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Wimbledon, day 4: a flood of compelling tennis, not rain

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

Rain fell on the grass and plants of The All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club over the past several days. When rain falls, certain kinds of green organisms sprout and blossom.

That’s what happened at Wimbledon on Thursday.

After days of interrupted schedules, refunded tickets, and worries that Wimbledon Village would have to host tennis on Middle Sunday, The Championships dodged raindrops and worked through 60 singles results (59 matches played, one decided by retirement).

A normal Thursday at a major tournament reduces half of each singles field from its second-round size (64) to a third-round number (32). Ticketholders and television viewers would typically expect 16 matches in the women’s and men’s competitions, for a total of 32.

The 59-match tally on Thursday belongs to a first-round day at a major tournament (Monday or Tuesday). The rain at SW19 was a headache for everyone (except those who played indoors on Centre Court), but the payoff for those delays and postponements was Thursday’s massive tennis buffet.

The 60 results and 59 staged matches created enough stories for three days, not just one. We’ll never be able to give each individual story the treatment it deserves; some ordinarily notable events were pushed entirely off the radar screen. All we can do is give you the most meaningful morsels from this Wimbledon smorgasbord.

The main story on Thursday? The fuel tank ran on empty for two of the French Open’s biggest and most ascendant stars.

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Garbine Muguruza did not endure a bad loss against Jana Cepelova on Thursday.

Winning a first major title at age 22 — as the Spaniard did at Roland Garros nearly four weeks ago — puts a career on schedule, if not ahead of schedule. Moreover, no transition among the four major tournaments is more difficult than the one from Roland Garros to Wimbledon. This is partly a product of the calendar — only three weeks separate the two tournaments — but it’s also the result of the marked differences between slow clay and fast grass.

Hardcourts represent the sport’s most neutral surface. Clay and grass represent the extremes. In many cases, players who are extremely skilled on clay are rendered largely powerless on grass, and vice-versa. Through four days of play at Wimbledon, three of the eight Roland Garros semifinalists (four for the men, four for the women) have already lost.

Muguruza gets a pass for falling to Cepelova — a player who had never previously reached the third round of a major tournament before this one — but her loss underscores the enormity of the holistic challenge for anyone who flourishes at Roland Garros. Mentally, technically, physically and tactically, playing two full weeks in Paris depletes one’s resources heading into surburban London. This magnifies what Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer have done in their careers… because it shows how rare it is for players to seamlessly glide from French red dirt to lush English lawns.

The ironic aspect of Muguruza’s loss to Cepelova is that the No. 2 seed reached her first major final a year ago at Wimbledon, falling to Serena in the final. Much as no one thought Andre Agassi would win his first major title at The Big W in 1992, Muguruza was not supposed to enter the huge stage of a major championship match at SW19 before Roland Garros, where she broke through weeks ago.

What was different about 2016 at Wimbledon relative to 2015? Last year, Muguruza didn’t own the bulls-eye — or the prosperity, or the exhaustion — she took into this year’s fortnight in England.

In 2015, Muguruza made the Roland Garros quarterfinals, a solid showing, but hardly a full-distance race. She entered the All-England Club without a large amount of pressure or scrutiny — not off the radar, but hardly the center of attention, either. She snuck up on the field and gained her date with Serena on Centre Court for Championship Saturday. She put up a good fight and announced herself to casual tennis fans throughout the world. Instructively, that taste of supreme pressure against Serena in July of 2015 perfectly prepared her for the Roland Garros reunion with the 21-time major champion 11 months later in Paris.

Entering 2016, Muguruza couldn’t have entered England under a more different set of circumstances compared to 2015. The weight of the moment — plus Cepelova’s noticeable weight of shot — threw Muguruza off balance. Constantly spraying shots into the doubles alleys and sometimes smacking groundstrokes beyond the baseline, Muguruza never attained any sort of comfort zone. Cepelova took time away from her, and the Slovakian underdog — ranked 124th in the world — deserves credit for that tactic. Yet, this was mostly a match in which Muguruza couldn’t steady herself. A tenuous situation overwhelmed her more than anything else; Cepelova was good enough to take advantage.

The bottom half of the women’s draw is now a lush Wimbledon lawn of opportunity for several players. Angelique Kerber, champion of the 2016 Australian Open, might be the most conventional choice to reach the women’s final on July 9. If she doesn’t make it, one of these stories is likely to light up the women’s final:

  • Madison Keys could make her first major final.
  • Venus Williams could play for her sixth (!) Wimbledon title at age 36.
  • Simona Halep could make her first major final in over 24 months, reviving her career.
  • Sabine Lisicki could make her second Wimbledon final, reclaiming mastery of the only major where she’s done anything worth noting.

Muguruza’s loss is someone else’s gain, and as a result, the Wimbledon women’s event will very likely generate a fresh story line in the coming days.

Dominic Thiem was vexed by Jiri Vesely in three tiebreakers on Thursday. -- Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

Dominic Thiem was vexed by Jiri Vesely in three tiebreakers on Thursday. — Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

If Muguruza was a 22-year-old French Open standout who lost momentum at Wimbledon on Thursday, the men’s tournament offered a perfectly imperfect companion to the Spaniard.

Dominic Thiem, also 22, busted through to his first major semifinal at Roland Garros. Yes, Rafael Nadal’s wrist injury and subsequent withdrawal made it possible (Nadal would have played Thiem in the fourth round), but Thiem played a marvelous quarterfinal against David Goffin and took advantage of the situation. Thiem entered his second-round Wimbledon match against Jiri Vesely with 48 match wins on the ATP Tour in 2016, the highest figure in men’s tennis. (Novak Djokovic entered Thursday with 46 wins, but far fewer losses, only 3 to Thiem’s 12… now 13.)

After taking care of Florian Mayer — the champion of the Halle grass-court event and a man who had beaten Thiem en route to that title — the 22-year-old Austrian had to like his chances of moving to the second week of Wimbledon.

Jiri Vesely had other ideas.

Thiem did lack a measure of inspiration on Thursday. Vesely got the jump on his opponent in all three tiebreakers, winning 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. Yet, before confounding Thiem in those tiebreakers, Vesely had to win six games per set. The Czech defeated Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo by using well-timed drop shots, but that was clay. Grass is a different beast, and Vesely accordingly needed to beat another top-10 opponent with adjusted tactics.

He found the resources he needed.

Vesely dominated the second-set tiebreaker with a blistering return. He owned the third-set breaker because of a ballsy second serve with spin, kick and overall heft. Vesely possesses a potent arsenal; he simply fails to calibrate his shots with the consistency he needs to go deeper at all tournaments on the circuit. Thursday — as was the case in his conquest of Djokovic two and a half months earlier — all of Vesely’s shots operated at a high level. Thiem ran into a quality foe, but he also failed to change the competitive balance of power in any of three tiebreakers.

This isn’t a bad loss for Thiem, just as Muguruza also deserves some slack. Thiem has overplayed in 2016, and he can finally take a longer break from professional competition. The important thing for the Austrian is to learn lessons from Thursday’s loss that can be applied in future seasons.

Just the same, Thursday showed — for the women and men of Wimbledon — that the shift from Roland Garros to The Big W is no easy thing for a young player who is trying to gain a larger, firmer foothold in the sport.

Agnieszka Radwanska -- BPI/Imago/Icon Sportswire

Agnieszka Radwanska — BPI/Imago/Icon Sportswire

 

Elsewhere on Thursday

There’s a lot of news to cover. For the purposes (and constraints) of a single-day wrap-up article, we can only mention events and can’t go into any appreciable detail. To an extent, though, the simple details are eye-popping by themselves:

— Ana Konjuh, 18, lost three match points against third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska. She later stepped on a tennis ball on the run and injured herself at 7-7 in the final set, eventually losing, 9-7. Other than that, she didn’t have a bad day at all.

— Venus Williams survived young Greek challenger Maria Sakkari in a terrific three-set scrap, one of the best matches on a fabulous day of tennis.

— Karolina Pliskova was seeded 15th at Wimbledon. Strictly according to seed, the No. 15 player should make the fourth round. Pliskova has played 17 major tournaments. After her loss to Misaki Doi on Thursday, Pliskova is 0-for-17 in terms of making the fourth round at majors, 3-for-17 in terms of making the third round.

— Eugenie Bouchard and Grigor Dimitrov — two players who seemed headed for superstardom after their 2014 Wimbledon tournaments (Bouchard was the runner-up, Dimitrov a semifinalist who nearly took Djokovic to a fifth set) — came to SW19 this year with their careers in shambles. After winning second-round matches on Thursday, notions of a career resurrection no longer seem that absurd. Stay tuned.

— Big-serving Ivo Karlovic, a dangerous floater, was dismissed by Lukas Lacko.

— Nicolas Mahut thumped No. 13 seed David Ferrer — not an upset given the surface, but a slight surprise in terms of the lopsided scoreline: 6-1, 6-4, 6-3.

— In a matchup between a former Wimbledon finalist and a former major champion, Sabine Lisicki (the former) beat Samantha Stosur (the latter) in straights.

NOTE: We’ll offer only two featured matches on Friday, because there was so much to digest on Thursday:

Friday’s marquee matches:

Stan Wawrinka vs. Juan Martin del Potro: Dating back to the 2005 French Open, only three men other than the ATP’s Big Four — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray — have won a major title. Two of those men meet here in the second round. The clash is spiced by intrigue concerning the health of del Potro’s wrist. The tennis world greatly craves a healthy Delpo… and a high-level match against another formidable ATP player.

Simona Halep vs Kiki Bertens: Halep is the second-highest seed left in her half of the draw — she’s fifth; Angelique Kerber is fourth. Once again, she’s not in Serena Williams’s half of the draw.

The last time Halep was in the same half of the draw as Serena: Wimbledon in 2014, two full years ago. Halep continues to receive highly favorable draws at major tournaments, but she hasn’t made good use of them. She remains a top-eight seed at the majors, but she can’t manage to return to a major final.

In the third round, she meets Bertens, a semifinalist at the French Open who has played Serena on relatively even terms in multiple majors over the past 10 months. This is the kind of test Halep hasn’t overcome in recent years. A highly compelling battle should unfold.

Wimbledon, day 4: a flood of compelling tennis, not rain
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