournament — is the bounce involved on the surface.

Whereas hardcourts and especially clay are more conducive to high bounces, grass involves more skidding balls which bounce lower. This — more than the speed — throws clay-courters off balance, because they are used to taking huge cuts and playing with a lot of topspin. Grass demands the ability to hit more slices and more bunted shots with abbreviated swings. Getting — and staying — closer to the ground facilitates better shotmaking and execution on grass.

Tsitsipas has these raw components, but as Monday’s match showed, learning how to demonstrate and then replicate them on a surface where he — and every other tour player — spends a very small amount of time each year is not easily done. In a young player’s first few years on tour, grass is often very challenging simply because of the lack of familiarity it provides. I wrote about this in explaining Naomi Osaka’s lack of comfort on grass. 

Tsitsipas didn’t look nearly as uncomfortable on grass against Fabbiano as Osaka has looked this grass season, but it was clear that as a returner of serve, he didn’t have the whole equation figured out.

I will remind you that in 2002, Roger Federer lost to Mario Ancic in round one of Wimbledon. Federer was a month and a half short of turning 21.

Hey, let’s see how old Tsitsipas is.

Oh.

A month and a half short of turning 21.

These things take time, you know? Grass can be slippery, even for someone who is destined to become a Wimbledon champion and a very formidable grass-court player in the 2020s.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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