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First Ball In, 6/22: Hopes Grow With the Grass

Sunday, June 22, 2014 /by

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—Once upon a time, tennis players thought grass was for cows. The sentiment was echoed by Ivan Lendl, Marcelo Rios, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and dozens of other baseliners from the game's past. The only solution to the antiquated surface’s skips and bumps seemed to be to tear it out of Centre Court and lay down some lovely, modern cement instead. Believe it or not, by the end of the last century, that idea didn’t seem far-fetched.

Back then, it was difficult to envision a day like Saturday here at the All England Club, when each of the top players trooped into the interview room and told us how much they were looking forward to getting back onto the turf here. These days, it seems that playing on a living surface brings new life, and new hope, after a long, spring slog on clay.

“I feel I have a very good chance again this year,” said seven-time champion Roger Federer. “I’m really coming in with a much better feeling than maybe the last year.”

“It feels good. I feel good,” said five-time champion Serena Williams, who didn’t appear to feel good about much of anything in her brusque, 10-minute presser. “When I came here, I just felt a sense of being home. I really like being here.”

“I always look forward to this event,” said French Open winner Maria Sharapova. “I enjoy competing on these courts so much.”

“I feel good on grass,” echoed French Open finalist Simona Halep. “I play good. I like because the balls are coming fast.”

Novak Djokovic claimed that he was happy to be here because his coach would be happy to be here. “It’s the first time we’re working together in Wimbledon, where he has won three titles and played a couple of other finals,” the No. 1 seed said of Boris Becker. “This is his surface. This is his home. This is where he feels most comfortable.”

Even Rafael Nadal, an early-round loser here the last two years, sounded a hopeful note. 

“I am feeling better this year than last couple of years, seriously,” said Rafa, who seemed to be trying hard to get us to believe him. “Personally, I feel that I am doing the things better...I’m not scared about the knee. That’s the most important thing for me.”


Unlocking the Door

Is that what Madison Keys did this weekend? The teenager won her first career tournament, at Eastbourne, and produced what may have been the most hopeful piece of news for U.S. tennis all year. It wasn’t the size of the event, but what it may portend. Keys is just 19, she beat a Top 10 player, Angelique Kerber, in a close final, and she did it by firing 60 winners and 17 aces. If anything, Keys’s reaction afterward was even better; she didn’t bother pretending that it was all old hat to her.

“I’m just really, really happy,” Keys said with an unstoppable grin. “I’m so incredibly honored to be able to be another name on this trophy. And me knowing Chris Evert and Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova have all won this, it’s just an incredible honor.”

Now, unfortunately for Keys, comes the hard part: backing it up at Wimbledon. She'll start against Monica Puig, who beat her at the French Open last year. In this case, for U.S. fans, it’s best not to have a long memory. Exactly 12 months ago, we were celebrating another young American, Jamie Hampton, who had reached the final in Eastbourne. She lost her Wimbledon opener to Sloane Stephens two days later, and was sidelined by double hip surgery earlier this season.


Quotes of the Day

Q: You may have heard there's a football tournament going on in Brazil at the moment, and England hasn't done very well. How does it feel to have the hopes of a despondent nation on your shoulders?

Andy Murray: "Wow."

Q: You think it's OK to have sweet shops and things like that. What would your advice be to children [on healthy eating]?

Maria Sharapova: "Everybody loves sweets, including myself. That passion for candy, that little treat at the end of the day, has always been a part of my life."


OOP Analysis

See Monday's Order of Play here.

One year later, the afterglow from Andy Murray’s 2013 title run will return to Centre Court when he opens play at 1:00 P.M. against David Goffin. Here’s a quick preview of that match, and a few others of note on a typically bursting-at-the-seams first Monday.

Andy Murray vs. David Goffin

“It will be a tricky match,” Murray said, and it’s possible that he meant it. Goffin is ranked just No. 104 at the moment, but Murray cited his previous solid play “on the big stages” against Federer and Djokovic. That’s all Muzz has to go on; these two have never faced each other. Winner: Murray

Sara Errani vs. Caroline Garcia 

This one would seem to go on Early Upset Alert. Garcia won her only match against the 14th-seeded Errani on the Italian’s best surface, clay, in Madrid this spring. Grass would seem to tilt the balance even further in the young Frenchwoman’s direction. Wimbledon is where, after all, Errani lost a golden set to Yaroslava Shvedova in 2012. Winner: Garcia

Grigor Dimitrov vs. Ryan Harrison

Two former hot shots who have gone two very different directions. The 23-year-old Dimitrov is knocking on the Top 10 door, while the 22-year-old Harrison is currently ranked No. 140. It wasn’t long ago that they were mentioned together as two possible future Grand Slam champs. The future is a funny place. They’ve never played as pros. Winner: Dimitrov

Sloane Stephens vs. Maria Kirilenko

Is this the Grand Slam when Sloane finally fails to do her fourth-round thing? Kirilenko is quality veteran opponent. Winner: Stephens

Dustin Brown vs. Marcos Baghdatis

Two shot-makers and fan favorites should entertain the crowd on little Court 12. Brown is reveling in his 15 minutes of dreadlocked fame at the moment, after beating Rafael Nadal in Halle. The 29-year-old, oft-injured Baghdatis is now outside the Top 100, but won a small event in Nottingham earlier this month. Winner: Brown

Coco Vandeweghe vs. Garbine Muguruza

Madison Keys wasn’t the only first-time U.S. women’s winner this weekend. The 69th-ranked Vandeweghe matched her with her own maiden title in ’s-Hertogenbosch; Coco said she was as shocked as everyone else by the development. Along the way, Vandeweghe beat her opponent on Monday, Muguruza. Winner: Muguruza


For Further Reading

It’s that time of year again, when the British tabloids turn their jaundiced eyes toward the All England Club. The local reporters affectionately known as “The Rotters”—short for Rottweilers—were in evidence today, as they tried to goad Andy Murray into insulting England’s soccer team, and pin Maria Sharapova down on why she peddles sugar(pova) to little children—the last one wasn’t a bad question.

The Daily Mail got things off to a promising start this weekend with three eye-catching headlines:


Excuse me? This incident is one of many recalled by Doug Dickson, a locker-room steward at Wimbledon since 1969. He retired last year. It’s a quality read.

“I don’t want to end up in the hotel room next to them!” he says.

Yes, Ilie Nastase, the man for whom the Code of Conduct was literally invented, is scolding other players for their on-court antics.


Throw in Janowicz, del Potro, Lisicki, Darcis, and Stakhovsky and it doesn’t seem like such a ridiculous idea. Most of the heroes and upset artists from last year’s tournament have fallen on hard times since. Maybe “Wimblegeddon” wasn’t such a bad name, after all.


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