Is Grass Always Greener?
When the new International-level WTA event made its debut this week in Nürnberg, Germany, there was no shortage of quality story lines; although the draw featured no top 10 players, top seed Jelena Jankovic is always a walking headline and four Germans started off in the main draw. Nonetheless, the event has made headlines for completely unexpected reasons. Some have questioned the merit of the WTA holding a clay court event two weeks before Wimbledon, particularly in a country where the grass-court tuneup in Halle always attracts a star-studded ATP lineup.
The idea of arbitrarily placed clay court events on either tour’s calendar is nothing new. The WTA calendar also allocates space for four clay court events in the two weeks following Wimbledon: Budapest, Palermo, Bastad and Bad Gastein. Serena Williams is committed to play the clay-court event in Bastad for the first time in her career, and the event is held the week before her usual US Open Series tuneup in Stanford. Rafael Nadal returned from a seven month injury layoff and prepared for the North American hard court season by playing in Vina del Mar, Sao Paulo and Acapulco…on clay.
With the way that professional tennis has evolved over the years, the grass court season has become little more than a blip on the drawn-out tennis calendar; while players like Alison Riske and Tsvetana Pironkova might’ve found their lives a bit easier if three of the four slams were still contested on grass, career-defining results on grass are not the norm for most players. Is it really to a player’s benefit to waste time (and money) to travel and compete on a surface where she’ll reap such little reward for such a short time?
There is constant clamoring for players to schedule smarter and play the tournaments that are in their best interest. By putting these tournaments on the schedule, the WTA is allowing for that. There was little to no clamor about Nadal returning to action on his most preferred surface to get match play and confidence. This week in Nürnberg, the narrative was quite similar. The saga of Andrea Petkovic and her injuries over the past 18 months is well known. After losing in Roland Garros qualifying to unheralded Yi-Miao Zhou, Petkovic dropped down to the ITF Circuit and won a $100,000 event in Marseille on clay; among her scalps, Petkovic defeated in-form players Monica Puig and Paula Ormaechea, both of whom came off third round showings in Paris. After defeating Sofia Arvidsson in the first round in Germany, Petkovic assured her return to the top 100. Petkovic’s good form continued as she rallied past Annika Beck, her teenaged countrywoman, in nearly three hours to reach her first WTA semifinal since Luxembourg in 2012.
On the other side of the draw, Polona Hercog was making an injury comeback of her own. The Slovenian quietly played just one match this year at the Australian Open before requiring wrist surgery, and made her return to competition at a $50,000 ITF event in France before Roland Garros. No slouch on her beloved clay, where she owns two WTA singles titles, Hercog also fell in Roland Garros qualifying. Hercog’s greatest grass court success came as a junior, when she reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2008. Since then, Hercog has avoided grass like the plague, and rightly so. The Slovenian’s game is far from effective on grass, and it didn’t take her long to figure that out. She’s played just a handful of matches on the surface in her career. Her only career win at Wimbledon came against Johanna Larsson, perhaps the only active WTA player less comfortable on grass than Hercog herself. Instead of moving on to grass, Hercog took the title at a $25,000 ITF event in her hometown of Maribor, reached the semifinals in Marseille and took out the No. 2 seed Klara Zakopalova en route to a quarterfinal showing in Nürnberg. With smart scheduling, Hercog got herself more match practice in a few weeks than she might have for nearly the rest of the year.
In a sport where so much is made of wins and losses, it’s much easier to adapt to an uncomfortable situation when you’re in good form. None of the WTA’s top three are entered in a grass court warmup event, and does anyone believe that this is a hindrance to their title hopes? The difference is that these players perform at a high level nearly every week and are rarely, if ever, short on confidence. Confidence and the ability to adapt comes from winning, and nothing else. Not everyone has the luxury to be able to have and do that on a dime. By holding simultaneous tournaments on different surfaces, both tours are allowing for the highest percentage of their players to succeed.