First Ball In, 6/23: Rainy Day and Monday

Monday, June 23, 2014 /by
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Photos by Anita Aguilar

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—How do you know Wimbledon has begun? It’s not when the defending champion walks onto Centre Court. It’s not when the first ace skids off the lush grass. It’s not even when a chair umpire politely instructs the ladies and gentlemen to “Play.” For me, it’s when an audience here makes its first low, murmurous, almost-whispered “Ooooooooo” sound after a well-hit shot or a great get. It’s the All England Club’s version of the shrill “Alllllleeeeeeeeezzzzz!” at Roland Garros, or the martial “Aussie, Aussie Aussie!” in Melbourne. Even when they celebrate at Wimbledon, they try to keep it down.

The first “Oooooooo” I heard at this year’s tournament was made in honor of a terrific, unexpected get by Maria Kirilenko deep in the corner on Court 18. It was a good omen for the 27-year-old Russian, who is among the game’s smoothest movers and ball-strikers. While injuries had her mired at No. 87 in the rankings, she qualified as a tough early-round draw, something that Sloane Stephens doesn’t typically face at the majors.

Tough draw soon turned to upset alert, as Kirilenko, who jumped on Sloane’s serve all day, won a quick first set, 6-2, and a crazy second one, 7-6 (6), on her sixth match point. The loss may not have been a shock, but it will likely be damaging for Sloane in the long run. She was defending quarterfinal points here, which means her ranking will drop, which means her seedings at future Slams will drop, which means she won’t get the same excellent draws that kept her ranking aloft in the first place. Her virtuous seeding cycle could soon turn into a vicious one.

The match itself was an intriguing and ultimately frustrating mixed bag from Stephens. With her back to the wall, she fought harder than she normally does when things aren’t going her way; serving at 5-6 in the second set, Sloane saved five match points, many times by a whisker—this was the kind of gritty play that would make a comeback artist like Venus Williams proud. But when she had the lead in the second set, Stephens became flat-footed and passive again. 

The shot that Stephens will remember in her nightmares is the sitter forehand that she failed to put away when she had a set point in the tiebreaker. To me, though, the key moment of the match came when she was up 4-2 in the second, at 30-30 on Kirilenko’s serve. Sloane was rolling, Kirilenko was reeling; two more points and Stephens could have basically put the set away. Instead, she stood flat-footed for a second serve and donated an easy return long. Kirilenko, given new life, hit an ace to hold, ran to the sideline with new energy, and broke in the next game. Stephens can play with a sense of urgency; she just needs to summon it before she’s forced to save five match points.

“She definitely played well today, and it was tough,” said a modestly glum but smiling Sloane afterward. No player grins as cryptically as she does; I’m not sure even she knows whether she’s being sarcastic or not. “Sometimes it’s just too good, and today was one of those days.”

Sloane says she knows what she needs to work on, but exactly what that is she wasn't telling.

“It’s personal,” she said, still smiling her cryptic smile. 

*****

Keeping Calm and Carrying On

Speaking of British celebrations, no one quite knew how the spectators in Centre Court would react when Andy Murray opened the proceedings at 1:00 P.M. this afternoon. They hadn’t had a defending champion to cheer since Virginia Wade kicked off the women’s singles in the same arena in 1978. The rowdy fans in the old standing-room-only sections of Centre Court used to sing “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to the Ginny back in the 70s, but for some reason that didn’t seem likely with Murray today.

As he waited behind his opponent, David Goffin, in the tunnel leading to the court, Murray was greeted by tournament referee Andrew Jarrett, who helpfully gave the cold shoulder to Goffin. When Murray finally walked on, the crowd inside stood and cheered. And then cheered some more. Things appeared to be getting perilously close to emotional as Murray turned and waved. Before that could happen, though, Murray sat down, pulled out his racquet, and began testing its string tension. The fans sat back down and stopped clapping. Emotional crisis averted. By the fourth game, with Murray up 3-0, the audience had begun to cheer for Goffin out of sympathy. 

“I enjoyed it for the walk to the chair,” a sentimental Murray said of his ovation. “Then when I sat down, it was time to get on with business.”

Murray got down to business quickly, breaking Goffin in his opening service game and, he said, “playing very well.” That included 28 winners against 10 errors, 71 percent of first serves made, and eight aces. Goffin had trouble finding his footing on the grass, literally and figuratively.

“I hit the ball cleanly,” Murray said, adding that, despite some nerves, he has felt “calm for the last 10 days.” He said that his new coach, Amelie Mauresmo, a calm personality herself, might have something to do with that.

*****

The Future is...Limited

Three years ago at Wimbledon, I watched Grigor Dimitrov and Ryan Harrison, then 20 and 19, respectively, play early-round matches on adjacent field courts. Standing between them, you could believe that you were looking at two parallel roads to the future of the men’s game. Dimitrov was a former No. 1 junior and boys’ Wimbledon champion; Harrison was advanced enough as a teenager that he hardly bothered to play junior tennis at all. 

At one point, a shot from Harrison’s court traveled over to Dimitrov’s. Ryan called out for a “little help” from Grigor; Grigor responded by imitating Harrison’s Southerny drawl when he said “No problem, Ry.” It sounded like the beginnings of a friendly rivalry.

Today, three years later, Dimitrov and Harrison played each other for the first time as pros. The future so far has belonged to the Bulgarian. He’s ranked No. 13 and is a budding celebrity; Harrison is ranked No. 150 and spends most of his time on the Challenger tour grind. Harrison's days of hopeful wild cards long over, he had to qualify for this year’s main draw, a solid result for a man with his ranking. He told my colleague Doug Robson today that his new coaching relationship with Jan-Michael Gambill is working well so far.

Why has Dimitrov flourished while Harrison had floundered? You could start with their body types; Dimitrov has a classic tennis player's slender, six-foot build, while Harrison, grandson of a football star, is beefier. You could move on to their technique; Dimitrov runs and hits with Federer-like grace and timing, while Harrison muscles the ball. And you could finish with their shot choices at critical moments. In the first-set tiebreaker, Harrison tried and missed a series of wild forehands. The match, after that, was essentially over. 

Three years ago, a Harrison defeat would have been followed by a thoughtful post-mortem in his press conference. Unless I missed it, he wasn’t asked to talk about his loss today.

*****

Quote of the Day

“It’s stupid, it’s stupid, it’s really stupid.”—Fabio Fognini, talking to an official after he was handed a point penalty for racquet abuse today. Whether he was talking about himself, or the chair umpire’s decision, wasn’t crystal clear. In the end, Fognini won 9-7 in the fifth set over Alexander Kuznetsov, gave the chair umpire a drive-by wave when it was over, and shouted a lot. In other words, Fognini won.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Tuesday's Order of Play here.

Sabine Lisicki begins play on Centre Court on Tuesday. An honor usually reserved for the defending champion, it fallen to her due to the absence of the 2013 winner, Marion Bartoli, at this year's tournament. Hopefully, this means we’ll hear the last of one of the sillier scheduling controversies of recent years. There was word in the U.S. press this weekend that Serena Williams had been “snubbed” when Lisicki was given the first-match honors instead of her. But Serena herself said that Lisicki deserved it, because the German, who lost to Bartoli in the final last year, was the closest thing to a defending women’s champion in the draw. In 2009, when Rafael Nadal couldn’t defend his title, Roger Federer filled in—not because he was the Great Roger Federer, but because he had been the runner-up the previous year.

Rafael Nadal vs. Martin Klizan

Rafa calls this the “most dangerous tournament” for him. And the Slovakian lefty, who has been ranked in the Top 30, is one of the more dangerous players he could have faced in the first round in the 32-seed system. Klizan took a set from Nadal in their only meeting, at the French Open, last year. Still, he has just one win at Wimbledon. Winner: Nadal

Roger Federer vs. Paolo Lorenzi

Federer says he doesn’t feel that old, because the tour is aging with him. Case in point: Lorenzi, who is also 32. One slight difference: Federer has seven more titles at Wimbledon than Lorenzi has match wins here. Winner: Federer

Serena Williams vs. Anna Tatishvili

Serena’s coach says she was “destroyed” by her French Open loss, and that this is bad news for the rest of the women’s draw at Wimbledon. Tatishvili, ranked No. 113, will be the first to receive it. Winner: S. Williams

Madison Keys vs. Monica Puig

Puig, then 19, knocked off Keys, then 18, at last year's French Open. In 2014, each has won their maiden WTA title. But Keys' came on grass. Winner: Keys

Eugenie Bouchard vs. Daniela Hantuchova

The 20-year-old French Open semifinalist will take on the 31-year-old veteran in the tabloid special of the day. They’ve never played, but this could be a tough one for Bouchard, who looked worn down at her last event. Winner: Hantuchova

Sara Errani vs. Caroline Garcia (cont)

I had this on my upset alert yesterday, and I'll keep it there today. They split the first two sets and will play the third from 0-0. Winner: Garcia

For complete Wimbledon coverage, including updated draws and reports from Steve Tignor, head to our tournament page.

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