2017 Mercedes Cup R2 Preview: Steve Johnson vs Philipp Kohlschreiber

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One of the marquee matches of the early rounds at the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart pits American Steve Johnson against German grass master Philipp Kohlschreiber. Kohlschreiber made the final last year and has now tallied 36 of his 53 career wins on grass at the German-based tournaments in Halle and Stuttgart.

(5) Steve Johnson vs Philipp Kohlschreiber

Johnson was challenged in his opener by Maximillian Marter. The homestanding German pushed Johnson to three sets, but the 5th seed prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4. Johnson started slow as he was broken twice in the opening set. After that though, the American settled in and his serve powered him through. After winning just 13 of 23 service points in the opening set, Johnson won 49 of 59 over the final two sets. He did not face another break point.

Kohlschreiber won an abbreviated match to start his Stuttgart campaign. The 33-year-old rolled over Marcos Baghdatis 6-1 in the first set. Baghdatis promptly retired after the set, citing a pinched nerve in his back. Kohlschreiber took advantage of his compromised opponent, stealing 14 points out of the 25 played off Baghdatis’ serve. He would break the Cypriot three times on five chances. Kohlschreiber won ten of eleven points off his first serve, but did struggle some with his second serve. He would win just three of eight points played, but never faced a break point.

First Time Meeting, Grass Plays Well for Both

Johnson and Kohlschreiber will be meeting for the first time when they take the court for second round play at the Mercedes Cup. Kohlschreiber came to Stuttgart having lost four of his last matches since making the final in Casablance on clay. Johnson earned a lot of new fans for his gutsy showing at the French Open as he continues to deal with the sudden loss of his father. The American was visibly overcome with emotion during his matches as he made it to the third round before being eliminated by Dominic Thiem.

Johnson comes into the 2017 grass court swing off his best showing on the surface last season. He went 11-4 and won his first ATP title at Nottingham. He was solid the week prior to that win, making the quarters at Queen’s Club. He beat Richard Gasquet and took Marin Cilic to three sets in a loss. Johnson would cap off the grass season with his best Wimbledon result, a fourth round exit at the hands of Roger Federer. Johnson dumped Grigor Dimitrov out of the tournament in the third round as his highlight for the week.

Kohlschreiber normally comes alive with the switch from clay to grass, mostly for the first tournaments in his home country. Last year, he started in Stuttgart with a finals run that ended with a three set loss to Dominic Thiem. The rest of his grass court season would flame out however as he injured his hip in Halle the week after, forcing him to retire in the quarterfinals. It robbed him of a chance for revenge against Thiem. Kohlschreiber would go down in round one at Wimbledon, which has been a poor tournament for him in recent years despite the success he finds on grass in Germany. Kohlschreiber has lost in round one at Wimbledon three of the last four years since making the quarters in 2012.

Match Tactics

For Johnson, it’s all about the power serve and forehand combination. When he serves well, especially on a slick and fast surface like grass, he’s very difficult to deal with. That’s exactly what we saw after the first set against Marterer. Grass should always play into Johnson’s more aggressive ground game, although players with the proper game plan will still find a way to get the ball back to Johnson’s backhand.

The backhand slice from Johnson can continue to be effective on grass if he hits it into proper positions, but I think Kohlschreiber is comfortable hitting his delicious one-handed backhand off of that shot. That could be a big difference maker for the German. Johnson has shown improved patience on grass from the past in being willing to trade in some of those baseline exchanges with his backhand, until he finds the proper time to unleash his forehand.

For Kohlschreiber, grass is well suited to his game. He has a nifty kick serve that is hard to beat when it’s in rhythm. He’ll need his serve to be on point since Johnson seems to have found his measure after round one. The German though has rarely says he feels outclassed on this surface and he’s competed well and won against players with big serves like the 5th seeded American. Kohlschreiber’s return game has improved over the years and he’s got that underrated one-handed backhand that is a solid weapon for this surface.

I would look for Kohlschreiber to try and attack the backhand side of Johnson when possible with his one hander down-the-line perhaps being a killer shot if he finds the measure. The German also adapts his game to grass well by using the old “chip and charge” tactic at-times. That is something Johnson will need to be prepared for with the American still preferring to play the majority of the points from the baseline, even on grass where that can hurt you against the wrong opponent.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This is a fascinating match-up with Kohlschreiber bringing a strong grass court pedigree and Johnson having proven he can indeed win on this surface, playing his style. I do expect Kohlschreiber to use that chip and charge tactic to test Johnson in this one. Johnson has the wheels to defend that, but is more comfortable away from the net for the most part. This could well come down to a tiebreak or two with Johnson now at 9-6 in breakers this season. It was a big part of what Johnson did right on grass last year, going 9-1 on grass in tiebreaks. Kohlschreiber is 6-11 in tiebreaks this season, dropping each of his last four.

Kohlschreiber is actually the favorite in this match and I think that’s mostly based on his past success on German grass. Based on match-up, this seems much more like a toss-up. Kohlschreiber might have the more complete game for grass, but the serve for Steve Johnson could be the great equalizer in this match. Guys who get into rhythm with big serves have given the German some problems this year and last.

It won’t surprise for Kohlschreiber to continue his glorious grass court record in Germany, but I think if Johnson shows the power and precision on serve that he displayed in the final two sets of round one – he can squeeze this out.

Prediction: Johnson wins in three sets

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