Tennis’s grass season is sequestered into a six-week period, immediately after the slow, grinding clay court tournaments. After months of long rallies and high bounces, shots suddenly skid low, points end in a flash, and everyone starts falling down. Until 2001, when Wimbledon changed its seed mixture and slowed down the surface, the grass was even more radical. Now, to many, the grass courts of today signify the death of serve-and-volley — and that they are just glorified hard courts. But this year’s Wimbledon has been a reminder that grass courts are still different enough to set a tournament draw on fire.
The anarchy at Wimbledon this year has been historic and overwhelming. The first round alone saw the losses of pre-tournament favorite and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, 2004 champion Maria Sharapova, sixth seed Caroline Garcia, and fifth seed Elina Svitolina. As journalists and fans grew delirious, the top players continued to fall: defending champion Garbine Muguruza lost in the second round, as did Caroline Wozniacki. One round later, Venus Williams fell and world no. 1 Simona Halep squandered a set lead against unseeded Su-Wei Hsieh. On the men’s side, third and fourth seeds Marin Cilic and Sascha Zverev also lost during the first week. On Monday, Karolina Pliskova was the final top-10 seed to fall. It was the first time all of the top-10 women’s players had lost before the quarterfinals of a major in the open era.
“I still think the top players, their average level is higher than, let’s say, sub-top players,” said Alison Van Uytvanck, conqueror of Muguruza. “But anyone on a good day can beat anyone.”
The common wisdom has been to blame the surface and the uneasiness it imparts. “A clay court and a hard court, it doesn’t feel that different to me,” said Sam Querrey, an American who defeated defending champions Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at Wimbledon in the last two tournaments. (In 2018 he lost in the third round, to Gael Monfils.) “A grass court, you know, it’s very different. … If you don’t play a lot on it, it’s hard to move on it, and it’s just — the game is just a little more uncomfortable out there.” Daria Kasatkina, who reached her first Wimbledon quarterfinal this year before losing to Angelique Kerber, still remembers her first time playing on the grass. “[It] was juniors first round, zero-zero, first step, and first thing I thought? I was like, ‘This is the shittest surface of the century, in the history of tennis.’ It was disgusting and I just couldn’t play.”
Even the successful players are wary of the surface. Kiki Bertens, a clay court specialist who defeated Venus Williams and seventh seed Karolina Pliskova back to back this year, was still plagued by confusion and doubt. “Everyone keeps on telling me [I can play well on grass]. But still I’m not really believing it,” she said. “I’m trying really to believe it. But it’s tough. I still find it tough to believe that I can play really well, to beat the top players. But yeah, today I did.”
But it is possible that the grass chaos is also a preview of the game’s next chapter. The constant question in tennis is what will happen after Roger Federer and Serena Williams — whether tennis’s playing field will become steadily more even, or whether a player with the quality to shake things up and restore order will eventually arrive. “The women are unpredictable, which in a way is exciting for tennis. We all know the story — nobody’s stepped up in place of Serena to be a consistent number one or number two,” said Patrick McEnroe, broadcaster and former player. It might be that consistency in the draw is a thing of a past — and that more tournaments will look like this year’s Wimbledon in the future.
The sight of top female players losing early in majors is not a new concept. Mass upsets and uncertainty have peppered women’s Grand Slam draws for a large part of the 2010s. But in the past, upsets were usually caused by nameless usurpers. This year, many top players were knocked out by underrated, quality opponents. Belinda Bencic and Ekaterina Makarova, conquerors of Garcia and Wozniacki, are former top-10 players; Su-Wei Hsieh’s victory over Simona Halep was her third top-10 win in the last six Slams. “I feel like it’s not a surprise anymore because it’s pretty common now,” said Heather Watson, echoing the bulk of the locker room. “Especially in Grand Slams, I feel like lots of seeds go out early quite often because the depth in women’s tennis is very … deep.”
Vera Zvonareva was once a top player navigating the early-round minefields. She rose to world no. 2 and reached two Slam finals in 2010. While it took Serena Williams just four tournaments to reach her first Slam final since returning from maternity leave, Zvonareva’s road back to the tour after giving birth in 2016 has been far more arduous. The surprising quality of her low-ranked opponents has forced her to work harder in the gym than ever before. She is ranked 142nd in the world.
“I think it has changed a lot for those girls ranked below the top 50. If you take the girl ranked 60 in the world or 300 in the world, you won’t see much difference,” she said. “They all can hit the ball. They all work physically very hard nowadays. You can see them in the gym and trying to improve their game. So, it’s just little things that make the difference.” Zvonareva’s suspicions were confirmed at Wimbledon this year when she rose from qualifying to push finalist Angelique Kerber in one of the highest-quality two-setters of the tournament.
Until a few years ago, women’s tennis was still a haven for precocious teenagers who sped to the top of the rankings at breakneck speed, using lower-ranked players for wins that augmented their confidence and emboldened their instincts. But in recent years, the pool of quality players in the tour has mushroomed; the rankings have become congested; unseeded players are often just top athletes who have experienced a temporary drop in level. Serena Williams, who returned to Wimbledon ranked 181st after her maternity leave, was granted the 25th seeding and has promptly reached the final. Dominika Cibulkova, a former top-five player, was aghast at being pushed out of the seedings by Williams’s promotion. She channeled her anger into reaching her first quarterfinal since 2016. On any given day, nearly any player is capable of playing like a top-tenner.
“Before, I felt like top-20 players could get one, two, or three matches at the Grand Slams quite easy and then the whole story starts,” said Zvonareva, laughing. “[Now], if the top-20 player is not able to perform at their 100 percent in the first match, they may lose to someone ranked 150 in the world. That’s why you always see those upsets because it’s just impossible for players to be at 100 percent every single match, week after week.”
David Taylor, coach of Madison Keys, suggests that the upsets are a result of younger players’ increased confidence. “People used to be scared and now that’s gone. It’s completely gone,” he said. “They walk on and they believe they can beat top-10 players. That’s the biggest change. They’re going to come out swinging.” Nobody exemplifies that chutzpah like Camila Giorgi, who in advance of her quarterfinal match against Serena Williams, refused to directly answer questions about her legendary opponent. When a reporter followed up with another question about Williams’s game, she doubled down: “I don’t follow tennis.” (Giorgi lost the quarterfinal match to Williams in three sets.)
Lower-ranked players are aware that top players now see them as a threat. “There is no fear playing a seed,” said Watson. “I remember watching Sharapova have an interview and she was saying that her first few matches in a tournament she [used to] use as a warmup, but now she has to be 100 percent from her first round. I think [upsets] happen often, so why should you fear who you’re playing against?”
Despite the spectator response, it seems that the players, at least, are not surprised by the number of upsets. “I just think it’s a beautiful sport and gives motivation to lots of people out there to play. … I think it wasn’t like that decades ago. You would have maybe 15, 20 players, but not hundreds of competitive players capable of showing really great tennis,” said Kristina Mladenovic, who broke into the top 10 last year but has already plummeted to 62nd.
As Li Na, the first Asian player to win a singles Slam said with a shrug, “When the tournament starts, no one walking on the court says, ‘OK, I give you a free match.’”
The men’s side has been slightly less chaotic, but there have still been surprising developments: Sixth seed Grigor Dimitrov was defeated by an injury-riddled Stan Wawrinka in the first round; third seed Marin Cilic lost in the second round to Guido Pella; and fourth seed Zverev fell to Ernests Gulbis in the third round. Defending champion and no. 1 seed Roger Federer, who lost to Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals, attributed the depth to the professionalization of tennis training in the mid-2000s. “We have more overall professional tennis players that probably take everything even more serious on a daily basis, whereas maybe before — not that they didn’t take it serious, but probably not like today,” he said. “Didn’t have your own fitness setup, all this stuff, like the whole team, the federations. Everything has become more professional.”
The drawback of that professionalization is that not everyone can partake in the top level of training. Monica Niculescu, ranked 61st in singles and top 20 in doubles, highlighted the financial challenges at hand. “I want my coach, I want my physio, and it’s impossible,” she sighed. “To be able to compete at this high level, we need a physio and need a coach, and we need more.” Ernests Gulbis pointed to the disparity between Wimbledon’s qualifying rounds and official tournament. “Go check the practice courts [at the qualifying] — my lawn in the backyard is better than the practice courts here.” Gulbis argued that only the only thing stopping even more upsets is the disparity between the venues of lower events and the big courts. “If you play against them on a big stage, on a center court where you’re used to, then a guy comes ranked 200 in the world, he’s not used to the big stage, he’s not going to feel in his zone of comfort,” he said. “He’s going to feel in some way maybe nervous. If you go to their turf, to their challenger level, it’s not easy. All the guys can play.”
Patrick McEnroe was skeptical that the top players would fully wrestle control again in the near future. “There’s only one Serena,” he said. “I don’t see anyone else that’s even going to come close to what she’s been able to do. But, then again, maybe there’s a 14–15-year-old after her. We didn’t think that we’d see someone who would break Pete Sampras’s record, but now we have a couple of people that have. You never know, but I think there’ll certainly be a few years where it will be like it has been when Serena hasn’t played.”
For Federer, the pool of competitors will continue to widen. “I think it’s natural,” he said. “Over time, it’s going to get stronger and stronger.” But he also noted that the best would still rise to the top.
At Wimbledon this year, they still did. On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer reached the quarterfinals together for the first time since the 2015 French Open, their dominance contested only by the continuing rise of the giants — 6-foot-8 Kevin Anderson and 6-foot-10 John Isner. Despite the bunches of upsets, the women’s semifinals featured 23-time Slam champion Serena Williams, two-time Slam champion Angelique Kerber, 21-year-old Slam champion Jelena Ostapenko, and Julia Goerges, who made her top-10 debut earlier in the year. Even when the draw is burning, there are enough elite players at the top of the women’s game to douse out the flames.