Four eras can be singled out when outlining the evolution of the materials used for tennis racquets’ strings:
– 1875-1945: natural sheep gut
– 1950-1997: natural cow casing
– 1975: synthetic materials (to this day)
– 1984: hybrid materials (to this day).
The changes in materials for the production of tennis strings were mostly driven by cost minimization strategies. After World War II there was a shortage of sheep, so from the 1950s onwards cow guts were used, leading to the implementation of black strings as well. But it is from the second half of the 1970s that manufacturers started to employ synthetic materials in the construction of strings, always with the aim of reducing costs and increasing the life of the string itself. Since then, primary materials such as polyester, kevlar, zyex, ventran, polyurethane or nylon (or a combination of these) have been used to experiment with new ways to improve string performances. Among these, nylon is the most common, but polyester is also used frequently to increase the duration of the strings. Synthetic strings can be created using a single solid strand or hundreds of small strands.
Since the beginning of the 1980s, thanks to the growth in popularity of the game, manufacturers began to experiment with the physics behind the game and to look for the optimum string tensions that would allow for the improvement of a player’s performance. At the 1997 French Open, a stringing revolution occurred: a relatively unknown Brazilian, Gustavo Kuerten, won the first of his three Parisian titles with a brand-new product fitted to his Head racquet: a Luxilon polyester string made in Belgium. The stiffer string gave Kuerten more control and, therefore, enabled him to produce more topspin. Polyester may have started a sudden and dramatic relinquish of natural gut, but more recently gut and polyester have found a way to coexist. Hybrid strings, where the horizontal strings feature one type of material and the vertical strings another, offers players better balance between control and power. High-level players, such as Federer, mostly use hybrid strings. Although we do not know what the material of the future will be, we believe that producers will have to respond to new challenges, especially on an environmental level. The first one consists of the maturing of a vegan conscience among the public but also among some players who realise that animal slaughter is unnecessary, since their needs can be satisfied by synthetic options. The second one is given by the use of recyclable materials in the perspective of a circular economy, which aims to reduce both waste and ultimately the amount of it that is to be incinerated. What is certain is that, at the professional tennis level, top players on the tennis stage will try to find the next “Kuerten effect” in order to gain a competitive edge.
The role of professional stringers
If “ski-men” and bicycle mechanics are the professional figures in charge of the maintenance and fine configuration of racing skis and bicycles, tennis finds an equivalent figure in professional stringers who are dedicated to the fine tuning of the strings of a racquet.
But how much does it cost to string a tennis racquet for a regular club player? According to a research carried out by tennisgems.com on US soil, the average total cost is between 20 and 40 dollars, with average strings cost ranging from 10 to 20 dollars, while the average cost of labour is between 10 and 20 as well. According to another research conducted among different suppliers by racketstringers.com in Europe, on average one would have to pay €15 for the strings and €12.50 for the cost of labour. Therefore, the total mean cost of stringing a racquet should be around €27.50.
The cost of the strings depends on a variety of factors such as the brand and material. The average expenditures outlined above seem fair for club players looking for reliable strings. Some more money could be saved by getting them online: indeed, the doxa is that the prices of sporting goods stores are generally higher, since these have fixed costs, such as the rent, which need to be offset. Small independent stringers and amateurs obviously don’t have these costs. Local club coaches and non-professional stringers often start stringing racquets mainly for passion, interest in a small business, or to save money on stringing costs for their own racquets. Then they typically offer their services to family, friends, and other club members. These people entrust their racquets to them because in the meantime a relationship based on trust has been nurtured – the added benefit is that they can also save time and money compared to sporting goods stores. Since amateur stringers consider it a hobby at this stage, prices are generally lower, as their main purpose is to retain their stringing machines and buy new strings for themselves. Due to their passion and low prices, interest in their services can grow rapidly. They will therefore face the question: continue stringing as a hobby or offer a professional service? That must have been what prompted Nate Ferguson to become a professional stringer. In 1998, he created Priority One, a company that had the opportunity to work exclusively with Pete Sampras, after Nate had customized his racquets for the previous eight years. Nowadays, this boutique firm offers its racquet “fine tuning” services to a small group of élite male players, including Djokovic, Federer (a client since 2004), Wawrinka, Murray, Raonic and Isner, to name a few. The goal of the company is to provide assistance to the four Grand Slam tournaments and top-tier events on the ATP tour.
What are the normal stringing costs for ATP Tournaments?
When it comes to stringing services, most ATP players use local stringers made available by tournaments, who charge a nominal fee for stringing the racquet (up to a maximum of US$ 20/€ 20 per racquet). While this may be more than enough for the vast majority of pros, we’ve seen that a select group of players leave nothing to chance and want the same stringing week after week – how much do they spend for these personal services?
During the 2019 Swiss Indoors in Basel, Swiss TV channel SRF spoke to Priority One’s Ron Yu (during the pandemic, the New York Times wrote an article about him) who revealed that Federer’s service package costs US$ 40,000 per year. This hefty fee covers the four Grand Slam events, the Masters 1000 and some ATP 500 events that the Swiss regularly plays such as Dubai, Halle and Basel itself. Knowing that Federer has played 17 tournaments in 2019 (excluding the Laver Cup), this equates to US$ 2,353 per tournament. Looking at the percentage of the prize pool, Federer earned 8,716,975 dollars in 2019, which means he spent 0.5% of his earnings on stringing. Considering that Federer played 63 matches during the 2019 season (53 wins) and that he uses a set of nine racquets per match, it is easy to calculate the stringing costs during a tournament:
40.000: 63: 9 ~ 70,55 US$
The cost per racket strung during a tournament would thus seem cheap for a player of this level. It is not entirely clear, however, if other services or bonuses are paid for separately and what is included in the package.
Other customers, like Tsonga, spent 3.7% of the prize money earned during 2019 on stringing, while Raonic spent 3.1%. However, both players earned over 1 million dollars, an above-average bounty.
In conclusion, we can observe how synthetic materials have increased the duration of the strings of tennis racquets, allowing a greater number of people to be able to play tennis. So far, the changes in the materials of the strings have been mainly promoted for reasons related to the minimization of production costs and the search for an improvement in performances. However, the author of this article believes that the future innovation drives will come from factors linked to environmental preservation, a cause already promoted today by important players of the tennis tour. As for the job of the professional stringer, since tennis is a top-down sport, where the unequal distribution of wealth obeys meritocratic logic, it is conceivable that even these figures and their firm boutiques will survive, as long as they are not replaced by cheaper, ground-breaking robotic machines.
Written and translated by Andrea Canella; edited by Tommaso Villa
What Stefanos Tsitsipas’ Monte Carlo Win Tells Us About The Upcoming Clay Season
The Greek produced some brilliant tennis in Monte Carlo and also had some luck on his side. The question is how will Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and others respond over the coming weeks ahead of the French Open?
The 2021 clay court campaign was officially launched last week at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, and surprisingly the greatest clay court player in the history of the game did not win this prestigious tournament. Rafael Nadal was upended 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 by the Russian powerhouse Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. To be sure, the Spaniard was far from his zenith, playing abysmally at times, serving no fewer than five double faults in a nightmarish opening set, fighting himself as well as an inspired opponent who was potent, unrelenting and patient.
Nadal’s departure virtually ensured a final round clash between Rublev and the Greek stylist Stefanos Tsitsipas, and that is exactly what transpired. Tsitsipas glided through the week without ever being stretched to his physical limits, conceding only 28 games in five matches, performing with both verve and consistency. This highly charged individual kept his emotions under control and clearly enjoyed his tennis over the course of the week, putting on one remarkable shotmaking display after another.
He was not only good and perhaps great, but also lucky. Removed from the Greek’s potential semifinal path was none other than Novak Djokovic, who had not yet lost in 2021. Djokovic was not the favorite in Monte Carlo because only Nadal could wear that label on the red clay, but the Serbian was looking at the very least for a good run. Like Nadal, he was playing his first tournament since the Australian Open, and the long layoff was not beneficial.
Djokovic did play a solid and disciplined match in his initial appearance after a first round bye, colliding with the enormously promising Jannik Sinner in the second round. Sinner had come off his first final round showing at a Masters 1000 event in Miami, and Djokovic clearly took his contest with the 19-year-old Italian upstart very seriously. He clipped Sinner 6-4, 6-2 with a first rate performance. His defense was especially impressive. The soon-to-be 34-year-old frustrated Sinner time and again with his anticipation, wing span, uncanny ball control and a cluster of backhand drop shots that were all highly effective. He treated that match like a big semifinal or final.
Yet Djokovic was in an entirely different frame of mind when he took the court to face Dan Evans in the round of 16. He had never played Evans before. Perhaps his unfamiliarity with the British player’s game was detrimental to Djokovic on this occasion, but the fact remains that his duel with Sinner was also a first time meeting. Djokovic seemed devoid of his usual intensity and purpose against Evans. He was not bearing down on the big points. Evans was beating him to the tactical punch. Moreover, Djokovic was defeating himself with far too many unprovoked mistakes. Before he knew it, Djokovic was down two service breaks in the opening set, trailing 3-0, looking listless and somewhat dazed.
He managed to bounce back to 4–4, only to drop two games in a row to lose the set. In the second set, Djokovic led 3-0 but was still not really finding the range off the ground and failing to locate his serve with the precision he needed. A wily Evans rallied to reach 4-4 but Djokovic had a set point with the British player serving in the tenth game. That point symbolized his uneven performance that day; Djokovic was set up for a routine backhand and drove his two-hander inexplicably into the net. Evans stopped Djokovic 6-4, 7-5.
The British competitor then accounted for David Goffin in the quarterfinals, but Tsitsipas picked him apart ruthlessly 6-2, 6-1 in the semifinals. Rublev had a much tougher road to the final. He narrowly moved past the ever tenacious workhorse Roberto Bautista Agut in a three set, round of 16 encounter that set the stage for his battle with Nadal. Rublev exploited Nadal’s serving woes in the first set and took it easily before moving in front 3-1 and 4-2 in the second. He had break points in both the fifth and seventh games, but could not convert as a bold Nadal would not buckle under pressure.
On a run of four games in a row, Nadal took the match into a third set, but Rublev stood his ground commendably and came away with a 6-2 4-6, 6-2 triumph, breaking Nadal three times in the opening set and three more times in the third. Then Rublev halted Casper Ruud in straight sets for a place in the final.
On paper, the Tsitsipas-Rublev title round contest seemed certain to be a hard fought and close battle. They had split six prior head to head appointments. But Rublev was seemingly spent after a hard week’s work while Tsitsipas was fresh, confident and in utter control from the baseline with his much greater variety of shots. Tsitsipas deservedly ousted a somber and below par Rublev 6-3, 6-3.
So how are we to interpret what happened in Monte Carlo in terms of what to expect from this juncture forward on the clay as the players look to peak at Roland Garros? Let’s start with Tsitsipas. There is no doubt that he had a terrific week and this important triumph was in many ways long overdue. Back in 2018, he was the runner-up to Nadal at the Masters 1000 tournament in Canada, upending Djokovic for the first time along the way. That was only his seventh Masters 1000 tournament appearance and he sparkled all week on the hard courts. In Madrid the following year, Tsitsipas stunned Nadal on the clay in the semifinals before losing the final to Djokovic. At the end of that memorable 2019 season, Tsitsipas captured the biggest title of his career at the ATP Finals in London.
Last year, as the pandemic disrupted the world, Tsitsipas only had the opportunity to play three Masters 1000 events and his best showing was a semifinal appearance in Cincinnati. We must remember that he has been a consistent danger to everyone at the Grand Slam tournaments as well, reaching his first major semifinal at the Australian Open in 2019, ousting Federer in Melbourne before losing to Nadal. Last year at Roland Garros, Tsitsipas was a force again, cutting down Rublev, reaching the semifinals and taking Djokovic to five sets. And just a few months ago in Melbourne, Tsitsipas made it to his second Australian and third Grand Slam tournament semifinal, bowing out there against Daniil Medvedev.
And so, ever since 2018, Tsitsipas has shown over and over again that he is a player built for big occasions and eager to put himself on the line against the best players in the world. This win in Monte Carlo is no guarantee that he will be around for the latter stages of Roland Garros 2021, but the view here is that he is a superb all surface practitioner who can play top of the line tennis anywhere he wants. No matter how he performs between now and the start of Roland Garros at the end of May, by virtue of his Monte Carlo breakthrough victory at a Masters 1000 event Tsitsipas has positioned himself as a very serious contender in Paris. He will have the belief that his chances are as good as anyone’s outside of Nadal and perhaps Djokovic.
How should the other leading candidates be assessed as Monte Carlo fades into the background and the other clay court tournaments unfold? I don’t believe Nadal will be down in the dumps after his loss to Rublev. He knows it was one of those days when he came upon an opponent bludgeoning the ball ferociously on an evening when the air was cool and the wind was burdensome. Nadal can handle swirling winds as well as anyone in tennis, but the colder air hindered him considerably and took the “hop” out of his signature forehand. He could not make Rublev play enough shots from up above his shoulders.
This week, Nadal is the top seed back home in Barcelona. I fully expect him to be the victor at one of his favorite tournaments for the twelfth time. Rublev and Tsitsipas are both entered in the Spanish tournament as well, and could meet in the penultimate round. Nadal’s draw leads me to believe he can’t lose in Barcelona prior to the final. Moreover, having just come off a loss in Monte Carlo, Nadal would be awfully eager to either avenge his loss to Rublev in Monte Carlo or strike back at Tsitsipas, who surprised the Spaniard in a five set quarterfinal at the Australian Open. Nadal was up two sets to love in that skirmish and lost from that position for only the third time in his illustrious career. Roger Federer rallied from two sets down to overcome Nadal in a scintillating 2005 Miami final, and a madly inspired Fabio Fognini did the same thing to Nadal under the lights at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Djokovic is also back in action this week at the ATP 250 event in Belgrade. Performing in front of his home fans should inspire Djokovic to make amends for Monte Carlo and perhaps come away with his 83d career title on the ATP Tour. There will be some formidable players in Belgrade joining Djokovic, including Australian Open semifinalist Aslan Karatsev, the surging American Sebastian Korda and the Italian No. 1 Matteo Berrettini. The field is reasonably strong, but Djokovic surely has a significant opportunity to take the title and ignite his clay court campaign.
Originally, Dominic Thiem was supposed to be in Belgrade but he pulled out. The Austrian will wait for the Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome to perform on the clay after a disconcerting start to 2021. Having claimed his first major at the U.S. Open last September before suffering a hard fought loss to Medvedev in the final of the ATP Finals a few months later, Thiem seemed certain to be pushing hard to supplant Djokovic and Nadal at the top in the ATP Rankings.
But he commenced 2021 dismally. After a 6-4, 6-4, 6-0 round of 16 defeat at the hands of Grigor Dimitrov at the Australian Open when he was apparently dealing with an injury, Thiem won only one match combined in Doha and Dubai. He has not played since. His match record for the season is 5-4. And so how he fares in Madrid and Rome en route to Roland Garros could be critical to his fortunes for the rest of the year. Of his 17 career ATP singles crowns, ten have been on clay. Moreover, the big hitting and industrious Austrian has been in two French Open finals. But now he seems to be struggling immensely with his confidence. He is clearly at an emotional crossroads.
I must reaffirm my feeling that Nadal will be the victor in Barcelona and Djokovic will be the champion in Belgrade. The leading players will then have a week off before heading to Barcelona and Rome. Those will be fascinating clay court festivals. I believe Tsitsipas will make a strong bid to win one of those titles, as will Rublev. In that crucial two week stretch, Sascha Zverev will prove once more how capable he is on the clay. The German won his first Masters 1000 title on clay in Rome four years ago. He will be in the thick of things again this year in both Madrid and Rome.
Thiem will make his presence known significantly in at least one of those tournaments. But what are we to make of Medvedev? All ten of his career titles have been secured on hard courts; he has yet to win a clay court tournament. Moreover, he had to pull out of Monte Carlo with COVID-19. Perhaps the world No. 2 will be back next month to compete favorably on the clay, but it is doubtful that he will be at peak efficiency.
Nadal has always had issues with the altitude in Madrid. It is surely his least favorite of all the important clay court events. He has won Monte Carlo and Barcelona eleven times each, and Rome nine times. Across his sterling career, he has taken 60 of his 86 career titles on the clay (producing an astounding 447-41 match record), including an unimaginable thirteen French Opens. But he has won Madrid only four times on clay (adding one more title in that town indoors on hard courts). So I am picking someone else to be victorious in Madrid this time around. It may come down to Djokovic, Zverev and Thiem as the three main contenders. Sinner will be in the mix as well.
Rome? Although Djokovic took his fifth title there last year, I am looking for Nadal to claim his tenth title this year. Meanwhile, Roger Federer is returning to the clay in Geneva for the ATP 250 event the week after Rome, followed by his 19th appearance at Roland Garros. The 2009 French Open champion is surely not going to secure a second title this year. But Federer loves playing at Roland Garros. He can reach the second week with the right kind of draw, but will likely lose either in the round of 16 or quarterfinals, with an outside chance to make the semifinals.
That is as far as I will go with my Roland Garros projections. I want to see how the top players fare in Madrid and Rome before making any serious predictions for Paris. In the mean time, I can’t wait to watch what transpires over the next month as the leading competitors go into head to head combat on a surface which brings out the best and most artistic tennis from many in the upper regions of the sport. This is when it all comes alive in the world of tennis.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
No Questions For Hurkacz: Who Is To blame? Fans Blast Reporters, But Is It Really Them?
Hubert Hurkacz goes to the interview room but nobody is connected. A social media storm ensues, but not many people know how things really work
Among the funny videos published by Tennis TV last Tuesday on their social media accounts, there is some footage from Hubert Hurkacz’s press conference after his successful debut in Monte Carlo against Italian qualifier Thomas Fabbiano.
No journalist was connected with the press conference (let’s remind everyone that even the few journalists present onsite in Montecarlo are required to use video conferencing to talk to players, due to the ATP’s COVID-19 protocol), nobody asked questions to the Miami Open champion, who was able to fulfill his press obligations in less than a minute recording a vocal message in his native language for the Polish press.
The ATP did not appreciate having to submit the player to a press conference where no questions were asked, especially because it happened twice on the same day: Dusan Lajovic, too, was taken to the interview room after his defeat against Daniel Evans, but no questions were asked.
And it almost happened the same also to Fabio Fognini: at the start of his press conference, only Ubaldo Scanagatta and Alessandro Stella from Ubitennis were connected online. As some of you may know, Fognini does not talk to Ubitennis and has been doing so for several years, but in order to avoid another debacle, the ATP moderator invited Ubaldo to ask a question and Fognini felt compelled to respond.
Of course, social media users were quick to blame the accredited media addressing all sort of insults towards those journalists present in Montecarlo (although very few were actually present at the Country Club, but not many people knew that) who they believed were guilty of snubbing Hurkacz’ press conference, probably because they were not very familiar with press conference procedures.
Before I move on to explain what has happened, just a few words from me: I have not decided to write this piece as a justification for journalists, neither to complain about the problems we face while doing our job. Nobody is forcing me to do what I do, I’m here by choice and I am happy to do what I do, but I would like to explain that sometimes things are not as black-or-white as they may appear at first.
Every media accredited to a tournament is entitled to request an interview with a player on a day when this player is scheduled to compete: the request has to be submitted in writing to the ATP Communication Manager in charge, normally by email, as early as possible during the day. It has to be specified when we want to talk to the player (normally, after their match, or their last match if they play more than one), if we are requesting a one-on-one interview or a press conference for multiple media to attend, and if we want to talk to the player regardless of the result of the match or only if they win.
Evidently, someone had requested to talk to Hurkacz, but then decided not to take part in the press conference. This should not happen, but let’s see how events may have unfolded.
Usually, at the end of the match, an ATP Communication Manager approaches the player, explains to him (or her, in case of WTA tournaments) the requests that have been received and agrees on a time for the media commitments. In case journalists are present on-site, a public announcement is made in the media room about the agreed time for the interview or press conference; since now most reporters are working remotely from home, there is a WhatsApp chat where all the interview times are noted, and a reminder is sent right before the player walks into the interview room.
In this case, no announcement for the time of the interview had been made, and the only message sent on the chat was the one advising that Hurkacz had already arrived in the interview room.
Since last year, all of us who cover tournaments year-round have had to get accustomed to a new way of working, as did many other workers all over the world. While we are present onsite at a tournament, we live and breathe the event, we spend hours and hours in the media room and we are totally absorbed by the tournament. Now that we are watching matches on TV and we work remotely from home, the full immersion effect has gone, and we all need to balance the coverage of tournaments with the tasks of our everyday life. For example, at tournaments journalists can usually avail of a cafeteria to have their meals; at home, I don’t have a cafeteria, if I want to eat, I need to cook my meals myself, and sometimes also go to the supermarket to get groceries. This requires time, and in tournaments where matches start at 11 a.m. and go on until way past midnight (like the Miami Open, for example), this means we sometimes have to find some time to get away from the PC and attend the more mundane tasks of everyday life.
Not receiving any kind of forewarning of when a press conference may take place is incredibly inconvenient, because it does not allow us to plan our work and schedule the breaks to take care of everything else, from doing laundry to walking the dog. Especially because or job is not just attending press conferences, it’s also writing or talking about them, and, from time to time, if possible, watch some tennis matches.
Most certainly whoever had requested the player and then realized they would not be able to attend the press conference, should have contacted one of the ATP Communication Managers to let them know. Maybe there was an emergency and they could not send a message in time, but it’s really good practice to do that. When covering tournaments onsite, we would need to be present “in the flesh” for the interviews we had requested, and if it so happened that we were stuck on a court attending another match, we would normally go out of our way to notify the Communication Managers of our delay. In today’s environment, there may be other mishaps occurring: a sudden call from the boss, a last-minute deadline popping up: this is our job after all.
Some of you may say: but why don’t you take shifts as it happens in many jobs that require extended duty hours? Yes and no. First of all, it’s not that easy to plan shifts not knowing when matches start or end (and interview times are tied to when matches end), with possibly some rain delay thrown into the mix as well. But there are also external problems: not every person in our (virtual) newsroom has access to virtual interviews or to the WhatsApp chat. Tournaments can decide whom to admit at their discretion, and as far as the Rolex Montecarlo Open is concerned, our deputy editor Alessandro Stella, the only representative for Ubitennis in addition to our CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta , was refused accreditation for this year’s tournament because priority had to be given to French or Monaco media.
Ubaldo, who has probably spent as much time at the Monte Carlo Country Club as the custodian, received his confirmation letter just the week before the tournament, and it was only his insistence on being able to delegate some of his staff to attend press conferences that allowed Alessandro Stella to gain access to the virtual interview room. At the beginning of the season, the ITWA (International Tennis Writers Association) requested that generic credentials be given to specific news outlets instead of specific people, in order to allow more flexibility in covering the event, but the request was rejected and referred to the individual tournaments’ discretion.
Therefore, Ubitennis was refused access for lack of space (virtual space, that is), despite the site can boast over 40 million page views a year, it’s comfortably the most important tennis website in Italy (or possibly Europe) and on a “normal” year approximately 35% of spectators for the tournament would come from Italy, to the extent that a launch press conference for the tournament dedicated to Italian media is held each October in Milan. What I am trying to say is that if access is being so constrained, you can’t really complain too much if there aren’t enough people to ask questions at all press conferences, especially during a very busy Tuesday when, due to the rain cancellations on Monday, there were many matches taking place at the same time.
That goes to say that there have certainly been responsibilities on both sides for the mishap at Hurkacz’ (and I’m guessing also Lajovic’s) interview, but maybe there was no need to give so much visibility to a fairly innocuous incident. We are all working in a new environment, we are all adjusting and we can all make mistakes. What is important is that we evaluate those mistakes with the right attitude.
Naomi Osaka And The (Other) Surfaces
Just 23, Osaka already boasts four Slam titles – all of them, however, have come on hardcourt’s. How far can she go on clay and grass?
With her win at the 2021 Australian Open, Naomi Osaka has won the fourth Grand Slam title of her career and separated herself, Slam-wise, from all active tennis players but the Williams sisters and Kim Clijsters (if we consider Kim as an active player). Actually, only four players have won more Majors than Naomi in the 21st century: Serena, Venus, Justine Henin, and Maria Sharapova.
It should be considered that Osaka is only 23 years old (she was born in October 1997), and therefore it is not unthinkable that she could increase the tally. In terms of the age of the fourth title, once again only the Williams sisters have a clear advantage over her – Henin is only slightly ahead, while Sharapova’s performance lags far behind. In fact, if I have not miscalculated, this is the age when the aforementioned players reached the fourth Grand Slam win: Serena won the fourth title at 20 years and 11 months, Venus at 21 years and 4 months, Henin at exactly 23 years. Then we have Osaka (23 years and 5 months). Sharapova notched her fourth Grand Slam title aged 25 years and 1 month, while Clijsters at 27 years and 8 months.
In short, Osaka is building an exceptional career for herself, albeit with some limitations to consider. The first is that, in spite of her success at the Majors, she has won “just” three more WTA titles: Indian Wells 2018, Beijing 2019 (both of them Premier Mandatory events), and Tokyo 2019 (a Premier tournament). For this reason, up to now, she’s led the world rankings for just a few weeks, 25 in total. In essence, Osaka has been had rather short peaks – using a cliché, it could be said that she chooses quality over quantity.
The most relevant nugget of information, however, is the distribution of the surfaces on which she’s won: every single one of her wins have occurred on hardcourts. Even taking into consideration the tournaments in which she’s reached the final without winning (Tokyo 2016, Tokyo 2018, Cincinnati/New York 2020), the surface is always the same.
This fact is even more striking when we widen our focus a little and take into consideration the percentage of victories on the major circuit (WTA tournaments, Slams, Billie Jean King Cup). Before Miami, Osaka had won 173 matches and lost 88, as follows:
- 69.4% on hard (136 won/60 lost)
- 59.5% on red and green clay (25 won/17 lost)
- 52.2% on grass (12 won/11 lost)
Basically, from whichever point you look at it, the situation appears clear and unambiguous: Naomi’s performance changes, and a lot, depending on the surface. Why? Since this trend has emerged for a number of years, the explanation I gave myself has to do with her training as a young girl. In fact, Osaka did not undertake the classic path of a junior player, travelling the world with a schedule that, at least for the Grand Slams, follows that of the professionals. Instead, Naomi grew up without playing junior tournaments, transitioning directly into the ITF circuit and mostly on American soil. This means that, compared to her opponents, she never played that much on grass and clay.
A few weeks ago, she confirmed it herself in the press conference that was held after her victory at the Australian Open. She was asked: “You have won four Grand Slams on hardcourts. Which will be the first outside [these surfaces], clay or grass?” Naomi initially replied with a joke: “I hope on clay, because it comes first!”
But then she delved more extensively into her training regime and said that in 2019 she began to feel better on clay, while she still believes she has very little experience on grass. The numbers seem to confirm this, even if she did play a couple of ITFs on grass in Japan when she was very young; in 2015, she reached the final in the 50k event in Surbiton, losing to Diatchenko in a tournament that featured Hsieh, Kontaveit, Cetkovska, Minella, Paszek and Buzarnescu.
Anyway, we are talking about very few matches. It is inevitable, therefore, to ask whether Osaka will be able to overcome the difficulties she has had on clay and grass in order to transform herself into a more complete player, perhaps so complete as to be able to win the European Grand Slams. Before addressing the issue, I think it is useful to consider some players with similar situations and look at how things went for them.
On page 2, how other top players fared on their least favourite surfaces
Former Sampras And Federer Coach Offers Advice To Dominic Thiem
Elina Svitolina edges Angelique Kerber to move into the quarter finals at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart
‘It’s Just A Number’ – Jannik Sinner Downplays Significance Of Cracking Top 20
Rafael Nadal Goes The Full Distance To Beat Nishikori And Reach Barcelona Quarter-Finals
Simona Halep moves into the quarter final in Stuttgart
(EXCLUSIVE) Q&A With Daria Abramowicz – The Psychologist Behind Iga Switek’s Historic French Open Run
Naomi Osaka And The (Other) Surfaces
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