Monday afternoon at the All-England Club, Wimbledon burst into color once again. No seismic upsets greeted The Championships, but many of the matches were complicated enough to unearth a central theme.
Tennis can be a dangerous endeavor, not because losing is a disaster, but because the solo athlete’s sense of his — or her — own self can be so frail. A bad day anywhere is never wished for, but a bad day at Wimbledon often carries extra weight for the losing player. A bad day on the first day of Wimbledon creates an all-too-brief stay in the most fabled village in tennis.
Part of the exquisite drama — and freshness — of the first round at Wimbledon is that unlike the other three majors, every player knows that the feel of the court will be different from the middle and end of the tournament. When Wimbledon works its way into the middle weekend, the baselines begin to be worn from sideline to sideline. By the end of the tournament, a few feet of dirt replace the area behind the baseline, substantially changing a player’s expectations of how firmly a pair of shoes will grab the court.
On day one, though, Wimbledon lawns are as fresh as the morning dew. Throughout the decades, players have slipped and slid through the first days of the fortnight. Such is the precarious nature of a tournament played on a constantly changing surface. Clay courts can be heavy on a rainy day and springy on a dry and sun-baked afternoon, but only grass courts provide a guaranteed and substantial transformation of the playing surface from day one to day 13.
No tournament begins with the same combination of organic uncertainty and history-soaked pressure as Wimbledon. It’s a dangerous place.
The players who get through the early part of Wimbledon aren’t all champions — plenty of players lose in the third and fourth rounds — but the best responses to these first days at the All-England Club are generally authored by the game’s greats.
This reality was displayed on Monday.
Venus Williams is a five-time Wimbledon champion. She didn’t have her best stuff in round one. She faced two break deficits and two set points in the first set against Donna Vekic, a player who will turn 20 on Tuesday. She was often outhit and occasionally outplayed.
She won in straight sets, 7-6, 6-4.
Venus handled every significant moment of the match with the poise you’d expect from a legend of the game. Vekic constantly challenged Venus, but Venus steadied herself every time she needed to be better.
Vekic won plenty of points, but Venus won the right ones.
That’s the art of living confidently, and that’s why Venus — a legitimate contender for this title, given her draw — escaped what would have been a wrenching loss on a day when she didn’t establish much of a rhythm.
This same tendency to win the right points, even while playing at a relatively low standard, belonged to Roger Federer in a straight-set win over Guido Pella. Federer failed to break Pella — a genuinely bad grass-court player — in each of the first two sets. He went 0 for 8 on break points in set two. Yet, for all the errors he sprayed, Federer produced his best tennis in two tiebreakers before finding a bigger comfort zone in the third set. The difference between a great player’s on-court comportment and an average player’s nerves could not have been made plainer at Wimbledon.
A third match revealed this same basic dynamic as well, but the plot twist here is that a young player — not Venus or Federer — persevered in the face of pressure. Garbine Muguruza, coming off her French Open title and given a rough draw against Camila Giorgi, could have easily relented on Centre Court after Giorgi took the second set, 7-5.
Muguruza could have been the latest in a long list of players to flourish at the French Open and then crash out of Wimbledon on a noticeably different surface. Something inside her could have told her to be satisfied with a Roland Garros trophy, and no one would have blamed her too much. Yet, she kept fighting, and she was rewarded for her professionalism.
The art of living confidently matters in every sport, and in every tennis tournament, but it never matters more than on day one of Wimbledon.
Elsewhere on Monday:
— Novak Djokovic endured a tense second set to move past James Ward in straight sets. The overwhelming men’s singles favorite got just enough of a test to feel he has played his way into the tournament.
— Madison Keys and Milos Raonic scored routine straight-set victories at the beginning of a tournament in which they’re expected to make the quarterfinals at worst. Keys is a legitimate contender for the women’s final.
— Surprise French Open semifinalist Kiki Bertens did not suffer a letdown in a first-round win. On the men’s side, Kevin Anderson — who led Novak Djokovic by two sets in the fourth round of Wimbledon last year — lost another two-set lead, this time to Denis Istomin.
— Ana Ivanovic’s career continues to decline thanks to a first-round loss on Monday. Ever since an appearance in the 2015 French Open semifinals, Ivanovic hasn’t gotten past the third round of a major tournament.
— Former Wimbledon semifinalist Lucie Safarova overcame a large deficit — a set and 5-2 — to beat doubles partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands in three sets.
— Jack Sock straight-setted Ernests Gulbis to successfully begin his campaign in suburban London.
— Last but certainly not least, Marcus Willis of Great Britain — ranked 772nd in the world — moved up at least 350 places in the rankings by toppling No. 54 Ricardas Berankis. Willis gets to play Federer next in round two on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s marquee matches:
Dominic Thiem vs Florian Mayer: Both men made the semifinals in Halle, an ATP 500 grass-court event, on June 18. Thiem figured to advance to the final, but Mayer — a veteran trying to build back his game after being sidelined by an injury — outfoxed the Austrian youngster. Thiem and Novak Djokovic are the runaway leaders in match wins this year on the ATP Tour. Thiem gained a No. 8 seed when Rafael Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon. As a reward for that elevated seed, Thiem must face Mayer.
As far as first-round matches go, this one’s quite significant. The winner should make his way to the second week.
Monica Puig vs Johanna Konta: Puig is a dangerous floater in the women’s draw, a player who has produced strong grass-court results this year and has bounced back from a very rocky 2015. Konta, who represents Great Britain, has soared over the past several months on tour, earning a No. 16 seed at this event. Will home-nation pressure suffocate Konta or enable her to hit freely? This should be a very entertaining match.
Nick Kyrgios vs Radek Stepanek: Kyrgios is a dark horse in this tournament. Stepanek came two points away from beating Andy Murray in the first round of the French Open a month ago. Kyrgios could win in three routine sets, but no one would be surprised if Stepanek pushed Kyrgios to the brink.
Caroline Wozniacki vs Svetlana Kuznetsova: A former major finalist and World No. 1 plays a two-time major champion… in round one. In the first round — which contains 64 matches — this clash certainly occupies the top tier.
Also in action: Serena Williams vs Amra Sadikovic, Fernando Verdasco vs Bernard Tomic, Andy Murray vs Liam Broady, Petra Kvitova vs Sorana Cirstea, Stan Wawrinka vs Taylor Fritz, John Isner vs Marcos Baghdatis.