WIMBLEDON, England—It was the first sunny day of play in a week. The double-deckers were backed all the way up Church Road. The beautiful people, happy to break out their excellent sunglasses, waited patiently at the front gates. The devoted in the queue staggered out of their Wimbledon Park tents after untold hours of roughing it. By 11:00 A.M., every inch of Henman Hill, which would turn into Robson Ridge and then Murray Mountain in the afternoon, was covered with humanity. The best day of the tennis season, Manic Monday was getting underway.
This is the peak of the fortnight, when all 16 fourth-round singles matches go off around the grounds. What did it look like, sound like, feel like as it happened? I set out to watch at least a little of all 16. Here’s a taste of each of them.
Court 18: Flavia Pennetta vs. Kirsten Flipkens
Flavia Pennetta looks over at her coaches and friends in the corner, and like a good Italian, gives them a hand gesture. It’s a fist-pump, fortunately.
Pennetta has broken Kirsten Flipkens to start their fourth-round match on this smallest of show courts, and her coaches urge her on as she changes sides. “Dai, Flavi,” they say to the 31-year-old veteran: “Come on, Flavi.” Pennetta is in the wide-open half of the draw, and she won’t have many more chances like this one.
But she doesn’t hold onto the lead for long, as Flipkens moves her back and forth with her slice backhand. Flipkens, who has ultra-short hair and wears sunglasses, is silently irritable. She questions every close call with a quizzical facial expression, and with an almost-imperceptible point of her finger sends the ball boy hurtling to retrieve the towel for her after every point. But she has too much variety for Pennetta, and she breaks right back. Flavia shoots another look, and another hand gesture, at her box. This time she puts four fingers together with her thumb, raises them in front of her face, and flicks them outward. I don’t think I want to know what that means.
Flipkens wins 7-6 (2), 6-3. She plays Petra Kvitova next.
Court 3: Petra Kvitova vs. Carla Suarez Navarro
A blood-curdling noise emerges from the mouth of Petra Kvitova. You might think she had just broken her leg or woken up from a horrible nightmare, but no, she’s just hit a huge forehand winner to make the score 5-5 in a first-set tiebreaker with Carla Suarez Navarro. Kvitova knows she’s the top seed left in her half of the draw; she knows she has a shot at another title here.
It’s after 12:00 now, and the players are starting to sweat. This includes Kvitova. She’s broken serving for the set, as Suarez Navarro, the undersized, Spanish shot-maker, shows off all of her ball-striking talents in a four-point span. She drills a forehand down the line that catches Kvitova off-guard for 0-15; she flicks a delicate one-handed backhand behind her for a winner for 0-30; she hits another backhand winner, this time on the dead run, for 0-40; and she finishes the break by guiding a forehand shovel shot perfectly up the line.
But once she gets a lead in the tiebreaker, Suarez Navarro loses her nerve. She double faults, shanks a return at 5-5, and drops a backhand into the net for the set. Kvitova closes with another blood-curdler for good measure. She’s one step closer to another final.
Kvitova wins, 7-6 (5), 6-3. She plays Flipkens next.
Court 12: Jerzy Janowicz vs. Jurgen Melzer
“Bravo, bravo, bravo.”
Jerzy Janowicz is speaking to a man in the front row who is rooting for his opponent. After each winning point by Jurgen Melzer, the man chants “Bravo, bravo” in a raspy voice. After losing the first set, Janowicz can’t take it anymore. He walks toward the guy and starts imitating him. “Bravo, bravo,” Janowicz barks in the same rasp. It’s classic Jerzy: It would be intimidating, if it weren’t for the smile on his face. Melzer's man smiles back.
Things have gone from sweaty on Court 3 to downright tense here. Janowicz punctuates every shot with a guttural grunt, and Melzer bangs the grass with his racquet before each return to urge himself on. Janowicz and a court with no Hawk-Eye is a lethal combination, and he spends most of the second set smoldering. A few times, he stares at the chair umpire as if trying to decide whether he should lose his mind on this one, or whether he should wait for something even worse to happen. Finally, Janowicz gets a call he really doesn’t like and lets loose. “One line, it’s only one line,” he yells at the umpire. “C’mon!”
Melzer is playing smoother tennis, and he’s returning brilliantly. But the 6’8” Janowicz, like Kvitova in her match, is too brutally strong. His Babolat looks like a toothpick in his hands, and he blisters his way through a 7-1 tiebreaker to even the match at one set all.
Janowicz wins, 3-6, 7-6 (1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. He plays fellow Pole Lukasz Kubot next.
Court 2: David Ferrer vs. Ivan Dodig
Ivan Dodig has just taken a spill, and his opponent, David Ferrer, wants to know how he is before he serves. Dodig gets up, brushes a few blades of grass off his whites, and raises his racquet to say he’s fine. So it goes in the age of the tennis gentleman.
These two players really do seem simpatico in the way they approach the game, though. This is blue-collar, bricklayer tennis. Ferrer and Dodig each walk with an all-business hunch, play with more practicality than flair, and make the most of what they have.
Today Dodig, applying maximum pressure, almost has Ferrer. He’s up a set, and the two are in a tiebreaker in the second. Ferrer, who misses an easy volley to go down 1-3, is testy and chatty. But Dodig does something neither of these players ever do: He gets too cute with a drop volley and gives the break back. Ferrer has new life, and, as usual, he makes the most of it to win the breaker 8-6.
Ferrer wins 6-7 (3), 7-6 (6), 6-1, 6-1. He plays Juan Martin del Potro next.
Court 14: Lukasz Kubot vs. Adrian Mannarino
That’s how much two roast beef and horseradish sandwiches are running me in the dining area above Court 14. The location is fortuitous, because it allows me to look in on Kubot and Mannarino, the one match played on a genuine side-court today, while eating my lunch.
The players have split sets and it’s close in the third, but my fellow diners appear less than enthralled. I’m sitting across from a white-haired man in a suit who has a cocktail in front of him. He’s drifts toward sleep, and briefly start to snore, before waking with a start. Conscious again, he downs his drink and orders another.
Kubot wins, and dances, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. He plays fellow Pole Jerzy Janowicz next.
Court 3: Li Na vs. Roberta Vinci
As I’m waiting to get into Court 3, scoreboards around the grounds inform us that Laura Robson has lost her first set in a tiebreaker. There’s a collective “Awwww” from all quarters. The woman selling programs near me joins in, as do the members of the Fire Brigade guarding the press entrance.
But I’m not here to see Robson. I’m here to see as little as I can of Li Na and Roberta Vinci. I don’t say that because I dislike these two players. I say it because by the time I get to Court 3, Li is already well on her way to winning, and there are other, wilder things happening elsewhere—most notably, Serena Williams is losing.
Once I’m inside, Vinci cooperates by losing eight straight points. As I’m walking back out, a Chinese journalist I know asks me, “What are you doing at this match?”
Li wins, 6-2, 6-0. She plays Agnieszka Radwanska next.
Centre Court: Serena Williams vs. Sabine Lisicki
This is the sound that the Centre Court crowd makes whenever Sabine Lisicki misses a shot against Serena Williams. But Lisicki is giving them reason to hope. For once, someone is pushing Serena onto her heels, rather than the other way around. The match feels like it’s being played at a man’s pace, as Lisicki launches forehands and backhands that Serena has to work hard to return.
But even when Serena gets a good look at a ball, she can’t get it to go where it normally goes for her. She’s tight, and she’s playing safely, and Lisicki is making her pay every time she does. This was something we rarely saw from Serena in the past, but it’s become more common since her comeback two years ago. She escaped a bout of nerves against Svetlana Kuznetsova at the French Open, but she doesn’t survive this one.
In her presser afterward, Lisicki, she of the sweet and toothy smile, doesn’t sound so sweet. She sounds confident. The German says she never lost belief against Serena, and that she’ll be “ready for tomorrow.”
Lisicki wins, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4. She plays Kaia Kanepi next.
Court 1: Kaia Kanepi vs. Laura Robson
“C’mon Laura, That’s it Laura, Here we go, Laura!”
The packed house inside Court 1 is roaring, and you can hear thousands more roar a few hundred yards away on Robson Ridge (usually known as Henman Hill). Robson is hopping with energy. She’s up 4-3 in the second set after losing the first to Kanepi. This sounds like it will be her moment.
But Robson’s next shot finds the net, as do a few more in rapid succession. At 5-5, she’s broken at love. There’s concern in the cries of “Laura” now, and Robson slumps after each miss. But she hangs in long enough to save four match points, before Kanepi whistles a forehand winner past her on the fifth.
Robson walks to the net stone-faced, the Wimbledon dream dashed for another year. Yet just before she leaves, she makes a stop to sign autographs. This has, after all, been Robson’s best showing here yet. And as hard as it may be to believe, she’s still only 19.
Kanepi wins, 7-6 (6), 7-5. She plays Sabine Lisicki next.
Court 18: Sloane Stephens vs. Monica Puig
“The more you practice, the luckier you get.”
These are the wise words of Sloane Stephens’ coach, David Nainkin, who is talking to a young boy sitting next to him. Stephens has just hit a net-cord winner. The boy nods at Nainkin, but he doesn't look convinced.
Stephens is in the middle of a baseline war with fellow youngster Monica Puig of Puerto Rico. Before the match, Stephens had characterized their relationship this way: “We’re not besties.” And there's a fierce sense here of two young players marking out early turf. Rallies are long, tension is high.
The end result is a surprise to me. Puig seems to be the more consistent player, but Stephens breaks her down at the end of the second set and runs away with the third.
Stephens wins, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. She plays Marion Bartoli next.
Court 3: Fernando Verdasco d. Kenny de Schepper
*Indecipherable words in French*
Kenny de Schepper is dumbfounded, again. The 6’7” Frenchman turns to his player box behind him open-mouthed, before rattling off a stream of presumably unhappy words in his native language. This is the third time de Schepper has reacted this way to a missed shot in the five minutes I’ve been there. Does he stand in utter disbelief every time he misses a ball?
I’ve never seen de Schepper before, but he looks like a guy who should excel on grass, and perhaps nowhere else. He’s tall, he’s a lefty, he has a one-handed backhand. Today, though, is the end of his grass dream for this season, as Fernando Verdasco beats him 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. (Or, as Moses Malone would have it, “fo, fo, fo.”)
At one point, Verdasco doesn’t like the way a can of balls is sitting on the umpire’s chair. He has the ball boy move it a few inches. It must help ease Verdasco’s mind, because he drops a 130-M.P.H. ace on the next point.
Verdasco wins 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. He’ll play Andy Murray next.
Court 2: Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Tsvetana Pironkova
“You could chop wood with that swing.”
These words come from an editor at the British tennis magazine, Tennishead, who's sitting next to me on Court 2. She’s remarking on Tsvetana Pironkova’s slice forehand, and she has a point. Pironkova hacks at the shot. It can be a tricky spin for some opponents, but not for Radwanska, who puts it away with ease. You know if the light-hitting Aga is telling you to “get that weak stuff out of here,” you're probably in trouble.
Pironkova is something of a Wimbledon specialist—this is her third trip to the round of 16 or better here; not bad for someone ranked No. 72. It’s hard to see exactly why she would be so good on grass, though her flat, shoveled backhand does skip through the court and stay low.
Even Radwanska, the trickster, is flummoxed for a set. But last year’s finalist works her way back into the match and begins setting the traps rather than getting caught in them. At the end of the second set, she carves under a drop shot for a winner, as if to say, “That’s how you hit a slice forehand.”
Radwanska wins, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. She plays Li Na next.
Court 12: Marion Bartoli vs. Karin Knapp
France’s Marion Bartoli stands up from her chair, looks at her player’s box, and pumps her fist. Only then does she start walking to the baseline to start the next game. When she gets there, she does a deep knee-bend and leaps in the air. She calls for the ball from the ball kid, and does a boxing-style stutter step as he bounces it to her.
Bartoli is two games from victory. After each winning point, she stops, looks at her friends, and punches her heart. At a certain point, she decides that she must step on both the baseline and the sideline before getting back into her return position. Then she decides that she must walk halfway to the service line, turn around, and walk back into position—this gets a laugh from Amelie Mauresmo, who is sitting in her group.
When the match is over, Bartoli brings her fist up, but instead of pounding her heart, she lifts it high over her head. Then she goes one step farther and raises her index finger into the “I’m No. 1!” sign. Does Mad Marion know something we don’t?
Bartoli wins 6-2, 6-3. She plays Sloane Stephens next.
Court 1: Juan Martin del Potro vs. Andreas Seppi
Andreas Seppi has just fallen. The quiet Italian isn’t known for drama, but he milks this one by laying all the way back, as if he’s just incapacitated himself for life. Del Potro appears ready to run around the net to help. But Seppi, like a good Italian soccer player, is soon up and walking fine. He could learn a thing or two from Robson, who wasn’t half as dramatic after her own fall in the same spot earlier in the day.
Seppi isn’t done quite yet. On set point in the second-set tiebreaker, he challenges a del Potro shot, before realizing that it was probably in. As we all wait for Hawk-Eye, Seppi stumbles toward his chair in mock-pain, as if he’s been shot. When the replay goes up, and del Potro’s shot is shown to have hit the line, Seppi hangs his head. The crowd laughs.
It’s not often you can say that Andreas Seppi’s antics were the highlight of a match, but in the case of this routine straight-setter, it’s true.
Del Potro wins, 6-4, 7-7 (2), 6-3. He plays David Ferrer next.
Centre Court: Andy Murray vs. Mikhail Youzhny
*Rising murmur of concern throughout audience*
No crowd murmurs like a Centre Court crowd, and this one continues to increase in volume through an entire changeover. That’s because Andy Murray has been broken in the second set by Mikhail Youzhny.
Never fear, Murray breaks back at 3-4. Now the crowd really begins to murmur. Then they begin to chant, “An-dee!” Murray has been asking for them to get loud all tournament, and this seems to be their polite attempt to oblige.
Maybe it helps enough, because Murray digs himself out of a hole in the second set, and again in the second-set tiebreaker. When he rips a cross-court backhand past Youzhny to win the breaker, the audience goes straight past murmur and lets out a full-on shout for joy.
Murray wins, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-1. He plays Fernando Verdasco next.
Court 1: Tomas Berdych vs. Bernard Tomic
Berdych has reached a moment of uncertainty in the second set. He has saved a set point to win the first, but his opponent’s flat drives and varied spins have sown a seed of doubt since then. Berdych seems to have developed a new way to show his frustration. When Tomic aces him to save a break point, the big Czech, never known as an especially demonstrative player, suddenly channels Jimmy Connors and sticks his racquet between his legs. His parents and girlfriend watch without expression.
Berdych wins 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4. He plays Djokovic next.
Centre Court: Novak Djokovic vs. Tommy Haas
Tommy Haas was up a break on Novak Djokovic in the second set, and now he isn’t. He’s not happy about this. When he’s broken, Haas rips a ball out of his pocket and chucks it into the air. When he hits a lame lob that floats wide, he appears to complain about his bad play to the ball boy who has just handed him a towel. When he’s finally broken to lose the set, Haas considers hitting the ball into the crowd. Then he considers throwing his racquet to the ground. Finally, he sees his bag next to his chair and gives it a good bash. Then another. Then he looks at his player box, puts his hands on his head, and screams.
Manic Monday, in its closing moments, has turned maniacal.
Djokovic wins, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (4). He plays Tomas Berdych next.