With the second round closing up today at Wimbledon and the start of third-round matches, we’re nearing the first weekend with the brackets and the shape of this year’s slice of history beginning to crystallize out of the raw materials of pre-match expectation. The first two rounds are the place where we discover the very best that tennis has to offer… and bring out the very worst for those who fail to deliver on expectation. With that in mind, here is a handful of thoughts on the early-round action from the All-England Lawn Tennis Club:
- Li Not Clay/Grass Double Material This Year — Li Na looked like she had a charmed route to the late round of Wimbledon, where she had confirmed her breakthrough semifinal appearance at the Australian Open earlier in the year with a quarterfinal spot opposite eventual champ Serena Williams. This year in London she easily swept aside Alla Kudryavtseva in the opening round, with German wild-card bomber Sabine Lisicki standing in the way of a rapidly clearing path. The two set up on Centre Court after the five-set thriller between Robin Soderling and Lleyton Hewitt that went the Swede’s way after starting down two sets. But with the road relatively clear to match up against Serena again in the quarters, Li choked away a first-set lead to lose 3-6 6-4 8-6. The #3 seed after Kim Clijsters’ withdrawal, she was the highest seed yet to get bounced from the ladies’ draw this year. But it is a minor setback for the Australian Open finalist and defending French Open champion; with the U.S. Open coming up in a few months she has time to return to her favorite surface and get ready to try to claim a second Grand Slam. Of course, that won’t come in time to rescue what is now a completely busted bracket for me… but that’s the fun of predictions in the end, watching them crumble as greatness transcends expectation.
- Hewitt Nearly Turns Back Time — It is hard to believe, but in the past decade only four men have won the gentlemen’s singles championship at Wimbledon. One, Goran Ivanisevic, won at the turn of the century as the only wild-card entry ever to take the title. The next year, Lleyton Hewitt followed his 2001 U.S. Open victory with a dominant performance against David Nalbandian in the final on Centre Court that was a harbinger of the return to baseline tennis after a decade of serve-and-volley victors. Then 2003 hit, Roger Federer started his five-year run at the top, and Hewitt became an afterthought — albeit a two-time Grand Slam-winning afterthought that had been the #1 player in the world for 80 weeks between November 2001 and June 2003. And then… he faded, injuries and others’ dominance sapping any remaining Grand Slam titles from his body. But at #130 in the world, the 30-year-old Aussie has seen time unkind to him. He would look like his old self for a bit against Robin Soderling, stealing the first two sets, but he would steal defeat with a gruesome 6-7(5) 3-6 7-5 6-4 6-4 scoreline that ended in each of the final three sets on break point. Soderling marches on, and we’re left to wonder how long the former champ will remain active on the ATP Tour on which he’s now battled for fourteen years.
- Old, As Always, is Relative — A lot has been made about the advancing years of some of tennis’ stars ahead of Wimbledon. While Federer, with the youngsters threatening his all-time bona fides, is the main story on the men’s side when it comes to age-related question marks, on the women’s we’re wondering just what Venus Williams can bring to the table at the place she has ruled as queen five times since 2000. Of course, while we were wondering about the former Wimbledon champs skirting either side of 30, up came 40-year-old Japanese journeywoman Kimiko Date-Krumm trying to steal away Venus’ chance at a sixth title before it could even begin. Edging out an 8-6 tiebreak to lead out of the gate, Date-Krumm was bested 6-3 in the second set but gutted out point after point against her bigger, younger, stronger opponent with a dazzling display of how athletes should be — healthy enough to maintain their level of performance longer than the rest of us should be able. It made Venus, and Federer, and all the 30+ champions still around still harbor hope — maybe that’s what stimulated Hewitt’s near-upset of Soderling.
- But Age Means Something Different for Everyone — In the grand scheme of things, Andy Roddick isn’t exactly old. At 28 the guy is exactly three months older than me, so again age is relative. But since that epic 2009 Wimbledon final against Federer, the American has regressed further within himself. With a game that is rapidly betraying him as he tries to modify his actions into the type of player he never has been and probably never will be, Roddick fell further from grace and will be further buried in the list of top Americans… which might be even worse than his tumble down the ATP rankings themselves. In losing to Feliciano Lopez in the second round at Wimbledon, he has in the span of two years gone from washed-up to nearly claiming his first Wimbledon in one of the greatest finals in history — to looking more and more washed up with results like his 7-6(2) 7-6(2) 6-4 straight-sets ouster against a man who has been to the quarters twice here but has never looked the part of the potential champion…