Do surface specialists still exist in tennis?

Published by Reem Abulleil

Rafael Nadal has dominated on clay for most of the last 15 years; Getty Images
The discrepancy between surfaces has become smaller over time but few can deny that some settings provide certain stars with a particular chance to shine.

When Novak Djokovic won four Grand Slams in a row from Wimbledon 2015 to Roland Garros 2016, the feat nearly broke him.

He was the first man to hold all four majors at the same time since Rod Laver in 1969 and the first man ever to do so on three different surfaces.

The physical and mental struggles, and subsequent resurgence, that followed his 2016 French Open triumph have been well documented and now, Djokovic has the chance to win four consecutive Slams for the second time in his career. It’s an accomplishment neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal have been able to pull off once, let alone twice.

“There is also no secret that nowadays it’s easier to do maybe than before. This is not taking away from him. It’s also helping myself, Rafa, anybody who is close,” Federer said in Dubai in February of Djokovic’s four-in-a-row achievement.

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“It’s just that the surfaces play more even today, more equal. Back in the day you had really fast grass courts to extremely slow clay courts. The difference was just so extreme that it was hard to do what Bjorn Borg did: winning back-to-back French Open-Wimbledon.”

Indeed the discrepancy between surfaces has become smaller over time, with more and more players able to adapt their games from clay to grass to hard courts almost seamlessly throughout the season.

Still, there are players who look forward to competing on a specific surface more than they would another. There are those who love the orange stains on their white socks that signal the start of the clay season each year. There are others who thrive on the smell of freshly mown grass and can’t wait to don their all-whites at Wimbledon. And some who bring out their best on hard courts. Djokovic can even slide on them.

Nadal is considered the undisputed ‘King of Clay’, with his 11 French Open trophies and countless other records on the red dirt setting him apart from every other man in the history of the sport. But for someone who has also captured three US Open crowns, two Wimbledon titles, and an Australian Open trophy, that single-surface nickname feels like selling Nadal short.

The Spaniard, who grew up honing his craft on the red dirt of Mallorca, has won 23 titles on surfaces other than clay and over the past 15 years, has transformed his game from one that was initially based on defence, to an attacking one centred around his heavy topspin lefty forehand.

While Nadal says he “doesn’t care” whether people call him ‘King of Clay’ or choose to acknowledge his surface versatility, he did remind reporters at the Australian Open in January – where he debuted a new service motion that added an extra element to his attacking style – that aggression has always been part of his game.

“It’s nothing new that I am aggressive. The problem with myself is because I had a lot of success on clay people probably think I am not aggressive. I really believe that people who think that are completely wrong. That’s the real thing, no?” said the 17-time Grand Slam winner.

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It’s true that there is a misconception about players who excel on clay nowadays, even though many players with aggressive games have done well on the dirt in recent years. We saw how Latvian Jelena Ostapenko blasted through the draw on the high-bouncing courts of Roland Garros to win the title in 2017.

Austrian Dominic Thiem is as close to a claycourt specialist as you can get in today’s game and his ultra-aggressive style was on full display when he ended Nadal’s 50-set winning streak on clay with victory over the Spaniard in Madrid last year.

Eight of Thiem’s 11 titles have come on clay and over the past two seasons, the 25-year-old has established himself as the best player on that surface behind Nadal.

Thiem reached his maiden Grand Slam final at Roland Garros in 2018, where he fell to Nadal, and has amassed a 74.2 per cent winning record on clay, compared to 55.3 per cent on hard courts, and 51.9 per cent on grass.

The surface allows Thiem the time to construct his points, cause damage with his impressive topspin, unleash his one-handed backhand and show- off his great movement.

Thiem has been a constant fixture in the top-10 since mid- 2016, but it wasn’t until last season that he managed to experience a real breakthrough on other surfaces besides his beloved clay. He knew it was impossible to sustain his place among the game’s elite by relying mostly on his success on clay.

In September 2018, Thiem reached his first non-clay Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open. A couple of weeks later, Thiem won his first hard-court title in over two years by going all the way in St. Petersburg.

“[The change was more] mentally because I already won Acapulco two years ago and also I played well on grass two years ago, so I knew that I could play on other surfaces,” Thiem told Dubai newspaper Sport360 in an interview at the ATP Finals last November.

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The mind is usually the main obstacle for players when it comes to adapting to a less than favourable surface.

Two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said after her Australian Open triumph in January that she would have to change her attitude towards clay and grass in order to mimic her hard-court success at the other majors.

“I think mentally I don’t like clay. I always tell myself, ‘I don’t like clay’, so I never really embrace anything about it, and I think that’s something I have to change. And the same goes for grass courts, because I see people slide and slip and it’s a little bit frightening for me, so I just think I have to change my mentality,” explained the young Japanese.

Most Americans grow up with limited experience playing on the terre battue simply because they don’t have access to it in the United States. So when they start touring Europe and compete on the red dirt in Paris or Rome or elsewhere, they struggle, especially with their movement.

Madison Keys was a prime example, up until she made a surprise run to the semifinals at Roland Garros last season.

“I think it was still kind of a confusion in the head up until about a week ago,” Keys joked when describing her relationship with the surface when she reached the final four in Paris.

“Obviously, I grew up in the States where we don’t really have red clay. Even playing on clay, it was green clay, which is much faster and much different. So my first real experience on red clay, it was when I was 16 or 17. It’s been a little bit longer for me to get used to it, but I feel like every year I get more comfortable.”

Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens built a name for herself as a dirt-baller, and like Thiem, enjoyed most of her success on clay.

Her first five titles were all claimed on the surface and her sole Grand Slam semifinal appearance so far came at the French Open in 2016.

Bertens’ heavy topspin troubled her opponents on the dirt and she was firmly attached to the idea that clay was her comfort zone. At least that was the case until mid-2018.

Last July, Bertens made it past the third round at Wimbledon for the first time in her career, and she advanced even further by reaching the quarterfinals. Her wins over Venus Williams and Karolina Pliskova were her first top-10 wins on a surface other than clay and her run in south-west London provided the plot twist she needed to believe in herself away from the terre battue.

Bertens went on to claim her first hard-court title in Cincinnati, where she ousted four top-10 players, including the then top-ranked Simona Halep.

The 27-year-old picked up another hard-court title in Seoul and ended her season by reaching the semifinals in her WTA Finals debut.

“It’s such a great feeling that you don’t have to be peaking at only one moment a year. Now it’s everywhere. I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of, that all the work is paying off,” Bertens told WTA Insiderafter winning Cincinnati.

“We were trying already in the beginning of the year to play a little bit more aggressive, to go a little bit more for my shots. And I think also the movement is much better. I’m much fitter and I can reach more balls,” explains Bertens, who is now ranked No.8 in the world.

In the fast-evolving world of tennis, surface specialists have become hard to come by, but heading into Roland Garros, you can still count on the Thiems and Bertenses of the tour to have targets on their backs and contender labels attached to them. Will they live up to their dirt-balling credentials?

This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.

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