LONDON—It was hard to know what was coming next on Tuesday at Wimbledon, from the matches to the skies. One minute you might look up and see black clouds hovering, the next bright sky for miles. It went from chilly to humid and back again over the course of the afternoon. The same was true of the tennis; with rain yesterday and rain likely tomorrow, the tournament tried to jam 90 first-round matches in on its 18 courts. Every time I looked up at a scoreboard or caught a glimpse of a press room TV monitor, I saw another player whom I had no idea was playing today. Tsonga, Dolgopolov, Sharapova, Kvitova, and a dozen others passed under and around my limited radar. But that still left more than enough to satisfy even the most gluttonous visitor. Here's what I saw on my own narrow, two-eyed passage through the grounds.
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, two names that now go together like a harder-to-pronounce, Franco-American Laurel and Hardy, walk out to Court 3 in the late sunlight at 6:15 P.M. Their names are announced, they’re smiling, they look up to the crowd and begin to wave. But there aren’t many waves back. The bleachers, surprisingly, have swathes of empty seats, many more than there were for the previous match, between David Ferrer and Benoit Paire. The grounds are still packed but the ticket-holders for this court have begun to make their exits. And there is a lot to see elsewhere. “If you want to talk about the atmosphere,” Mahut says later, with decided understatement, “it was not as huge as we were waiting for.”
The first point isn’t promising; Isner’s backhand return bounces off the throat of his racquet and flies straight behind him. The first set proceeds in the way we’ve come to expect from these two. Good serves, missed returns, and, after a hiccup or two, regular holds. The first decisive moment comes in the tiebreaker, when Isner wins two points by moving forward and hitting nice short forehand volleys. Mahut gets the score back from 6-1 to 6-4. He has a good look at a backhand pass, but he sends it well long. The majority of the people still in the stands leave.
It’s a little surreal to see this world-famous happening go on in front of so many empty seats, but as Mahut says afterward, “Everything was different today." He says it was hard to think and hear about this match for three days. The Frenchman fights long enough to save a match point in the third set tiebreaker, but again it’s Isner’s baby forehand volley—he can reach very close to the net with his loing arms—that gets him through.
Isner-Mahut I was all about the purity of the Fight. As Isner said today, “In the future, no one is going to remember who won [last year's] match,” they’re just going to remember the two players doing battle.
What did the sequel tell us? That every event is unique; that, as Mahut puts it, “everything is different.”
“We’ve become very close friends,” the Frenchman adds. What did he say to Isner at the net afterward? "I want to see you in the second week this time."
Four hours earlier, Anastasia Pavyluchenkova’s forehand lands on the baseline. Or does it? It’s impossible to tell, even for someone standing right along that baseline. The moment—ball sailing over the net, ball falling faster than the eye thinks it should, ball landing and kicking forward—happens too quickly for anyone to process. The linesman squints and signals that it was good. Pavlyuchenkova’s opponent, Lesia Tsurenko, points to where she thinks the ball actually landed. The chair umpire points to another spot, on the line. Tsurenko stares at the line, as if the truth will reveal itself in the grass somehow. But it remains hidden. The lawns can keep a secret.
Pavluchenkova and Tsurenko are on Court 4, a small court with no Hawk-Eye available. The area, which once had a set of old stone bleachers and the famous Crow’s Nest scoreboard towering over it, has been remodeled. But Court 4 itself has been left alone. It still serves as an entranceway from the show courts to the smaller older field courts laid out in a compact grid. Pavlyuchenkova has won the first set, but is struggling in the second. Called out by Martina Navratilova for being overweight at the French Open, she does look thinner. She’s hitting the ball with her usual solid wallop, but she’s also throwing in the regular shanks that usually come with those wallops. A quarterfinalist in Paris and former junior No. 1, it’s hard to tell from day to day what her ceiling as a player is. Today she doesn’t look like a future Top 5; Thursday she might. But despite her frequent errors, she doesn’t melt down or begin berating herself. She comes back to win in straights. Not melting down—that’s as good a start as any.
In the middle of the second set, Pavlyuchenkova questions a close call on the service line after missing a return. A few points later, another serve lands in exactly the same spot. This time she gets the out call. It’s impossible to tell which call was correct, if either. Arguing, it seems, can help.
Serena Williams walks back onto Centre Court with a toned-down look, with her hair dark and braided simply. Career No. 4, 5, 6—who knows what number this is for her—has begun. She loses the first two games but comes back to win the first set. At the start of the second, her opponent, Aravane Rezai, smokes an ace down the T. There’s no way Serena, even if she had anticipated the placement, could have reached it. Nevertheless, she stands and looks across the net in anger and disbelief, anger and disbelief that any player could put a ball past her. That disbelief, irrational disbelief, is, more than anything else, what has separated her from everyone else in the past. She should be OK in career 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 20, as long as she keeps sending that look across the net.
Russian veteran Nikolay Davydenko is playing on Court 14. He’s not playing well; he had to fly to Moscow before he got here, to renew a visa, and arrived at Wimbledon late. Whatever the reason, he’s a long way from the days, not all that long ago, when he was seen as a near-favorite to win the Australian Open.
At the same time, Davydenko has never looked as smooth, at least to me, in his movement or his strokes. Is it the white clothes of Wimbledon that create this effect? Because they emphasize the player rather than the fashion? Or maybe it’s the Wimbledon grass below him, which makes a lot of shots look more elegant than they would elsewhere. It must, in the end, be the idea of Wimbledon and its tradition, rather than anything intrinsic in the color of the clothes or the texture of the court, that produces this effect. If tennis players had worn, say, all blue since the sport's beginnings, would Davydenko’s strokes look their best when he wears blue?
As smooth as the old guy looks, the real story of this match is Davydenko’s young opponent, Bernard Tomic. From the start, the Aussie problem child appears more focused, serious, and purposeful than I’ve ever seen him look in the past. He doesn’t force the issue in rallies, yet he controls them. Best are his passes and lobs; Tomic has that uncanny ability of the truly talented tennis player, to "hold" the ball on his strings, like someone buttering toast. On match point, Davydenko approaches the net and Tomic sends the most delicate lob imaginable up and over him. The ball lands just beyond the service line and many feet insdie the baseline, but the Russian is still nowhere near it. From the way Tomic hit the shot, you know that’s exactly where he wanted it to land.
Tomic is a tennis natural. Is he a natural athlete? And which is more important these days? We’ll find out.
It’s windy on Court 6, down in the side-court garden, where there’s nothing to block the gusts. So windy that Xavier Malisse’s first three shots, which he tries to hit right down the middle, curl wide. Malisse and his opponent change sides. His first two returns swerve wide of the doubles alley again. After the second one, he looks up at the chair umpire and shows him with his arms how the balls keep moving out. The umpire shrugs, as if to say, “What do you want me to do about it?”
It’s the fifth set between Fernando Verdasco and Radek Stepanek on Court 2. Their rooting sections are right next to each other, separated by a thin aisle. Each group leans forward, and each player looks to them often, especially after they lose points. Stepanek typically sticks his tongue out sourly, like a child. Verdasco lifts his arms out to his sides in exasperation, like a child. The Spaniard’s team nods and pumps their fists in encouragement. Stepanek’s wife, Nicole Vaidisova, waits until he looks away and then shakes her head as if to say, “What is he doing out there?”
Late in the match, Verdasco reacts angrily to what he thinks is a bad call at the baseline. He challenges, but it turns out he’s wrong, the ball was on the line. After the shot is replayed and Verdasco has been silenced, umpire Pascal Maria looks over and gives the linesperson a wink—"we had it all along."
On Court 3, Benoit Paire of France has challenged a call. He stands with his hands on his hips as the replay begins. When it shows that the call was correct and that he lost the point, he slams his racquet to the court. An unusually delayed reaction to a lost point.
Later, Paire yells “M---e!” (French for "s—t!"). The crowd laughs. The chair umpire, our old friend Louise Engzell, hesitates, then finally says, “Audible obscenity, Mr. Paire, warning.” Paire throws his hands up, then turns around and laughs with his team in the stands.
The sun is fading by 8:00 and it’s getting chilly. But the garden courts are still filled up with matches and the stands between them are filled up with fans. In the middle of this commotion, two players of the next generation, Ryan Harrison and Grigor Dimitrov, play on adjoining courts. It’s a pleasure to turn from one court to the other after each point. Wimbledon is a sea of green and gold at this hour, and you feel like, if things go right, you might be getting an early look at the next Federer and Roddick.
But even if they don’t go right, it doesn’t matter for this afternoon. A long day at Wimbledon, one of thousands that have transpired on these same grounds over the decades, is winding down with a showcase of two more young tennis players who are trying to work their way up the ladder. They're putting in the hard, late hours on distracting side courts in the same place where hundreds of other future champions have put in their own hard, late hours as teenagers.
At one point, Dimitrov, not unlike a young Federer, hits a towering shank forehand that arcs upward. All of us look up to follow it as it lands in Harrison’s court. Harrison picks it up and calls out, “Grigor.” Dimitrov, leaning down to return serve, looks over and says, in an exaggerated American accent, “Thanks, bro.”
Soon after, the day is over for me. But not for Wimbledon. Walking back to the press room, I hear a roar from a far side court. I have no idea what has happened, but I’d love to be out there to find out. There’s no chance, though. Sometimes you have to face it: You can’t see it all.
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