Road to Rogers Cup: Nadal reigns in Paris, grass season begins

Monday, Jun 11

Welcome to Road to Rogers Cup, a weekly review of all the action on the pro circuit leading up to Rogers Cup presented by National Bank this August 4th to 12th at the Aviva Centre in Toronto.

With the clay court season complete, players gear up for grass and a whole new set of challenges. Who will come out on top on the game’s trickiest surface?

Photo credit: AFP / Christophe Archambault

Last week: ‘La undecima’ for Nadal at Roland Garros

The Story

Rafael Nadal is the French Open champion – again. Since winning his maiden Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy in 2005, there have only been three occasions where the Spaniard has not been the last man standing. In 2009, Roger Federer, who had lost to Nadal in the previous four editions of Roland Garros, benefited from the four-time champion’s early exit at the hands of Robin Soderling, eventually claiming the one Grand Slam to have eluded him. In 2015, Novak Djokovic became the second man to defeat Nadal, delivering an impressive straight-sets romp that capped off Nadal’s worst clay-court swing in a decade. Although he was forced to withdraw due to injury in 2016, his form at Roland Garros since then has been unstoppable.

And he remained unstoppable in Paris this year.

The Spaniard dropped just one set (to lightning-quick Argentine and last year’s Rogers Cup quarterfinalist) en route to his eleventh Roland Garros title – marking the first set he’s lost at the event since Djokovic closed him out in 2015. He was dominant in the final, taking out Dominic Thiem, who was never quite able to find the right range on his backhand or first serve. Thiem, for his part, put together an impressive second week, reaching his maiden Grand Slam final and defeating rival Alexander Zverev en route.

Marco Cecchinato was Thiem’s opponent in the semifinals and was no doubt the biggest surprise of the tournament. Cecchinato pulled off a stunning upset over Djokovic in the quarterfinals, and rose to the occasion in the semis against the No.7-seeded Austrian, falling in a tight three-setter.

The tournament marks the end of yet another dominant clay-court swing for Nadal, as well as for fellow clay-court achievers Thiem and Zverev. Questions still remain about how close Djokovic is to getting back to his best – form which was displayed in glimpses throughout his quarterfinal run, while other second-week stars Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic also showed the kind of impressive play that could see them make an impact as the tour transitions onto quicker surfaces.

The Takeaways

  • Nadal is the greatest player of all time on clay courts. Everyone knows that – and his results prove it. But where does that put him in the Greatest of All Time conversation? He’s won all the other majors, just as fellow GOAT-contenders Federer (who hold the most Grand Slam titles and longest reign at No.1) and Novak Djokovic (“only” 12 majors to his name, but owns a winning head-to-head against both the others) have. That – and he seems to be getting even better. Since retiring in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, he’s put more zip on his backhand and his forehand has been as lethal as ever. It’s a debate for the ages: which of these legends is the true greatest.
  • Thiem almost there. Almost. The 24-year-old Austrian proved that, on clay, he’s better than the rest of the field – if that field doesn’t include Nadal. Despite being the only player to have beaten the Spaniard on clay over the last two seasons, both those wins were in best-of-three matches, and the mental game of playing best-of-five against Nadal is just that much more daunting. He wasn’t able to show much of a Plan B in the Roland Garros final when it came down to crunch time, and still needs a bit of time to become the future champion we know he’ll eventually be on the terre battue of Paris.
  • Djokovic was back, then he wasn’t. His quarterfinal loss was puzzling, but he had looked great leading up to it. What does it mean? No idea. His level has been up and down all season since the minor medical procedure on his elbow, but we have to keep in mind that Both Nadal and Federer have had complicated seasons over the past few years… and look where they are now.
  • Hats off to Juan Martin del Potro. Although he wasn’t truly able to push Nadal in the semifinals, his run, particularly in the wake of injury concerns, was impressive nonetheless. Clay isn’t his favourite surface either, but he still managed to make the semifinals for the first time since 2009.
Photo credit: Peter Staples/ATP World Tour

This week: Ready, set – grass!

Ready for the polar opposite surface to clay? It’s time for the grass season, which takes place over five weeks in Germany, the Netherlands, and England.

Clay offers players high bounces and slow pace, giving them time to run down balls that would normally be winners, and wind up bigger swings to crack the ball on all corners of the court. Grass courts are slick, meaning balls bounce lower and zip through the surface quicker. Furthermore, bounces on grass can be wildly unpredictable, meaning forays to the net are a smart choice to avoid too much baselining, which has a higher margin of error over other surfaces.

Big serving, attacking players tend to thrive on grass. Federer, a true grass-court connoisseur whose dominance on the manicured lawns of Wimbledon is almost as impressive as Nadal’s dominance at Roland Garros, is scheduled to play Stuttgart this week and Halle next week, both leading up to the third Grand Slam of the season at Wimbledon.

Nick Kyrgios, who made a name for himself in a stunning upset of Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014, makes his return to tour following elbow injury that has kept him out of competition since Miami in March. He’s in the Stuttgart draw alongside Federer and former Wimbledon runner-ups Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych.

In Rosmalen, the French duo of Adrian Mannarino and Richard Gasquet lead the seedings, with defending champion Gilles Muller and resurgent grass-court wiz Bernard Tomic also looking at making a dent in the draw. A wildcard went to talented Greek youngster Stefanos Tsitsipas, whose stylish game is sure to thrill the Dutch crowd.

Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Canadian contingent

At the tour-level, Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil are all in action this week. Canada’s top two, Raonic and Shapovalov, are in Stuttgart, while Pospisil has taken a spot in Rosmalen.

All three Canadians have had major career highlights on grass courts. Milos Raonic reached his first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon, defeating Roger Federer en route in an epic five-setter, while in that same year, Shapovalov was crowned the boys’ singles champion at the historic All-England Club. In 2015, Vasek Pospisil reach his sole Slam quarterfinal – also at Wimbledon.

So it’s safe to say Canadians thrive on grass. All three have big serves and huge attacking games, complimented by concrete skills at the net. Shapovalov, a revelation during the clay-court swing, will relish the short points that should perfectly compliment his aggressive brand of shotmaking tennis, and is seeded in Stuttgart for a quarterfinal match up with none other than eight-time Wimbledon champ Federer. Raonic is placed on the other side of the draw and could face Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.

(Feature photo: Pete Staples)