The Lion King

Thursday, June 26, 2014 /by
Photos by AP, Anita Aguilar
Photos by AP, Anita Aguilar

It was one of those enchanted moments that seems to occur more frequently at Wimbledon than anywhere else. At 8-all in the fifth set of the second-round match between No. 14 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Sam Querrey, the chair umpire announced that play was suspended due to darkness. A collective groan rumbled from the 3,000 or so faithfaul fans who had defied their physical urges and desires (come on, mate, one more Pimm’s before they close the bar!) since the first traces of that melancholy honeyed light began to seep across the pale green grass.

It was compelling stuff, this clash between the muscular, leonine Frenchman and Querrey, who has such soft touch and precision that he often seems more hampered than aided by his 6’6” height. 

But even as some spectators began to gather up their things, resolved to irresolution, Tsonga looked across the net at Querrey and asked a question with nothing more than a flick of his shoulders. Querrey responded with a shrug that suggested, “sure.” The two men walked over and held a brief consultation with the man in the high chair. Even if, like me, you were watching it on television, you could see that the umpire was more or less saying, “Okay, you want to go on, why not?”

Both players wanted to see if they could bring this battle of bullet serves and whiplash forehands to an end before full darkness fell. Apprised of the decision, the fans let out a rousing cheer. A brunette near the court stood, her arms flung wide, holding a half-filled glass of champagne up in a toast to the warriors. She held that glass at just enough of an angle to make it known that she was having a swell time.

But the two players were unable to resolve their disagreement in the two games they managed to play after the brief halt. They had to quit for good two games later, at 9-all, each of them presumably doomed to a restive night no matter how well their trainers might manipulate their quads and biceps.

When the men returned today they resumed at 4 p.m. on a hazy afternoon, not long after Nick Kyrgios and Richard Gasquet stole a little of their thunder by putting on an extra-time show of their own (the Australian teen Kyrgios won it, 10-8 in the fifth). This would be a brand new match, first to reach a two-game lead to win despite the rambling preamble. Querrey had won the first set, 6-4, but he more or less stole it. Like a lazy, confident lion, Tsonga was slow to begin the hunt, which resulted in a service break for Querrey in the very first game of the match.  

Two-and-a-quarter hours would pass before we witnessed another service break.

That next break was crafted by Tsonga, in an hour of desperate need. Querrey led at that point by 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (4), but the break gave Tsonga a 3-1 lead in the fourth set. It was a sure sign that, providing the spirit of each man was willing (not always a given with either of these fellas) this match would go the distance, given the quality of each man’s serve.

A lot has been written in recent years about how much things at Wimbledon have changed, particularly regarding the “speed” of the surface, which is really a height-of-the-bounce issue. But little time has been devoted to rhapsodizing over how, in some ways, tennis on Wimbledon grass hasn’t changed at all. A powerful serve is still more of a pre-emptive weapon at Wimbledon than anywhere else; it’s the equivalent of an armor-piercing shell. True, you only get to use it once per point, and only in every other game at that. But it can either open up or slam the door on all kinds of other possibilities, depending on who is doing the serving.

An Wimbledon veteran watching this one could easily feel transported back in time, as if he were watching a match between, say, Kevin Curren and Slobodan Zivojinovic, minus the volleying bits. For one of the elements that made this match even more one-dimensional than those dust-ups was the lack of the classic form of attacking play, the serve and volley.

What we had here, with both men putting about seven out of 10 first serves into the box, was the serve-and-approach strategy that often resulted in a third-shot winner from just inside the baseline. It’s an effective ploy, yet even though it does open the door to a potential rally, it doesn’t create as clear or complex a narrative as the battle between volley and passing shot.

Yet Tsonga became more menacing in this match in direct proportion to his growing willingness to move forward. That option wasn’t really open to Querrey, who’s not nearly as nimble. Yet the American had unique assets of his own, starting with an extremely versatile backhand that he used at times to dig out balls like a golfer using a sand wedge. At other times, that backhand did good work as a pace-changer (when he used one-handed slice), or even a bludgeoning instrument (when Tsonga attacked). Querrey played terrific defense in this match, even though it was largely a straightforward battle of serves and booming forehands that pushed the receiving player way back off the baseline. Tsonga ultimately edged out Querrey in the ace battle, 37-33.

Neither of these men is famous for his intensity. Tsonga often seems too secure in his place near the top of the food chain, as if he knows he can play with his food with no fear of having it eat him. Querrey is a sensitive, emotional kid who admits he slumped badly last year because of a broken engagement. In this match, though, both of them were fiercely absorbed. And by the fourth and fifth sets it was clear that they were of equal will and determination.

One of the reasons I’ve always loved those icy, old-school shootouts at Wimbledon is because the turning points were sometimes extremely subtle and often really interesting. You watch someone for three or four hours and it’s easy to miss it when he blinks. In this one, though, the blink by Querrey on the first day of play was unmistakable. It was that second break of the match, with Tsonga struggling to stay in the match at 2-1 in the fourth and Querrey serving.

The game flew by in a flash: A backhand pass by Tsonga followed by three swift forehand errors by Querrey—bang, bang bang—was all it took. Querrey took his eye off the proverbial ball for a moment, after nearly two-and-a-half hours of uninterrupted concentration, and that was that.

It would be easy to say that break cost Querrey the match, but that makes it hard explain away the fact that Querrey later had a match point, with Tsonga serving at 5-6 in the fifth set. It was a doozy, too, saved by Tsonga thanks only to his mobility and cat-quick reflexes. The point began with a brief rally, after which Tsonga drew Querrey to the net for an up-close exchange. That ended when Tsonga, anticipating a clever cross-court scoop by Querrey, cut off the ball with a backhand volley winner. He then went on to hold.

Undaunted, Querrey responded with a strong hold. After all, he had been in a similar situation before, out on Court 2, with light leaching out of the air, in a match with historic implications. That day, almost exactly two years ago, Querrey would lose before night fell to Marin Cilic, 17-15 in the fifth, in five hours and 31 minutes. Today he had to be thinking: #Redemption.

When play resumed, Querrey’s opening statement consisted of four straight unreturnable serves. It was a good start, but Tsonga’s resolve of the day before also returned; thus, the men traded serves for six games to reach 12-all.

Querrey issued an ominous double fault to start the next game, but he produced three unreturnable serves and looked safe at 40-15. But his first serve and forehand then suddenly deserted him. Two errors made it deuce. Tsonga then produced a backhand pass to reach break point. His forehand failed him, but from deuce Querrey pasted a backhand wide of the line and Tsonga had another break chance. He converted it when he took the initiative in a high-quality rally to approach behind a forehand. Querrey yanked the backhand pass out, couldn’t break Tsonga in the next game, and suddenly it was all over.

Once again, the lion was king of the jungle.

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