Through three rounds at Wimbledon, it felt like 2017 was the year of Rafael Nadal — Australian Open final, 10th Roland Garros title, domination of the clay court season, and showing the best form on grass that we’ve seen in years. Yet, he ended up leaving SW19 earlier than anticipated, thanks to the unwavering resolve of Gilles Muller. Muller has always been a tough match-up for Nadal — the lefty serve and volleying skills are especially dangerous on grass. On Monday, Muller’s serve was an enigma to Nadal, who is one of tennis’ great problem-solvers, and Nadal could not make any inroads through two sets. Not surprisingly, Rafa reacted to his 0-2 set deficit by literally roaring back, making his only break point conversions to get one break each in sets 3 and 4. At this point, it seemed rather inevitable that 2017 Rafa would charge away with the match in the fifth set, but Muller did what no one predicted — he stood his ground. Serving first throughout the set, Muller gave away few points in his service games, and was able to begin nearly every Nadal service game with a one or two point lead. Even when he lost multiple match points, Muller simply continued grinding, and eventually won. In a way, it was his whole career writ small — grinding diligently for years, only to emerge in 2017 with his first tournament title and best win at a major. Even though the casual fan may only see him as a footnote to this year’s Wimbledon results, certainly Gilles Muller would tell you that 2017 is his year too.
As for Rafa, this one has to hurt. Based on his form all year, it was hard not to expect to see him playing next Sunday — after all, even Roger Federer felt like it was a sure bet. Rafa didn’t play badly on Monday, and he was facing exactly the type of opponent that has given him trouble on grass in recent years — big serving, adept on grass, and full of resolve. One suspects that Nadal is sanguine enough to look back and see that Wimbledon will always be a stretch, and that he will move forward through the year with the confidence he had before Monday’s match.
The ladies’ matches on Monday were nearly all blockbusters, even if they were largely relegated to the outer reaches of the grounds. In what might be the signature rivalry of the tour over the last few years, Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza, the last two finalists (each losing to Serena Williams) battled for a spot in the quarter finals. Kerber has come down from the stratospheric heights of her 2016, but was fierce in her resistance to the onslaught of hard hitting from Muguruza. Muguruza has suffered her own relative slump since winning Roland Garros last year, as well. In a classic puncher-counter-puncher battle, Kerber scrambled and parried in the way that had led her to two Slam titles and a Slam final last year, but Muguruza’s attack was unrelenting, reminiscent of the way her coach, Conchita Martinez, stormed her way to her sole Wimbledon title in 1994. Kerber will relinquish the number one ranking with this loss, but she has to walk away pleased with her efforts and able to build on them, despite the disappointment of losing. As for Muguruza, she is one of the biggest hitters left in the draw, so her chances are looking pretty good right now.
The good part of Manic Monday is that it shows the breadth and depth of the tennis tours, and showcases the very best about them. The bad part is that there is a lot of tennis to be played and to be covered, so it’s hard to give all of the matches their full due. That said, it sets up what looks to be a fantastic second week, and these are the storylines I’ll be watching;
*Venus-Ostapenko is a writer’s dream of a match, experience vs. exuberance, a young player’s drive to get to the top versus a veteran’s chance to shine as she has here for so many years. It will be hard to have only one of them in the draw after today.
*Marin Cilic is playing the best tennis of the tournament, and he is on a course to meet Andy Murray, who is not at his best. As he has shown before, Cilic can beat literally anyone on any day — the question here is, will he?
*It’s been 12 years since Svetlana Kuznetsova won her first Slam, and she is still a reliable presence in the Slams today — she faces fellow powerhouse Garbine Muguruza next, which should prove to be an interesting match. The fact that Sveta has stuck around the tour and played at a high level for so long is a testament to her skill, drive and athleticism — we should enjoy her while we can.
*Are we heading for Federer-Djokovic umpteen million? Federer has to get by Milos Raonic, which can be a tricky match-up, and Djokovic had two matches to complete as of Monday night. If they both get there, it will be an interesting litmus test for both — to see whether Federer’s form is as good as it looks and whether Djokovic is realy back.
*Court scheduling feels like a tempest that only boils up when a tournament is happening and then peters out until the next one. That said, given the relative quality of the WTA matchups on Monday, it was a shame that so many were relegated to the outside courts. Players who don’t consistently get Centre Court (i.e. everyone but Federer and Murray) will have their complaints (see: Rafa, who felt he should have been on Centre instead of Court No. 1), and scheduling isn’t always going to be fair — lower ranked players never play on Centre unless they are playing a top player, so they are at a disadvantage due to lack of familiarity with the court. But, when the basis for putting one match on a show versus another is a broad assumption about gender, it needs to change. (Sorry, Rafa, I can’t get behind your complaint here — but if you ever raise it with the FFT about how you should play in Chatrier all the time, I’m right there with you.)