Around the Olympics: Day 1

by: Peter Bodo | July 28, 2012

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2012_07_28_swby Pete Bodo

As the Olympic tennis event began today, the panaromic view of Wimbledon's field courts, with the stadium in the distance, reminded me of one of those old and to me always stupendously uninteresting prints of Victorian gentlemen and women at play at the country club. The courts seemed to stretch away forever, with scant few people scampering around on them, and clutches of idlers watching from the sidelines. I could almost visualize a lady with a parasol, sipping tea in the shade of an elm. 

In other words, it sure looked different from the crowded and energized Wimbledon most of us know. That the most striking difference, to me at least, was all that empty space and the thinness of the crowd—despite the flash mob that gathered on Henman Hill to perform some orchestrated dance moves while Tomas Berdych was getting whipped by Steve Darcis. That the mobsters were able to coordinate the dance was more impressive than the show itself.

My other impressions were that the purple bunting draped everywhere around Wimbledon (to identify the site and ongoing event as part of the London Olympic Games) took away, a lot, from the familiar, classy ambiance of Wimbledon. Or maybe I'm just mired in old habits and addicted to the familiar. I also felt that jettisoning the predominantly-white rule for this nine-day spell may demonstrate more than anything the value and wisdom of that fusty old dress code. I missed the elegance of white clothes against the warring shades of green (pale, lime green courts and dark, almost black windscreens and walls). I always felt that looked especially good in the overall Wimbledon color scheme.

So much for first reactions. Now let's get on with the wrap-up of Day 1. We decided to go with the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down approach we often take on our typical Around the World entries that run most Mondays. But over the course of the next few days, all the posts here will be like this one, simply because of the bewildering number of matches going, on at least through these early rounds of singles and doubles. I'm going to make observations and cherry-pick the results in posts that will appear no later than 7 p.m. most days. So let's get going:

ThumbsupSerbia's Ana Ivanovic has been through a lot in recent years (has there ever been a more "one step forward, two steps back" comeback than the one this diligent and pleasant pro has undertaken since her fall from grace in 2006?). Thus, the former French Open champ and one-time No. 1's first-round match against up-and-coming Christina McHale of the USA must have raised red flags all over the place. And when McHale battled back from 4-6, 3-5 in the second to break Ivanovic, it looked as if McHale's considerable competitive instincts might kick in and combine with Ivanovic's tendency to lose confidence to ensure a third set.

But after a pair of holds, Ivanovic played a crisp game to break McHale and win it, 6-4, 7-5. It was still early in the day at Wimbledon, but considerable air went out of the American balloon with this loss, because Ryan Harrrison had already kicked off the American singles effort with a poor performance. He lost to No. 43 Santiago Giraldo of Colombia—a clay-court expert who had never won a match at the All England Club, and had only won one Wimbledon qualifying match, at Roehampton, since 2007. Later in the day, Donald Young also folded, and rather meekly, losing to Andreas Seppi, 6-4, 6-4. 

ThumbsdownThere was much discussion leading up to the Olympics of Wimbledon's highly scientific and well thought-out and tested attempt to rehabilitate the grass courts that take such an annual beating during the Grand Slam tournament, which ended just about three weeks ago.

But watching Tomas Berdych, the No. 6 seed, slip and slide and fall on his butt in the course of his shocking 6-4, 6-4 loss to No. 76 Steve Darcis of Belgium had to make you wonder if something about the new grass, or the rush to grow and make it suitable for play so quickly after it was planted and grown from pre-germinated seeds, wasn't awry. It sure looked a lot less stable than usual underfoot.

Granted, Berdych, from the Czech Repubic, is no Roger Federer when it comes to footwork and mobility. But Darcis had his own problems, and the sight of the soles of his shoes when he went over was telling—it looked like the soles of his tenneys were made from some green substance. This suggested that the grass was extremely lush, which translates to slick and damp. The impression was reinforced by the clever and productive use Darcis made of the sliced backhand; it was the shot that won him the match. Darcis adapted to the conditions better than did Berdych.

An elated Darcis said, touchingly: “It’s an amazing feeling. For me, it was the first time I had played on this amazing court [Centre Court]. When you’re young you watch Pete Sampras playing there and you think, 'maybe one day.' Today, it was my day.”

This was a terrible showing by Berdych, who also lost in the first round of Wimbledon to a comparably low-ranked player, No. 87 Ernests Gulbis. And others managed the conditions with better luck. Later, even seven-time Wimbledon champ and grass connoisseur Federer would admit, "It's a bit of a surprise, really, that the grass is so slippery." 

ThumbsupAfter the bleak start by the U.S. players, two thundering American guns helped salvage the day for the USA, as John Isner and Serena Williams both won singles matches—convincingly so. Isner swamped 5-foot-6 Olivier Rochus in a trademark performance, 7-6 (1), 6-4. Or "trademark" at those times when Isner is on top of his game—which hasn't been very often lately. If you remember, he lost an Isner-ish epic, 18-16 in the fifth set, to No. 261 Paul-Henri Mathieu in the second round at Roland Garros, and he was bumped out of Wimbledon in the first round by Alejandro Falla. Isner left England a few weeks ago a hurt, confused and depressed young man.

Today, though, he again played positive "big man" tennis, taking care of his serve until it carried him to the first-set tiebreaker. Isner held the first point of the 'breaker, then hit a powerful forehand approach that forced a backhand error, and attacked behind his service return to force a backhand pass error to take a two mini-break, 3-0 lead that provided all the cushion he needed. After Isner rolled through the 'breaker 7-1, all the pressure was on Rochus to hold, but Isner found a way to get the critical break he needed to serve out the match. Isner has improved his record against players 5-foot-8 and shorter to 8-0. How stupid is that stat?

Serena took care of business with familiar dispatch in what loomed as a potentially tricky first-round against former No. 1 and current WTA drama queen Jelena Jankovic. That Jankovic was beaten by Serena in the only Grand Slam final she's played (U.S. Open, 2008) was one thing; that the two had never played before on grass quite something else. But Serena, perhaps inspired by the presence of her fist-bumping girlfriend, first lady Michelle Obama, played with savage authority to advance, 6-3, 6-1.

ThumbsdownIt was a bad day all around for Chinese Taipei, which lost both its players in round one. It may not have been a big deal in New York, Paris, or Melbourne, but bitter, politically obsessed fans in China and Chinese Taipei surely were riveted by the battle between Peng Shuai of the mainland, People's Republic of China and Su-Wei Hsieh of the democratic island republic, Taipei.

PicOn form, Peng was the favorite; she's ranked No. 29 while 's Hsieh is No. 55.  But partly because of the rivalry between the two nations, the women produced a real doozy. In the end Peng outlasted Hsieh, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-5. Peng had 20 break points in the match, and converted. . . five. (Hsieh, by contrast, was 2 of 4; twice as good as Peng's, but not good enough to prevent the win.)

The joy in China was short-lived, though, as the country's best hope, No. 10 seed and former French Open champion Li Na, was beaten by streaky Daniela Hantuchova

That still left Taipei's male contender, Yen Hsun Lu. He had drawn for an opponent one of the ITF's special exemption wild cards, Tunisia's Malek Jaziri. If you didn't know better—and I admit I didn't—you might have expected Lu to manhandle a fella who seemed to be there mostly because he was some sort of tennis pioneer in his African homeland. In point of fact, Lu was ranked just two places better than No. 70 Jaziri, so on paper the match was a pick 'em. Jaziri won it, 7-6 (10), 4-6, 6-3.

I don't know if top-seeded Federer consulted with Isner in the locker room they share before the Swiss went out to play Falla. Maybe he just commiserated with him, because the Colombian—who dismissed Isner in the first round of Wimbledon this year—once put the fear of Jayzus in Federer at the same venue. Falla served for the match in the fourth set in a first-round Wimbledon match in 2010 after winning the first two sets.

Federer seemed well in control of today's match when he won the first set and rambled out to a 5-3 lead in the second. He reached triple match point with Falla serving in the next game, but Falla dismissed the promise of a swift ending. He wiped away all of them to hold, then broke Federer twice in succession. Suddenly, they were at a set apiece—and they would trade breaks in first four games of the next set. Clearly, it was anyone's match.

This might suggest that Federer was not his usual self (after all, his opponent is ranked No. 51, and the world No. 1 won Wimbledon just a few weeks ago), but the reality is that when that left-handed juju kicks in and Falla gets on a roll with his sometimes electric shotmaking and deadly counter-punching, anything can happen. Well, almost anything.

Today, as on that summer day two years ago, Federer found a way to stem the tide of Falla's skill and confidence. Playing with visible urgency, Federer broke Falla's serve at 3-all in the third, then held and ripped through his service again to break for the match, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3.

In brief:

ThumbsupFrenchman Julien Benneteau scored a quality win over Russia's Mikhail Youzhny; sneaky good Dennis Istomin of Uzbekistan upset the Spanish No. 14 seed Fernando Verdasco; Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia recovered from his clay-court excellence to find his grass-court game and hog-tied the always dangerous Argentinian David Nalbandian

Overshadowed kid sister Urszula Radwanska of Poland counted coup on a tough German opponent, Mona Barthel; Alize Cornet of France justified her ITF wild card with an upset of Austria's Tamira Paszek; Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro went the distance to sew up a 10-8 in-the-third win over the unendingly disappointing No. 5 seed, Australian Sam Stosur; Petra Kvitova almost went the way of her countryman Berdych, but recovered to save a 6-4 in-the-third win over the Ukraine's Kateryna Bondarenko, and Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova rekindled that dangerous grass-court game to smother No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia.

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