Several players are enjoying Wimbledon breakthroughs this fortnight after years of struggling on the grass. We find out how they've finally mastered the surface.
Daria Kasatkina remembers how she felt the first time she stepped on a grass court to play a match.
It was the junior event at Wimbledon in 2012, and the Russian was just 15 years old.
“Juniors, first round, I was completely… lost 6-0 first set, and I thought this is the s*****est surface in the century, in the history of tennis,” Kasatkina says with a laugh.
Four years later, she made her Wimbledon main draw debut and reached the third round, where she lost a tight affair to five-time champion Venus Williams, 10-8 in the deciding set.
“After I won my first match I realised that everything is possible on this surface. After I played10-8 against Venus Williams on the grass I realised if you find the keys to how to play, you can play on any surface,” she added.
Seeded No. 14 at Wimbledon this fortnight, Kasatkina has reached the fourth round at the All England Club for the first time, where she faces Belgium’s Alison van Uytvanck.
She is one of several players to enjoy breakthroughs on the grass this tournament, after they’ve finally figured out the right formula to compete on it.
“The most difficult thing on grass is to move on the grass because it’s very specific, especially when the grass is getting old, there is no grass anymore on the baseline, it’s more like sand, so it’s tough. Because in the middle it’s sand and on the sides it’s still grass, so you have to manage it a little bit,” explains the 21-year-old Kasatkina.
A player whose instincts drive her to play with so much variety, Kasatkina believes grass brings out the most creativity out of her.
One creative and incredibly athletic player who has long struggled on the turf is Gael Monfils. You could hear him during matches on grass in the past complain about how much he hates the surface and doesn’t know how to play on it. Yet on his 10th appearance at Wimbledon, the Frenchman has finally made it into the second week for the first time.
“I just try not to even think about it. I try to like the grass as much as I like to play tennis. It’s different than when I play on clay. On hard is different. I just had my mindset like, it’s another surface,” said Monfils, who takes on No. 8 seed Kevin Anderson in the last-16 on Monday.
“So I need to move differently but be aware of I have to adjust the way I move, adjust the way I think also, be a bit more offensive, maybe less defensive. Have less neutral shots. So I just feel that year after year I’ve been improving and finally I can say that I like grass.”
Defeating two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist Richard Gasquet in the first round also must have helped boost Monfils’ confidence in his abilities on the lawns of SW19.
There are many players who, on paper, should be great on grass, and have all the weapons to be dangerous on the surface, yet somehow, they’ve never excelled on it. The grass season is so short that those who want to improve on the surface, never have the time to actually work on their grass game.
With the ball skidding low off the grass, big servers and power-hitters can dominate at Wimbledon. Yet someone like ace queen Karolina Pliskova has had troubles for years at the All England Club and it’s only this fortnight that she has managed to make it past the second round for the first time.
She is the only top-10 women’s seed still standing in the draw and few would have picked Pliskova to make it this far, considering her previous record at the event. After losing in the first round on her Wimbledon debut, Pliskova fell in round two on each of her last five visits to south-west London.
When she defeated Victoria Azarenka in the second round last week, the seventh-seeded Pliskova was relieved. Her first words when she walked off-court for her TV interview were: “I’m finally in the third round!”
“I didn’t change many things, but I just believed,” says Pliskova, who next faces another Wimbledon fourth-round first-timer, Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens.
No. 13 seed Julia Goerges, who is a frequent doubles partner of Pliskova, also ended her Wimbledon hoodoo this fortnight. The German, who plays Donna Vekic in the last-16 on Monday, hadn’t won a match at SW19 for the past five years.
She has all the tools to perform well on this surface – powerful groundstrokes and a massive serve – but it took her time to learn how to deal with it. Goerges jokes that maybe playing doubles with Pliskova in Birmingham helped them change their luck on the turf.
“Until last year I didn’t feel great on the grass honestly. I didn’t like it. But last year we added David Prinosil to our team for a few weeks and he really taught me how to think about grass, that you need to accept a lot of balls where you cannot do something about it and I think that changed a bit my mentality to really have fun a little bit out there,” said Goerges.
“To try to play the game a little bit different than you used to do on hard court and clay. So I think I can be a very dangerous player and a very good player on grass courts because I have a lot of weapons which I can use. If I use them smart, I think I can go far.”
With so many upsets taking place this year at Wimbledon, who knows how far these second-week debutants can go. The opportunity is there and they know it.