Now that the 2017 grass-court season is in full swing, it would be remiss of us here at Tennis Pulse not to cover the two most important tournaments that lead up to the showpiece at Wimbledon. Two ATP 500 events, the Aegon Championships at Queen’s club and the Gerry Webber Open in Halle, both take place this week, and provide excellent preparation for those players who are looking to fine tune their grass court game before taking to the manicured lawns at the All-England Club.
Lucas Pouille and Gilles Muller took home ATP 250 titles last week in Stuttgart and s-Hertogenbosch respectively, with both men turning in excellent final-day performances against experienced opponents. Pouille took care of Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez in three tight sets, while Muller out-served the tour’s biggest server Ivo Karlovic on his way to notching up the second title of his career, and intriguingly enough, of 2017 in what has been a resurgent season for the Luxembourgian. After such exciting happenings in the first week of this year’s grass-court season, the next promises to be even better, as many of the ATP’s marquee names sat out Stuttgart and s-Hertogenbosch to recover from the exhausting clay-court swing.
What to expect at Queen’s
Contrary to what the tennis world anticipates at the biggest clay-court tournaments, where the list of favourites begins and ends with the name Rafael Nadal, the odds of winning the most prestigious grass-court events can be apportioned to a larger number of players. Upsets are more likely on this surface, so monster servers like Karlovic, Muller, Kevin Anderson and Sam Querrey are always in with a chance of springing a surprise against a higher ranked opponent.
Nevertheless, the most sensible pick based on overall pedigree on the surface would have to be Andy Murray, who is playing to break his own record of 5 titles at the Queen’s Club. Murray is in the hunt for his first title since winning Dubai in February and has a good chance to break the duck at an event where he has been ultra-consistent. He is the most effective returner on grass among active players and the top seed will be very difficult to beat at the business end of the Aegon Championships if past history is anything to go by. It’s anyone’s guess as to who should be ranked second favourite to win at Queen’s because the second seed Wawrinka is generally ill at ease on grass, last year’s finalist Milos Raonic is in dismal form, and Marin Cilic, who is a fine grass-courter in his own right, couldn’t make it through a fairly soft draw at the Ricoh Open last week.
Instead, it could be a dangerous floater who gets his hands on the trophy if Murray is eliminated early: Grigor Dimitrov, Jo Wilfried Tsonga, Nick Kyrgios and Steve Johnson are all capable of rising to the challenge, or, for a brave outside bet, the qualifier Denis Shapovalov. From this group, which could be labelled ‘the best of the rest,’ Kyrgios has the potential to do the most damage against the top five seeds. Assuming he plays untroubled by the hip injury that has been a burr under his saddle for the last year or so, Kyrgios can use his unassailable serve and forehand combination to devastating effect. The Canberra native will be incredibly tough to break if his first serve percentage hovers around 65%, which equates to his career average. Kyrgios also possesses an incredibly accurate and penetrating second serve; surely the best seen on the tour since Andy Roddick called it quits. If Roddick could win 4 times at Queen’s with a style of play similar to that of Kyrgios, it is reasonable to think that the world number 20 could be equally as dominant on these hallowed courts; a good week of serving could edge him a quarter of the way toward that goal.
How will things go down in Halle?
The singles draw in Halle is packed with top-tier talent as always, with Roger Federer, Dominic Thiem, Kei Nishikori and Alexander Zverev leading the pack of contenders. Federer is looking to rebound positively from a poor showing in Stuttgart, where he was sent packing by Tommy Haas in front of an adoring home crowd. As the eight-time champion in Halle, it would be unfair for one poor result to negate Federer’s status as tournament favourite, but the 35-year-old knows that he must raise his game this week. Some neutral observers saw Federer’s decision to skip the entirety of the clay season as somewhat dilatory, so he is under increased pressure to do exceptionally well at Halle and Wimbledon, since he took a break primarily to fortify himself for the grass.
Thiem and the younger Zverev have both taken a liking to grass. Zverev is defending a final from last year and has the tools to go one better this time; Thiem, three years Zverev’s senior, also has the versatility in his game needed to succeed on grass, as evidenced by his win in Stuttgart last year. These two could face each other in the semis and the winner of that potential match could go on to win the whole thing, even if he winds up facing Federer in the final.
Another Zverev who should fancy his chances of going deep into the draw at this prestigious event is Mischa Zverev, elder brother of Alexander (or ‘Sascha’). Mischa plays an old school game based on serve and volley, chip and charge and constantly putting the onus on his opponent to produce high quality passing shots. At the age of 29 he is putting together the most fruitful season of his career, due as much to his brother’s surge up the ranks as to his own equable form. The Zverev brothers can compete at a high level on all surfaces, but Mischa is the one who should really come into his own on quicker surfaces. Provided he beats Lukas Lacko as expected, he will most likely play Federer, to whom he lost 6-0, 6-0 at this event in 2013. If he does meet Federer in the round of 16, Zverev will almost certainly give the Swiss a far tougher time than he did four years ago. Whoever prevails in that encounter is in with a shout of reaching the final.
Other players to watch include Lucas Pouille, who is coming off a fine week in Stuttgart and could go far in Halle as well, provided he makes it past Jan-Lennard Struff, the 6’5” German who came within a whisker of ending the Frenchman’s title-run before the quarter-final stage. Pouille is unlikely to produce a repeat performance of Stuttgart but should at least reach the semis. Defending champion Florian Mayer is a long shot for the title and has barely won a match all year. The same goes for Tommy Haas, who loves playing on home soil, but isn’t used to the demands of playing back-to-back weeks. He is pretty much a part-timer these days. Richard Gasquet, Dustin Brown, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Ivo Karlovic and Kei Nishikori are all legitimate threats but might come up short against stronger opposition.
At Queen’s, there are a number of notable absentees among the top 50. Rafael Nadal won’t be in action, as he announced a few days after achieving La Decima. Juan Martin Del Potro will also have to miss out, owing to a groin problem he picked up at the French Open. Britain’s Dan Evans, ranked 50th in the world, recently suffered a calf injury that ruled out the possibility of him competing this week. Pending the outcome of a scan, his participation at Wimbledon is touch and go. Novak Djokovic hasn’t played a Wimbledon tune-up tournament since 2010, but will have to add a new event to his calendar if he accepts a wildcard for Eastbourne. Whatever happens, he won’t be seen at the Queen’s Club or the Gerry Weber Stadion.