Better Late Than Never

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Photo by Anita Aguilar

LONDON—Does there come a point for the British when the weather itself becomes life’s primary source of entertainment? That’s the way it felt through most of Saturday afternoon here. The rain came down, let up, came down, let up, and came down; the clouds gathered and broke up and gathered and broke up. The pattern lasted long enough to keep the players off the courts at Queen’s Club for four hours. By 3:00 P.M., all a journalist could do was Tweet updates about whether the covers had come off the grass or not. By 5:00, the sun had made its fashionably late arrival at last, the nets had been put back up, the ball kids and officials had taken their positions, and everything looked ready to go. Naturally, the clouds rolled back in one more time and let out a last blast of rain for the road. This time there were laughs from the audience.

It wasn’t as much fun for Lleyton Hewitt and Marin Cilic. Between raindrops, they had managed to get in two games and 15 minutes of play, and Hewitt had somehow hit five double faults in that time. Worse, when the skies finally cleared, the two were booted from the main stadium onto the much smaller Court 1 so that the home favorite, Andy Murray, could play in the bigger arena. Hewitt called this breach of tour policy—matches are supposed to finish on the courts where they start—“really, really strange” and said that “the ATP guy” who made the decision “panicked.” The tournament’s defense was that the other semifinal, between Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, would surely draw the bigger crowd. They said they couldn’t justify moving that match to a court which seats 6,000 fewer people—and also, not coincidentally, has far fewer TV cameras.

However it went down behind the scenes, there were suddenly two semifinals going on at the same time at Queen’s. For those of us in the press seats, which have a view of both courts, it was a head-snapping experience. It’s hard enough to keep track of every point in one match; forget about two. On a few occasions I succeeded in missing what happened on crucial points in both matches. Still, it felt like a reward for the long-suffering fans who had spent their Saturday staring at court covers.

As predicted, only a handful of those fans chose to watch Cilic and Hewitt. There seemed, at times, to be more people on Court 1 than there were in the bleachers. But one very vociferous and persistent Hewitt fan did make his presence felt. He celebrated every one of Rusty's winning points with a “Come on!” It was as if he wanted to save Hewitt the energy of having to do it himself. 

The match was played in a suitably ornery spirit—put two frustrated, slighted players on a court without Hawk-Eye and you had a recipe either for a disaster, a highly entertaining evening of tennis, or both. Hewitt and Cilic did their best to oblige. Hewitt challenged chair umpire James Keothavong early and often, so often that when Keothavong overruled a call against Cilic, the normally placid Croat stormed forward and yelled, referring to Hewitt, “He’s putting pressure on you!”

Hewitt didn’t let that stop him. Later, he asked an elderly line judge, “Can you see?” and tossed a ball in Keothavong’s direction to show him that there was “Chalk on it, mate”—his shot, in other words, had been in, and Hewitt believed the line judge had botched another call. We had returned to the days of semifinals without replay.

“Obviously, it’s frustrating,” Hewitt said afterward. “We started on Centre Court where you have Hawk-Eye, and I feel like there were a couple of rough calls on Court 1. You’re in a semifinal and you feel like you have a couple of rough calls and you can’t challenge.”

After losing the first set and going up a break in the second, Hewitt called for the trainer and received an MTO. Cilic was left to try to stay warm in the waning light. When he lost the second set, it looked like his momentum was gone for good. But this week Cilic has shown more assertiveness and resilience than he has in the past. Winning shots have been punctuated with fist-pumps, as well as what I can only guess is the Croatian version of “Vamos!” He has also used his serve to bail him out of tough situations, and he did it again to turn the momentum back in his favor in the third set. When Cilic broke Hewitt, Rusty finally snapped, banging the ball as hard as he could off the wall behind him. Keothavong was probably lucky that’s the worst that happened.

Cilic, who recently split with longtime coach Bob Brett, will defend his title on Sunday—the good vibes from Queen’s have lasted 12 months for him. Hewitt, meanwhile, is happy with his progress heading toward Wimbledon. “I played great all week,” he said.

The main stadium, lit by late-day sunlight and shadow, felt idyllic by contrast. There Murray and Tsonga spun and curled their shots at each other to the delight of the packed house. They also challenged close calls at will; in fact, Murray challenged a little too often in the opening games, and had to forego one on a crucial point that he lost later on.

Murray and Tsonga spent some of their downtime today playing table football against each other; later, Murray claimed that he won, “Very comfortably.” But he couldn’t maintain his momentum from one sport to the next. Murray came out of the gates even more lethargically than Tsonga, a notorious slow starter. Murray struggled with his serve and forehand early, and appeared miffed by the proceedings in general. Part of that was Tsonga's doing. For the first set and a half, Jo took Murray out of his groove by playing the more muscular, dynamic game. He rifled his backhand down the line and controlled the front of the court. At 3-3 in the second set, it looked like Tsonga was going to win.

Murray, pushed to the brink, finally felt enough urgency to push back. He went down break point at 3-3, and missed his first serve. Tsonga, feeling good, ran around the second ball and had a good look at a forehand. He took a crack up the line, but didn’t quite hit it squarely. The ball floated, Murray took the initative, and eventually won the point with a stab drop volley. It was as if Murray couldn’t find the concentration and will to win until he was face to face with defeat. Once he did, he gave up just two more games. By the start of the third, it was Tsonga who had lost his concentration. At 1-1. he played a slack game, nonchalanting his way back for a Murray lob on one point, and sending a drop shot into the bottom of the net on another. He was broken at love and was never in the match again. As Murray found his game, Tsonga watched his own unravel. By the end, the best he could do was leap the net after failing to reach a drop shot.

It will be Murray vs. Cilic in the final; the Scot leads 8-1 in their head-to-head. Murray said today that, after his recent layoff, he’s happy with his play, even if he has been a “little bit inconsistent or played a couple of sloppy games” in most of his matches.

“I managed to find ways to win,” Murray said. And that’s true; today he raised his game at exactly the right moment. That’s a good sign as he heads toward Wimbledon. But Murray was also given a chance to raise his game today. You can’t always count on your opponent to shank a second serve return at break point with the match on the line.

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