By Anusha Rasalingam
In a sport that famously lacks an offseason, today is one of the few days in the year where the tennis world stops to take its collective breath. Like many of us, who are now tethered to work wherever we go, today’s tennis players spend much of the rest of the year training, playing matches, and traveling. Today, however, the players still in the Wimbledon draw will be forced to take a small break from the grind, and to reflect on the first week of the tournament – and the first half of 2014, while looking forward to their second week matches and their goals for the rest of the year.
Wimbledon is the perfect time and place for this forced break. Unlike the other majors, where players are housed in hotels, Wimbledon presents players with an opportunity to rent homes in the village, perfect for group dinners (Rafa’s pasta with prawns has been well documented on the Internet), Wii competitions, and a relaxed “home” atmosphere that is a rare luxury on the tour. In addition, the middle Sunday falls at the halfway point of the calendar year, and between the grueling clay and hard court seasons, where the majority of titles and points are won and lost.
Unlike the topsy-turvy first week of last year’s Wimbledon, this year’s tournament has gone largely according to form, with the exits of Li Na and Serena Williams as the notable exceptions. Li’s departure seems less shocking, even though she is the reigning Australian Open champion – her results have not been consistent. The same might have been said about Serena a few years ago, prior to her blockbuster results in 2012 and 2013, but her desultory loss to Alize Cornet yesterday was a head scratcher. Martina Navratilova famously noted that, towards the end of her career, it was the mental fatigue that led to losses more than losing a step with age. Serena’s 2014 swoon – dismal results in all of the Grand Slams, and a public admission of burnout – may be a harbinger of the tough final act that many great champions have endured. By contrast, her sister Venus’ hard fought battle against Petra Kvitova, easily the best match of the first week, seemed more a triumph than a loss. Venus dismissed any thought of retirement and chided the press for attempting to write a happy ending for tennis players who weren’t ready to leave the stage. While both are still participating in the doubles, one has to believe that Venus will do so with a calmer spirit than Serena.
As Venus and Serena left the singles draw, the focus is now on the expected final of Sharapova and Kvitova – a rematch of the 2011 final, and a chance for the one of two remaining titleholders to add a second Wimbledon title to her first. But, perhaps this will be the tournament where a highly touted newcomer – Bouchard, Keys, or Halep — will stun the tennis world as Sharapova did a decade ago. Or, maybe Wozniacki, Radwanska or Ivanovic will be able to erase recent disappointments with the greatest prize in tennis.
Despite the relative slowdown of the Big Four, the first week has largely fallen into form for the men, with Murray and Federer advancing easily, while Djokovic and Nadal have had more challenging matches in the first week. As the grass wears down, Djokovic and Nadal’s chances of reprising their Roland Garros final increase, though the strong form of Federer and Murray may spoil the party. The ATP’s Generation Next continues to show greater consistency, with Dimitrov, Nishikori, Kyrgios and Nishikori still in the draw, while Stan Wawrinka is certainly hoping to recapture his Melbourne magic in Week 2. Next week brings a rematch of Federer and Robredo, whose last match at the US Open was a humid, sweaty affair where Federer bowed out relatively meekly, and a chance for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to redeem what has been a disappointing year with a win over Novak Djokovic. With a win a week from today, the remaining three-quarters of the Big Four – Djokovic, Federer, and Murray can stop the relative slide that they have endured in recent times.
Yet the biggest story of week one might be darkness. While the flashbulbs and dark skies provided a dramatic backdrop to the 2008 Nadal-Federer classic final, this week’s controversies over play continuing into darkness have the same tenor as the 2003 U.S. Open line call controversies that brought us Hawk-Eye. If this were anywhere else but Wimbledon, the introduction of a sponsored light meter would be a good bet for 2015. As it is, along with Fabio Fognini and yet more chatter about time between points, it’s added a familiar accent to last week’s proceedings – controversies about the rules.
While this day of reflection is welcome, its end can’t come soon enough, as the upcoming week of tennis promises to be full of tennis’ most compelling storylines.