A richly compelling Wimbledon tournament — already the best major tournament this year — gave tennis lovers a Friday to savor.
Yes, Sam Querrey’s two-set lead over Novak Djokovic in a match suspended by rain is the thing most global observers will take into the weekend, but that story hasn’t run its course. The tale will be fully told on Saturday at the All-England Club. It’s a story for another day — literally.
Friday at SW19 gave us the beautiful banquet of three champions, all hungering for another slice of tennis glory from distinctly different positions. They were all about to be dismissed from the dining room, but they found a way to keep their respective places at the table. They will continue to make this English summer fortnight a fascinating stroll through the workings of human competition.
Our story begins with Juan Martin del Potro. The “Tower of Tandil” (the town in Argentina where he grew up) has played other matches in this 2016 season, but his second-round encounter with two-time major champion Stan Wawrinka on Centre Court was as big a match as he’s contested since the 2013 Wimbledon semifinals against Novak Djokovic.
Del Potro hasn’t underachieved in his career. The 27-year-old owns a comparatively bare cupboard because of a series of wrist injuries which have robbed him of time. Delpo, at Wimbledon, played his first major tournament since the 2014 Australian Open. He wanted to make up for lost years, lost months, lost chances to compete for the biggest prizes in tennis. Facing Wawrinka — one of the only two other men to disrupt the Big Four’s ownership of major championships over the past 10 years (Marin Cilic is the other) — del Potro regained the kind of stage and setting which were normal parts of his life before his wrist stopped cooperating. It was easy to think that Delpo had won simply by returning to this stage.
For the man himself, complacency could not and would not enter the picture.
Del Potro’s wrist clearly prevented him from drilling the two-handed backhand which made him a complete player. The Delpo backhand was not powerful enough to end points or create the kind of leverage the Argentine had once established on the court in better, happier times. Given this deficiency, Wawrinka — a highly formidable player at the majors over the past three years — should have been able to overwhelm him as Friday’s match wore on. Moreover, after Wawrinka twice overcame break deficits in the third set, it would have been quite understandable if Delpo lost heart.
Instead, he redoubled his efforts, fueled by the joy of longing.
Del Potro straightened out his T serve and blasted it by Wawrinka in the latter stages of the third set, especially the tiebreaker which gave him a two-sets-to-one lead and applied scoreboard pressure on his opponent, who has never made the semifinals of Wimbledon. Wawrinka’s struggles on grass seemed to remain entrenched in the mind of the No. 4 seed, a modern-day version of Ivan Lendl. Wawrinka, like Lendl, is a hugely talented baseline constructionist whose lengthy takeback on his groundstrokes is not compatible with the low and odd bounces provided by an organic lawn surface. Lendl, however, made the Wimbledon final on two occasions through force of will and sheer determination.
Wawrinka, on Friday, flinched in the face of pressure… but Delpo’s serving and court presence — refusing to concede anything easily — played a very large part in creating an unexpected progression of events.
At 4-3 in the fourth set, Wawrinka broke himself. Del Potro promptly served out the match to claim not just a memorable win, but perhaps the kind of event which can set the stage for a deep run this fortnight.
The wrist’s condition is its own story, its own limitation. On Friday, Juan Martin del Potro was interested in writing a different book, one in which limits were transcended.
No one knows what might happen to the big, lovable giant in the future. One afternoon at Centre Court Wimbledon was about nothing more than a present-tense achievement and the affection it unleashed throughout the world:
reader: "I don't think I have ever been happier for someone winning a second round match at a major, than I am right now for Del Potro."
— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) July 1, 2016
The joy of longing was evident in Juan Martin del Potro’s resolve on Friday. It was also vividly displayed by the Williams Sisters.
Anyone who has watched Serena Williams over the past few years knows that while her best tennis leaves everyone else on the WTA in the dust, Serena doesn’t call forth her best as consistently as casual fans might think.
Serena loses the first two games of sets with noticeable regularity — maybe not every match, but multiple times in most of her recent major tournaments. She fell behind 2-0 in the third set against Victoria Azarenka in the 2015 French Open. She won. She fell behind Lucie Safarova, 2-0, in the third set of the 2015 French Open final.
Through so many of the matches which delivered her the first three major titles of the 2015 tennis season, Serena fell behind at the start of a set. She always rallied… until that one aberrational Friday in New York when Roberta Vinci did the unthinkable.
Serena has been stealing souls in tennis for over a decade. In the first few years of the 21st century, as a much younger woman, she had the steel and savvy to swipe matches from the likes of Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis. These many years later, in her mid-30s and with nothing to prove to the outside world, Serena still cares enough about herself and her own game to fight for every inch of achievement on the court, especially when the scoreboard tilts against her.
She fell behind Christina McHale on Friday at Wimbledon, 2-0, in the first set. She battled back to gain a 5-3 lead in the first-set tiebreaker, but dazzling defense from McHale on consecutive points — followed by a few nervous wobbles from the No. 1 seed — cost Serena the set. She stormed back to win the second set, 6-2, but in the third, that familiar source of irritation — a 2-0 deficit — returned.
It’s true that Serena has produced a million (in the unofficial sense) rallies, but all athletes know that if they tempt fate often enough, there will come a time when they won’t summon the magic they need to prevail. Yet, Serena’s number wasn’t up, a reality made possible by a horribly nervous McHale service game at 2-0 in the third. McHale played well for much of the third set, but she let down her guard at the precise moment when she needed to put the boot on Serena’s throat.
Serena Jameka Williams gets the better of you when you don’t pounce on her occasional vulnerabilities. McHale learned this painful lesson on Friday.
Serena, by force of will — and fierce second-serve returns from the deuce court — earned break points at 4-4 in the third, and a slight lapse from McHale was all the 21-time major champion needed to establish a 5-4 lead. She held at love in the next game, and escaped to the third round.
The joy of longing carried Serena yet again.
It also helped her sister on a dramatic Friday at the All-England Club.
The lessons of any sport — any theater of endeavor, any profession — are handed down from one generation to the next. Yet, there’s something especially poignant about tennis, a solo-athlete sport in which the competitors don’t roam a sprawling golf course, but stare at each other across the net in an intimate amphitheater.
It’s been riveting to see Venus Ebony Starr Williams compete at Wimbledon this week. In round one, she played 20-year-old Donna Vekic, who served for the first set but couldn’t finish it. Venus escaped. In round two, Venus played another 20-year-old, Maria Sakkari, whose fighting skills were impossible to ignore or minimize. Yet, Venus knuckled down and overpowered Sakkari in the third set to advance.
Just two hours after that win, Venus played doubles with Serena. Due to the rains which have plagued this tournament, Venus had to come back on Friday — with no day off — to contest a third-round match against a 19-year-old, Daria Kasatkina.
Venus’s tournament has been one unending encounter with the youngest active generation of women’s tennis professionals. Each match has carried that sweet, aching beauty of an old champion meeting the future, trying to maintain supremacy but knowing that a passing of the torch will eventually come.
The extra plot point of Venus-Kasatkina on Friday was that Venus had to battle physical fatigue, thanks to doubles. It was enough to carry a singles workload, but Vee had to labor through this third-rounder after opening her doubles campaign. When Kasatkina — undaunted and unfazed — overcame a set-and-a-break deficit to level the match and then take a break lead at 4-3 in the third set, it seemed that the strain of a two-discipline workload, combined with the reality of old age (36 is quite old in tennis terms), would usher Venus out of Wimbledon.
Given that Garbine Muguruza — in Venus’ section — lost on Thursday, it would have been a shame. Venus had a clear path to the semifinals, but doubles (which has gotten in the way of her singles ambitions before) might have created a situation which was too great for her body to overcome.
However, much as McHale cracked when serving at 2-0 in the third against Serena, Kasatkina — learning how to handle this major-tournament crucible — succumbed to nerves and donated a break back to Venus for a 4-all third-set scoreline. Kasatkina admirably regrouped to hold serve from love-30 at 4-5 in the third. She also overcame a match point at 6-7 after a rain delay robbed Venus of momentum. The young Russian did so many things well on this day, but like McHale, she was weighed down by the enormity of the occasion precisely when her path to victory was both close and attainable. Venus stepped into the threshold and wrested the match away from her 19-year-old foe, 10-8 in the third.
It would have been quite understandable if Venus Williams — a woman who has overcome so many challenges in her decorated career — didn’t answer the bell this last time. Yet, in the face of both her own physical deficits and a spunky, energized opponent nearly half her age, Venus stood firm. She can now replenish her body for the second week… and a possible date with history.
Delpo. Serena. Venus. The joy of longing was seen and felt quite visibly on a deliciously memorable Friday at The Championships.