by Pete Bodo
It occurred to me about halfway through the schedule at Wimbledon today that if this were to be one of those familiar, topsy-turvy events of Olympiads past, this would have to be the day of the bloodbath. And for a while there, it looked like it might be. Early on, high seeds Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Maria Sharapova were all down a set.
But by the time what dust could be beaten out of those verdant lawns had settled, it was clear that for the second Olympic tennis games in a row, the tournament will be more rather than less like a Grand Slam tournament, which are traditionally the domain of the top players. In fact, because of the crapshoot, best-of-three-set format used in the men's draw, there have been even fewer upsets that we had a right to expect.
So it's official. The male contenders no longer seem as susceptible to gold-medal fever, that terrible affliction that ends up with a Marc Rosset or Nicolas Massu standing on the highest block on the medal podium (the women, by contrast, have always been immune to the affliction, perhaps because they play best-of-three sets all the time). As I write this, the quarterfinals are set and no player in the men's draw would be considered a party crasher.
Among the women, the only unseeded player in the quarters is Kim Clijsters—and she's a former no. 1 and multiple Grand Slam champion. The lowest seed in the quarters is Maria Kirilenko, No. 14. It will take dust-ups of epic proportions to produce surprise medalists from this point on. Today was, unofficially, over-the-hump day, and the Appollonian forces won the day from the Dionysian (Google that one!). So let's pass out our awards:
Not to be outdone by the antics of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic, Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares of Brazil won their doubles match against Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic in three sets—24-22 in the third. That's just two games shy of the third-set score Tsonga and Raonic put up yesterday in singles play, but still a record for most games in an Olympic doubles match.
Now here's the even more notable thing: While unseeded, Melo and Soares have taken two significant scalps already in these Games, with wins over the fifth-seeded Czechs and also over the potentially formidable (and unbreakable) pick-up pairing of the USA's Andy Roddick and John Isner.
Melo is ranked No. 24 in doubles and has won nine doubles titles in his career. His preferred doubles partners appear to be Croatians—Ivan Dodig, or Marin Cilic (when available)—perhaps because his own size is neither S, M, L, or even XL; it's "C" for "Croatian." Melo stands 6-foot-8.
Soares, ranked No. 26is just 5-foot-11. He's won six titles in his career, and has one championship this year (Sao Paulo), with his regular partner, Eric Butorac. The pair gets No. 2 seeds Tsonga and Michael Llodra of France next.
Angelique Kerber of Germany, the No. 7 seed, put an end to Venus Williams' run. Despite being 32 years old, the Ameircan put together formidable back-to-back performances in her first two rounds, losing a total of just eight games in that brace of matches (four in each). Venus is a triple gold medalist—one in singles (Sydney, 2000) and two in doubles (both w/sister Serena Williams, at Sydney and Beijing, 2008).
It was a gritty performance against an Olympic Games icon by Kerber. There's been a lot of buzz about Venus at the games, and when she arrived at set point in the 10th game of the first set, it seemed Kerber might back off just enough to let Venus sneak by—which is just what she did in her semifinal against Agnieszka Radwanska at Wimbledon. But Kerber, seeded and ranked No. 7, fended off three set points in that critical game, and battled back from a 1-5 deficit in the first-set tiebreaker to keep Venus from taking control of the match. Kerber went on to win it by the symmetrical scores of 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5).
Stat of the match: Venus, who had been serving bullets, threw in seven double faults—three of them in the tiebreakers.
Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland never got his mojo going at these Olympic Games, and as a result, he and Roger Federer are out of the doubles. The defending gold medalists and No. 6 seeds, they lost today to Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram of Israel, 1-6, 7-6, 6-3. As has been true so often in the past, Wawrinka once again looked really tight, and played within himself—and not in a good way.
John McEnroe's regular doubles partner, Peter Fleming, was once asked to say who he thought was the best doubles team of all time. He replied, "John McEnroe and anybody." I'm not sure Wawrinka would make that list of McEnroe partners. I know that playing with Federer brings along a certain amount of pressure, but it's also a privilege.
At some point you have to get used to the honor, and maybe even pull more than your share of weight from time to time, inspired by how much your partner brings to the table on a daily basis. Given that this is Federer we're talking about, I imagine that those expectations of his amount to: Just don't anything too stupid, like show up drunk or punch a linesman; I'll take care of the rest.
Turns out that Wawrinka just isn't able to wear those big boy pants comfortably, but rest assured that die-hard Federer fans will see the conspicuous silver lining in this disappointment. Federer now is free to focus exclusively on the singles draw, where he's slated to play the ace-machine Isner for a place in the semis. But maybe Federer and Martina Hingis should have continued to bat around that idea of playing mixed doubles together.
Andy Murray of Great Britain was one of the high seeds who lost a first set today, but he pulled it out against Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, ending the match with a beautifully and savagely struck cross-court forehand winner. The final score was 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. This was a big win for the third-seeded Scot, and you could see it by how he exploded with joy the moment his last shot landed. Murray has struggled with Baghdatis (the head-to-head going in favored Murray by only 4-3), who served for the third set after splitting the first two with Murray in their most recent previous encounter—on the same Centre Court at the most recent Wimbledon.
I'm thinking that one reason for Murray's great form so far this tournament is that while he's playing at Wimbledon, it's not. . . Wimbledon. You know what I mean. All the other news and hubbub of the Olympic Games must take some pressure off, and Murray is a guy who already handles pressure very well (at least in London). This entire week I haven't heard a single pundit or talking head mention that no British man has won at Wimbledon in more than 75 years. Not only will this make it easier for Murray to play his best here, a win would also take off a lot of the pressure he faces at Wimbledon time every year and could improve his chances to win his home Grand Slam.
Maria Sharapova of Bradenton—oops, Russia—extended her unbeaten streak in three-set matches in 2011 to eight (and she's lost just once in her last 23 matches that went the distance) with a high quality, come-from-behind win over No. 15 seed Sabine Lisicki of Germany, 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-3. Bear in mind that Lisicki routed Sharapova in straight sets just weeks ago at the same venue, during Wimbledon.
This was another up-and-down affair in which both women had plenty of chances, but in the end Sharapova was just that much more determined. Yesterday, I took some flak for criticizing Sharapova's aggressive Russian patriotism, but I can't say a negative thing about her fighting spirit. She won the match despite making eight more unforced errrors because she hit more than twice as many winners (44-20). As is often the case, victory went to the bolder player.
John Isner of the USA is finally playing "big man tennis," which his coach Craig Boynton and numerous other pundits and insiders insist is his one and only ticket to victory. As Boynton has said to Isner, "If you find yourself in a rally going for longer than six or eight shots, just catch the ball and throw it in the swimming pool, because you're not going to win that point." Who said tennis isn't rocket science?
Anyway, Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia is the kind of fleet, rangy, clever player who can counterpunch with force and authority—unless you can keep points from developing into a game of chess. That's the essence of big-man tennis. Crack the serve, go for the winner, or hit aggressively enough to force an error in the first two or three exchanges. You can play big-man tennis even if you're not big (Isner himself is 6-foot-9); if you're under 6-foot-4 they're just prone to calling it "first-strike" tennis.
Isner hit 22 aces in his 7-5, 7-6 (14) win, including 22 in the tiebreaker, which ended with perfect symbolism when Tipsarevic, hard-pressed to keep pace with his opponent's serve proficiency, threw in a match ending double-fault. Also, Isner had one break point, Tipsarevic none. And Isner won the contest of winners, 37 to 22, while keeping it close in unforced errors (Isner had 12, Tipsarevic, 10). Oh, and Isner put up an 82 percent first-serve conversion percentage, which overshadowed Tipsarevic's excellent 75 percent.
All in all, it was a match for the Big Man Tennis Hall of Fame.
Now, for my Thursday upset specials:
Men: I'm going with Tsonga over Djokovic, ho's lost a set in two of his three matches so far. Having survived that epic singles match with Raonic (and today's tricky bounce-back against Feliciano Lopez), I think he has the chops to medal here, as well as the ability to impose his big game on the favorite.
Women: I've been impressed with Kerber's game since I took a few close looks at it at Wimbledon, and believe she has the game—and confidence—to take down top-seeded Azarenka. But the battle of former U.S. Open champions—Clijsters and Sharapova, also bears watching.