Welcome to the Bigs, Kid

Monday, June 24, 2013 /by
Photo by Anita Aguilar
Photo by Anita Aguilar

WIMBLEDON, England—Little Court 3 at the All England Club looked immaculate on this opening Monday. The grass, divot-less, was a monochrome green. The bleachers, recently reconstructed, showed few signs of wear. The crowd, murmuring with anticipation, featured its share of blue blazers and mauve-and-green ties, which indicate that the wearer is a real live member of the All England Club. The press section, which is large for a side court, was full. The lords of British tennis, in other words, had been assembled. They should have been covering their eyes.

That’s because the man they had assembled to see, 18-year-old Kyle Edmund of Yorkshire, was, for lack of a more appropriate term, getting mauled. His opponent, Jerzy Janowicz, was all over the Wimbledon rookie from start to finish in a 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 win. Serves, returns, forehands, backhands: They flew past Edmund before he could take a swing or bat an eye. As for his own shots, the blonde Brit’s first serve, which typically rolled in at around 115 M.P.H.., was rudely smacked into one corner or another. The whole thing was over in 87 minutes, but that number makes it sound more arduous than it really was. Janowicz could have made much quicker work of Edmund if he hadn’t somehow squandered 16 break points along the way.

“The guy today, he’s a big guy,” was Edmund’s summation of the 6’8” Janowicz. 

The big guy gave the boy a lesson in contemporary men’s tennis, a world where teenagers rarely dare to venture, or make any kind of an impression, these days. 

Still, despite the learning experience this afternoon, Edmund has made an impression this spring. He’s ranked a modest 385, but he was one of just two British men to receive a wild card into the Championships. He has, for the moment, been christened the Next British Hope. In contrast to some of the country’s other recent junior products, Edmund is widely described the same way the teenage Andy Murray was: Serious about his training and his future. Last week in Eastbourne, Edmund won his first career ATP match and took 17th-ranked Gilles Simon to two tiebreakers. Today Janowicz didn’t give him a chance to play. 

“It was a tough experience,” Edmund said as his slid into the interview room chair after the match, a combination smile and grimace on his fair-skinned face. “It was tough out there to get much rhythm, sort of ease into the tournament.”

It was an entirely different Edmund who had faced a much smaller British press contingent in Eastbourne last week. He had been upbeat that day, despite his loss to Simon. Against the Frenchman, who plays a controlled, finesse game that’s 180 degrees from Janowicz’s beastly barrage, Edmund had been the one in control of the points, the one hopping around to hit inside-out winners with his forehand and blitzing two-handed backhand winners down the line. 

That day Edmund had put me in mind of a young Andy Roddick at the French Open back in 2001, when he made his name by upsetting Michael Chang and tearing his shirt in half to celebrate. It wasn’t Edmund’s attitude—he’s the last lad I’d expect to see ripping his shirt—or even his style that reminded me of Roddick. It was their shared sense of boundless youthful energy; each bounced off the court and backpedaled for forehands seemingly at will. In both cases, there were no nerves, no worries, no fears, just tennis played by instinct.

“I wasn’t that nervous,” Edmund said after his loss in Eastbourne. “I just played how I normally play. I didn’t feel uncomfortable out there, so I think that’s a big positive knowing that when I do go out there I don’t have to overplay or play special. I just have to play my game, so I’ll continue to do that moving forward.”

Edmund, obviously, was singing a different, less assured tune today. 

“I still played OK, I thought,” he said after his shellacking by Janowicz. “But at that level, I think I need to play better to win. He’s so powerful. His serve, if you got it back, then his forehand, his backhand was coming over hard.”

Janowicz is ranked below Simon, but he’s the model of today’s power game, and the reason why the teen tennis idol is a thing of the past. If you can’t at least hang with that kind of size and strength, you're never going to get a chance to show what your talent and shot-making can do. 

Does Edmund have any business being mentioned in the same sentence with Andy Murray? At 6’2” and still growing, he’s not a small kid. He needs at least 10 more M.P.H. on both of his serves, but you have to think he’ll get it at some point. He has pop on the forehand and backhand, and he plays a composed game when given the chance. That’s the good news. The not-as-good news is that Murray, a month after turning 18 in 2005, won two matches at Wimbledon and took former finalist David Nalbandian to five sets. That mini-run came a few weeks after another teenager, 19-year-old Rafael Nadal, won the French Open in his first try.

Kids don’t win Grand Slams in their first tries anymore. They don’t even get to many third rounds at the majors. In those eight years, the sport has grown bigger, and Janowicz is just the latest example of that growth. 

It has been a tale of two weeks, two matches, two press conferences, a little seaside 250 and a Grand Slam for Kyle Edmund. Even as the winners kept flying past him today, the blazers and club ties and media in the seats mostly stayed put. They know it’s still early for Edmund, but they must also know that things happen fast in tennis, and even Andy Murray won't be on Centre Court forever.

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