First Ball In, 6/30: Guessing Games

Monday, June 30, 2014 /by
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Photos by Anita Aguilar

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—The fans in Court 3 roared and whistled and clapped; it seemed possible, for a brief moment, that they might begin to stomp their feet, an almost unheard of event at the All England Club. What inspired this burst of English tennis hooliganism? Feliciano Lopez had reached 15-30 on John Isner’s serve.

It was that kind of day. While the crowd was starved for drama, they couldn’t have been surprised with the sparse and sporadic jolts of it that they received. If ever a match promised to raise tennis to a minimalist art form, it was this one.

The American is among the least likely to have his serve returned, and the least likely to return anyone else’s serve. The Spaniard’s corkscrew lefty spin is among the most difficult to handle on grass, and his one-handed backhand will never be a match for Isner’s sky-scraping kick serve. The best he could do with most of Isner’s high-bouncing balls was wave his racquet at them, put his head down, and walk to the other side of the court. Throw in the lulling tones of Brazil’s Carlos Bernardes in the chair and you had the perfect recipe for a nice, and potentially long, afternoon nap. Or at least a daydream—even Feli said he had trouble keeping his mind on the matters at hand.

“There are a lot of points you don’t play,” Lopez said. “You have to be always aware until the chance is coming.”

“It could certainly come down to a few points here or there,” Isner said beforehand. He probably didn't know how right he would be. Isner won the first-set tiebreaker 10-8; Lopez won the second-set tiebreaker 8-6. Isner won the first one with a very good, clutch low backhand return at 8-8. Lopez won the second one with two very good, clutch forehand pass winners. On those two shots, Isner gave him a chance by leaving his forehand approach a foot or two short. In this type of a match, it might not be a couple of points that decides the outcome; it might be a couple of feet.

But this epic-in-the-making failed to make it all the way there. The cracks in the American’s game, and the fruits of Lopez’s tactics, began to show in the third-set tiebreaker. Despite drilling two aces, Isner won just three points. In part that’s because of what Lopez was doing on his return.

“Sometimes I was guessing where he’s going to go,” Lopez said, “because it’s so tough to return his serve. Even though you know where he’s going to serve, sometimes it’s really difficult. So I was guessing. Sometimes I made it; sometimes I don’t.”

Lopez made it just enough to squeak through 7-5 in the fourth set; when he pulled off the only break of the day with a backhand pass at 5-5, he leaped high and fist-pumped as much with surprise as with joy. He would go on to win, despite having been aced 52 times.

Or was that because he was aced 52 times? By guessing where Isner was going, Lopez was willing to be aced in exchange for the opportunity to get a better crack at his returns when he guessed right—this was how Andre Agassi played Pete Sampras, though it usually didn’t work. 

Today it worked for Feli. By the middle of the fourth set, Isner’s head was hanging, and he went down 0-30 on his serve two straight times before finally being broken. Lopez, who has won 13 of his last 14 matches on grass, will play Stan Wawrinka on Tuesday.

*****

“I was so solid, so calm, you know, during all the match and all the points. Just wait when it was comfortable and I was aggressive.”

Ekaterina Makarova sounded like she was in a tennis player’s dream world in her 6-3, 6-0 win over No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska. And that’s how it looked from the sidelines. Makarova did whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, against Aga.

As it does for most players, the Russian’s roll began with her serve—she made 78 percent of first balls and won 87 percent of those points. She was even more dominant from the ground, where she hit 24 winners and made just six errors. That’s a Wimbledon error count, of course, but there was no subjectivity about the point total—Makaraova won 57, Radwanska a forlorn 31.

Makarova was in the zone, but what happened to Aga? She’s usually a master of getting people out of the zone. Today Radwanska was utterly flat; grass usually helps her shots pick up pace, but she came up with just 10 winners and earned just two break points. Aga, after winning their first three meetings, also lost to Makarova at the U.S. Open last year, so clearly there’s something about her game that she doesn’t like these days. When Radwanska gets on the bad side of a rivalry, she has trouble getting back on the good—see her one-sided match-ups with Serena, Vika, and Kvitova. But this was an especially dismal performance from her, on her most successful Grand Slam surface. 

Radwanska’s loss also leaves the bottom of the women’s draw decimated of high seeds. The two quarterfinals on that side will pit Makarova against Lucie Safarova, and Petra Kvitova vs. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. If you’re counting, that gives the Czech Republic a 75 percent chance of placing a woman in the final.

*****

Who do the crowds love at Wimbledon? They’ve surprised me a little this year. 

For one, they’ve gone all-in for underdogs. I know Great Britain is the land of, as Billie Jean King once said, the “R/U”—the runner up—but this year its tennis fans have sounded, at times, more like a U.S. Open crowd. Rafael Nadal vs. Martin Klizan and Lukas Rosol; Alize Cornet vs. Serena Williams; Novak Djokovic vs. Radek Stepanek and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: All of those matches have inspired an anarchic pro-upset sentiment.

Tsonga-Djokovic I can understand, because they like Jo here, and until the third set, the match was an utterly one-sided bore—the Frenchman, as he so often does, needed a little revving up. In the end, it was Djokovic who was left fully revved. His “how you like me now?” nod after his winning return on match point was a little like his “how you like me now?” nod to the crowd in New York after his winning return on match point for Roger Federer in 2011. Today Djokovic said he was happy to end the match then and there.

“I’m just glad that I didn’t allow him to go into a fourth set,” Djokovic said, “because he started to use obviously the crowd support. I knew he was going to do that because he’s the kind of player who feeds off the energy.”

Has the feeling for Nadal at Wimbledon changed now that’s he an overdog? In the past, he was a favorite here; but the loudest cheers this year have come for his opponents. And when he began to pound the last of those opponents, Mikhail Kukushkin, into submission, the audience looked beaten down, and bored, as well. 

From what I’ve seen in 2014, aside from Andy Murray's matches, the Centre Court spectators have mostly looked bored whenever the roof has been closed—it’s a drearier, darker, smaller, more sterile scene in there without the sun. I've noticed just one exception to this rule: When Federer has played, the fans have been smiling. Not chanting or screaming their heads off; but at least they've been smiling. Even in routine victory, he remains an event unto himself for Wimbledon's fans.

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

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