Do you relish watching the giants of our sport play? Or do you prefer the next generation of young stars? Whichever you fancy, the second week of Wimbledon will treat you to both.
As expected, the reigning Big Four — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — are still alive. And one of these giants will likely capture the title, just as they have every year since Jolly Roger started their Wimbledon stranglehold in 2003.
While the Old World Order is the motif on the men’s side, chaos prevails on the women’s side. Like the Serena-less French Open, this equally wide open Wimbledon will almost certainly crown a new queen. That is, unless five-time champion Venus Williams, now an ancient 37, somehow conjures up her old-time magic to hoist the trophy called the Venus Rosewater Dish. Already beaten are pre-tournament co-favourites World No. 3 Karolina Pliskova and two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, who returned to the tour after a knife attack severely injured her playing hand. This leaves Venus as the only past titlist still in the draw.
Let’s review the opening week and preview the decisive week.
Rafa on a rampage
Rafael Nadal suffered no let-down after winning his record 10th French Open four weeks ago. With fire in his eyes and firepower on his shots, the Spanish conquistador hasn’t surrendered a set in three matches, extending his streak to 30 Grand Slam sets won, second only to Federer’s record 35. “A confident Rafa is awesome to watch,” enthused former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport during his 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 rout of rising Russian Karen Kachanov.
Nadal next faces 16th-seeded Giles Muller, a lefty serve-volley veteran, and if form prevails, then 7th-seeded Marin Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open winner, in the quarterfinals and reigning Wimbledon champ Andy Murray in the semis. If Nadal takes out these tough opponents, he could face Federer, the oddsmakers’ favourite, in the final.
“Whenever I play against Federer, I have to be perfect,” hyper-modest Nadal recently said. The Spaniard dropped his last three matches to the Swiss, including their riveting Australian Open final in January.
Their last encounter on the hallowed Centre Court grass? In the unforgettable 2008 final, Nadal outlasted his arch-rival 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 in what the cognoscenti consider the greatest match in tennis history.
Venus’ last best chance
Venus seized the last of her five Big W titles way back in 2008 when she upset little sister Serena. But in three other finals — in 2002, 2003 and 2009 — Serena won the battle between the two greatest sister superstars in sports history. With Serena six months pregnant and no other past Wimbledon champions left in the draw, Venus has her last best chance to win another major title.
If her last hurrah happens, it won’t come easily. Venus has already survived three difficult matches over foes ranked only in the 50s. Situated in the much-tougher half of the draw, she next plays hard-hitting, 19-year-old Ana Konjuh, the 28th seed. If she survives that test, 10th-seeded Venus will face French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko or fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals.
Sjogren’s syndrome has reduced Venus’ physical stamina. And the stress from a wrongful death lawsuit for her involvement in a recent Florida car accident has taken a mental toll. During a first-round press conference, Venus said, “There are no words to describe, like, how devastating and, yeah … Yeah, I am completely speechless. It’s just — yeah, I mean, I’m just …” After her words trailed off, she broke down in tears and left the interview room for a few minutes before returning.
As Davenport wondered, “Can Venus muster that energy with everything that’s happening in her life?”
Did Azarenka’s coach cheat?
Much is commendable about two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka and her determined comeback after giving birth to Leo last December. She trained rigorously, returned with a lean physique, and competes as tenaciously as ever. But during her 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory over Heather Watson, Vika received illegal coaching via hand signals from Michael Joyce, according to BBC commentator Kim Clijsters, a four-time major champion. Clijsters alleged that Joyce advised Azarenka on some technical aspects of her forehand. A disapproving but resigned Chris Evert, an ESPN analyst and former superstar, remarked, “I believe that most players get illegal help during matches. It’s a finger here, a finger there.”
Azarenka scoffed at the accusation, saying, “I don’t know what people are talking about, because I’m one of the players who rarely actually looks at the (Player’s) Box. If that was coaching, I guess I missed it. I mean, ‘illegal coaching’ sounds like he’s done something criminal.”
Coaching is prohibited at Grand Slam events, and this longtime rule can and should be enforced. A chair umpire, focused on the match, cannot monitor an offending coach who uses hand signals (rather than shouting advice). When illegal coaching is suspected, a tournament official should be dispatched to the Player’s Box to report it to the umpire and referee. Then this fair and necessary rule can be enforced by issuing warnings and point penalties, and if necessary, by removing the offending coach.
An early-round classic
Grand Slam champions often must overcome a supreme challenge early in the tournament. If Johanna Konta wins her first major this fortnight, her memorable 7-6, 4-6, 10-8 victory over Donna Vekic was just such a challenge.
For three hours and ten minutes, in the longest, closest, and best women’s match so far, the 26-year-old Brit and the 21-year-old Croat slugged it out with big first serves and concussive groundstrokes. Konta wound up with an astounding 55 winners and Vekic 42, far exceeding their 21 and 24 errors, respectively. Vekic was so devastated by the defeat that she started weeping when the two warriors embraced at the net.
“This is one of the few second-round matches I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” raved ESPN analyst and former doubles star Pam Shriver. “It was absolutely extraordinary. Vekic announced herself as a possible contender (for major titles), and this (impressive win) could raise Konta into a contender to win here.”
With the sixth-seeded Konta now the oddsmakers’ favourite, the London tabloids are hyping a potential “British Double”— titles by Konta and World No. 1 Murray. On the growing pressure to become the first British ladies’ champion in 40 years, Konta said, “I’m more manic, but I also feel blessed to play before a home crowd.”
The under-the-radar gang
“I don’t know why she’s No. 25 in the world. She should be No. 5 in the world,” declared Pat Cash, CoCo Vandeweghe’s new coach. So far anyway, the calmer and less error-prone Californian is sure playing like No. 5. CoCo is most comfortable on grass where she’s won 32 of her last 42 matches. Giving up no more than seven games a match in overpowering three opponents, the 6’1” Vandeweghe keeps gaining momentum. She’s also located in by far the weakest quarter of the draw. Only one seed, the No. 5 but beatable Caroline Wozniacki, who has never reached the Wimbledon quarters, is left in her path to the semis.
How can Angelique Kerber, the 2016 Wimbledon finalist and world’s No. 1 player for the past 34 weeks, fly under the radar, you ask? Good question until you consider the 29-year-old German fräulein hasn’t won a tournament in a whopping ten months. Summing up her prolonged slump, Kerber confided, “I can say it’s easier to go there (No. 1) than to stay there.” Kerber, who has to make the final to keep her No. 1 ranking, barely overcame unseeded Shelby Rogers 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 to reach the Round of 16. The next round won’t get any easier. Kerber faces Garbine Muguruza, the 2015 finalist, who defeated Kerber in their last four matches.
“Gulbis is an incredibly dangerous player when he’s mentally all there,” said former World No. 8 Marty Fish, now a Tennis Channel analyst. “He has big weapons on this surface.” A scion of the third-wealthiest family in Latvia, Ernests Gulbis has intermittently lacked the motivation to train and compete during his chequered career. In 2014, when he shocked Federer at the French Open, Gulbis confided he was on the last-chance train. After upsetting 2016 Olympic silver medalist Juan Martin del Potro, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 this year in the Wimbledon second round, the big-serving, 589th-ranked Gulbis remarked, “I was wrong. Maybe now is the last-chance train!” His ride here came to an abrupt halt when Djokovic derailed him 6-4, 6-1, 7-6.
You aren’t alone if you never heard of Sebastian Ofner. The 21-year-old Austrian qualifier, who admitted “I wasn’t a good junior (player),” didn’t even take tournament tennis seriously until he was 19. Ofner, ranked a lowly 217, had competed only at “Futures” and “Challengers” events — the minor leagues of tennis — earning a measly $15,013 this year going into Wimbledon. In this almost-anything-can-happen sport, Ofner upset 17th-seeded Jack Sock 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 6-2. By reaching the third round, where he was trounced by 10th-seeded Alexander Zverev, the handsome Ofner pocketed $171,000, more than double what he earned the rest of his career.
“I never played before on grass, and now I’m in the third round, so I can’t believe it either,” Ofner said after his amazing breakthrough.
Aces and faults
Even more disgraceful and bizarre than Bernard Tomic’s half-hearted effort in a 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 first-round loss to Mischa Zverev were his post-match comments. Tomic confessed, “I couldn’t care less if I make a fourth-round U.S. Open or I lose first round. To me, everything is the same. You know, I’m going to play another 10 years, and I know after my career I won’t have to work again. So for me this is mental.”
The 24-year-old Australian clearly needs an intervention from his family, friends, a psychologist, and even an ethicist.
Peter Woodville, a 14-year-old from Philadelphia, called out to Jack Sock to throw him a Wimbledon towel after Sock’s first-round victory. The prized towel arrived a bit off target, and Peter was shocked when it was ripped out of his hands by a boorish man in the row below. Three days later, the solicitous Sock apologised to young Peter, an avid tennis fan, and gave him another towel.
Daniil Medvedev, a 49th-ranked Russian, threw a handful of coins toward chair umpire Mariana Alves following his second-round loss because he was displeased with one of the calls early in the fifth set of his 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3 loss to Ruben Bemelmans. Afterward, a contrite Medvedev said, “I was just disappointed and (did) a stupid thing. Maybe during the match, I thought that it was a bit not in my favour, but right now I can just say that it happens everywhere in every sport. There are referees, and they can make some mistakes. But as a tennis player, I (make) some mistakes, too. I just have to apologise.”
The insect invasion
Humans share our lonely planet with other animals and insects, and the lush lawns of Wimbledon have demonstrated — even dramatised — that over the years. The match interruptions, sometimes amusing and other times exasperating, have featured a squirrel (1949), bees (1982), sparrows (1989), a mouse (1998), and pigeons (1999).
For the past 10 years, Rufus, a no-nonsense Harris Hawk, has patrolled the grounds and air to prevent pigeons from fouling the area and gobbling up grass seed. “If a pigeon wants to fight him, they can hang around and give it a go,” Rufus’ handler Imogen Davis told the AFP. “But ultimately it’s predator versus prey — and they’re going to take off every time.”
Insects had a decided advantage, though, on Day 3 of this Wimbledon. A wave of flying queen ants looking for males to mate with invaded the All England Lawn Tennis Club. “I definitely have taken home a few — both in my belly and in my bags,” said Konta after her marathon victory over Vekic. Asked by a reporter if the insects were tasty, the proper Brit, with a stiff upper lip, replied, “I didn’t think about it. I’d rather not.”
The last word on the flying ants went to American veteran Sam Querrey. After his second-round victory, Querrey quipped, “If I had won that set, it wouldn’t have bugged me as much.”