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Wimbledon's surprise party for 10,000: What we'll remember
Spectator numbers swelled to five digits by the end of the fortnight—a welcome return to a semblance of normalcy following the brutal pandemic lockdowns.
Published Jul 12, 2021
WATCH: A young fan receives an unexpected gift from champion Novak Djokovic on Centre Court.
The top seeds—Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty—won the two main singles titles at Wimbledon. Nothing very surprising about that, was there?
But for casual fans and even some dedicated ones, the end result obscures the fact that this 2021 Wimbledon was loaded with surprises, starting with the presence of spectators, whose numbers swelled to more than 10,000 by the end of the fortnight. It was a welcome return to a semblance of normalcy following the brutal pandemic lockdowns.
The resulting euphoria and rekindled inspiration among the players probably helps explain why this Wimbledon turned into a surprise party for 10,000.
Let’s look at some of the key people and accomplishments that enlivened the first significant event of what—one hopes—will be tennis' “post-pandemic” period.
Matteo Berrettini rolled into Wimbledon with a hot hand, winning the major tune-up tournament at Queen's Club. But the No. 7 seed's name scarcely came up in the pre-tournament "expert picks," despite the omissions of Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem. In five previous majors, he has not replicated or improved on his US Open semifinal of 2019—but he absolutely crushed it in London, losing just three sets on his way to a four-set loss to Djokovic in the final.
“He is the Italian hammer,” Djokovic said of Berrettini, who hit a tournament leading 117 aces, 16 in the final. “I felt it on my skin.”
Back in the high life again. . .
Karolina Pliskova’s head was barely above water coming into Wimbledon; she was just 14-12 on the year. Following her first-round loss at the tune-up at Eastbourne, she had fallen out of the Top 10 for the first time since 2016. Still, the former US Open runner-up felt dissed by the All England Club itself, never mind all those Internet trolls. All of the No. 8 seed's matches before the semis were relegated to outside courts, and her interviews took place in the secondary, smaller rooms. (Even if done virtually.) That all changed when she belted her way to the final, where she recovered from a slow start to push Ash Barty to three sets in a losing effort.
“I think they [the haters] can be quite brutal,” Pliskova said upon reaching the final, adding, of her beef with the club: “Doesn’t matter now. I played on Court 1. I think I did pretty well. Also [I am] in this big [interview] room, so I think things are getting much better.”
Did Stefanos Tsitsipas just win Olympic gold?
Frances Tiafoe was a tepid 18-14 on the year coming into Wimbledon, and just weeks earlier he had gone down to the Challenger level to rebuild his confidence. The result was the major upset of the tournament, his first-round win over No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Tsitsipas was the French Open runner-up just two weeks earlier. Coming off yet another great run—most pundits pick him as the most likely under-30 performer to break the Big Three’s monopoly on Grand Slam titles—Tsitsipas seemed ill-prepared for the transition to grass, mentally as well as physically. Now the Greek can rest and get recharged for the Olympic Games, which begin for tennis players on July 26.
Earning a gold medal still represents the epitome of success in Greece and many other nations. When Tsitsipas was asked if the Olympics was still on his schedule, he immediately fired back, “For sure.”
She just can’t Kerb her enthusiasm
Angelique Kerber is 33 and hadn’t gone past the fourth round at a major since she won Wimbledon in 2018. She seemed to be easing out of the game, and toted a 10-10 record into the grass-court tune-up for Wimbledon at Bad Homburg, Germany. But she won the title there, and slashed her way to the semifinals of Wimbledon, losing to Barty.
“I was never stopping believing in myself, in my team,” Kerber told reporters following her quarterfinal win. “ I love to play tennis. I love this sport, to go out there and play again in front of the fans—I think this gives me also, like, that push to play my best tennis.
Here comes Hammering Hubie!
Who was talking about Hubert Hurkacz on the eve of this event? Nobody, and for good reason. Although the 24-year-old won the Miami Masters, he was mired in a six-match losing streak dating back to Monte Carlo, and was barely above .500 on the year (22-20). At Wimbledon, he stunned No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev in five sets, then played the role of villain by taking out 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer to make the semifinals.
“I knew it's a quarterfinal against Roger, but I was trying to focus with my coach, C.B. (Craig Boynton), on [just] the game plan,” said Hurkacz, who won over a Federer-mad crowd with his humility, calm demeanor, and modest on-court interview.
She took our breath away
Emma Raducanu, 18, became a sensation at Wimbledon as the youngest British woman to reach the fourth round in the Open era. She then found herself struggling to breathe while trailing Ajla Tomljanovic, 6-4, 3-0, and withdrew from the match. The nimble, energetic high school student was ranked a stratospheric No. 338 at the outset, and had played exactly one previous tour-level match in her young career. But given a wild card, she proved her mettle with three straight-sets upsets that included wins over veterans Marketa Voundrousova and Sorana Cirstea.
“I think that it was a combination of everything that has gone on behind the scenes in the last week, the accumulation of the excitement, the buzz,” Raducanu said of the breathing troubles that led her, under medical advice, to abandon the match. “I think it's a great learning experience for me going forwards. Now next time hopefully I'll be better prepared.”
A different kind of Karen
Karen Khachanov, who won the prestigious Paris Masters indoor event when he was just 22 and quickly shot to No. 8 in the rankings, returned to earth soon thereafter. He got lost in the shuffle of fellow emerging Russians Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, and fell as low as No. 29, shortly before the start of Wimbledon. But the Bunyanesque 6'6" Khachanov blasted his way to the quarterfinals, where he lost a tough five-setter to Denis Shapovalov.
Khachanov and Sebastian Korda, both big servers, played one of the most unusual matches in Wimbledon history in the fourth round. They established a new Wimbledon record with 13 combined service breaks as Khachanov pulled out the win, 10-8 in the fifth.
“I don’t know, it’s tough to explain,” Khachanov quipped afterward. “At least we made some record.”
Ons is not enough
Unlike some of the other surprising performers, the clever and crafty Ons Jabeur was having an excellent year coming into Wimbledon. The Tunisian was 29-11, with two finals (1-1) to her credit. Still, few expected the No. 21 seed to eliminate three Grand Slam singles champions in as many successive matches before she reached the quarterfinals. Venus Williams, the oldest competitor in either singles draw at 41, was the first to fall. It was hardly surprising—but then Jabeur also tagged former Wimbledon winner Garbine Muguruza and former French Open champion Iga Swiatek. Many had picked Swiatek, the No. 7 seed, to win Wimbledon.
“I hope I can break this barrier of quarterfinals next time for Grand Slams and be able to go further,” Jabeur, the first Arab woman to punch through to a Grand Slam quarterfinal, said after losing in the quarters to Aryna Sabalenka. “The good news is I have things to work on. I'm very positive for the future.”
Making the most of a bad situation
With a few exceptions, the men’s contingent from the United States basically took it on the chin, at yet another major. Sebastian Korda was the only American to reach the fourth round, but 28-year-old journeyman Denis Kudla actually won the most matches at Wimbledon, surviving three rounds of qualifying before he knocked out No. 30 seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and then the savvy Andreas Seppi. Kudla eventually ran afoul of top seed Djokovic in the third round, with predictable results. He did, however, win over the British crowd on Centre Court on a day when he was able to make the heavy favorite work for every point.
“I just feel like a lot of tennis players are pretty stale,” Kudla said of his successful effort to woo the spectators with displays of emotion. “So I wanted to be able to throw a little something in there, entertain [the crowd]. . . Getting entertaining, talking with them, interacting, it's what people want to see.”
The Couple in the Bubble
It was a pretty good fortnight all around for the happy tennis couple Matteo Berrettini and Alja Tomljanovic. While there were no surprise semifinalists this time around in the women's draw, the quarterfinals produced four, including the fiery Tomljanovic. She was just 16-14 and ranked No. 75 at the start of the tournament. She then beat former French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko and tricky Alize Cornet before Barty, with Berrettini looking on, ushered her out.
Would she come out to watch her boyfriend’s semifinal match the following day, Tomljanovic was asked after she lost?
“Definitely,” She replied. I mean, I don't have anything else to do.”