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How wild cards and debutants have lit up Wimbledon this year

While the favourites keep winning their games at Wimbledon, the joy is coming from players creating new memories with throwback tennis

American Christopher Eubanks has been the story of the tournament.
American Christopher Eubanks has been the story of the tournament. (AP)

Like a relic from the past, Christopher Eubanks rushed to the net after carving out a low backhand slice. The first backhand volley unsettled his opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and the second mopped up the point. Eubanks, who has just set up a triple break point at 3-3 in the deciding set, flapped and raised his arms to urge an already enthralled crowd. He converted on the third break point, with a ripping single-handed backhand down the line to take a decisive lead.

The 6’7” American was loving it; the attention, the occasion. He won his next two service games and notched a 3-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over the fifth seed with a forehand winner. The Wimbledon debutant was now in the quarter-finals. ‘Big Banks’ had hit big-time. “I just think the entire experience altogether has just been a whirlwind,” he said in the post-match press conference on Monday. “It's been something that you dream about. But I think for me I didn't really know if that dream would actually come true. I'm sitting here now, so it's pretty cool.”

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The American has been the story of the tournament so far at Wimbledon 2023. A 27-year-old who broke into the top-100 for the very first time this year, Eubanks has hit his stride this grass season. Having won the Mallorca Championships in the week leading up to Wimbledon, he is now on a nine-match winning streak on a surface with which he’s had a “strenuous relationship”.

Daniil Medvedev, Eubank’s next opponent, credited Eubanks’s rise to him playing “total tennis”. “He is not scared of anything. He just goes for it,” the Russian World No. 3 said earlier in the week. “[He] hits very, very fast and goes to the net as soon as he has the opportunity, has a big serve.” On Monday, Eubanks dashed to the net 72 times—a sight uncommon in tennis these days, and at Wimbledon now—and won 46 of those points.

One of the more popular guys on the tour, for a long time experts wondered whether Eubanks was ‘too nice’ to actually succeed in the cut-throat world of professional tennis. Though he started playing at a very young age, Eubanks hasn’t always followed the tried and tested path. At 15, he chose to tour the world as a hitting partner for American pro Donald Young than cut his teeth on the junior tour. Eubanks then played college tennis for Georgia Tech from 2015-17, before giving the tennis tour a shot. But the American is only now believing that he can play at this level consistently and piece together a successful run, rather than just hit a few crowd-pleasing shots.

Eubanks, however, is not the only debutant making waves at Wimbledon this year. Russia’s Roman Safiullin is also enjoying a career renaissance at the oldest major. He defeated an injured Denis Shapovalov, seeded 26th, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 to make it to the quarter-finals.

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Though a promising junior, Safiullin hasn’t been able to keep pace with fellow Russians Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, who are also in the Wimbledon quarter-final, due to shoulder and ankle injuries. The 25-year-old missed out on the French Open this year because he forgot to enter his name in the qualifying event. And even though he hasn’t entered the glitzy world of his peers just yet—Safiullin is staying at a tiny modest accommodation about 30 minutes away from Wimbledon—he’s getting a taste of Grand Slam tennis.

Even as Eubanks and Safiullin have ridden the wave, the first week of Wimbledon has been eventful but hasn’t thrown up as many upsets as expected. True to tradition, rain has played havoc with the schedules. Roger Federer made an appearance—this time in the royal box. We have seen the longest tie-breaker in women’s tennis in Grand Slams—when Lesia Tsurenko beat Ana Bogdan 20-18 in a third set tie-breaker. In another throwback, Wimbledon witnessed the rise of a teen prodigy.

Is Russian teenager Mirra Andreeva a prodigy?
Is Russian teenager Mirra Andreeva a prodigy? (Reuters)

Sixteen-year-old Mirra Andreeva, who featured in junior draws till this year’s Australian Open, started her journey in the qualifiers and made it all the way to the round-of-16. Rather than the fearlessness associated with tennis teens, a cool, tactical game has been Andreeva’s calling card. The Russian had made a similar run at the French Open, where she reached the third round. Despite the change in surface, she has already managed to go one better at only her second major.

The big British heartbreak came in the form of Andy Murray’s five-set defeat to Tsitsipas in the second round, which was spread over two days. The 36-year-old was at his battling best and led 2-1 when the match was suspended due to Wimbledon’s 11pm curfew on Thursday. But the former champion lost 6-7 (3), 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (3), 4-6 and made no promise to come back. “This one will take a little while to get over,” he said. “Motivation is obviously a big thing. Continuing having early losses in tournaments like this doesn't necessarily help with that.”

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A popular saying in the tennis world is, you don’t win a Grand Slam in the first week. After rain-interrupted eight days at Wimbledon, all the major players made it to the quarter-finals: top seeds Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic in the men’s field and Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina, Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka in the women’s draw.

Ukranian Elina Svitolina is having a fantastic Wimbledon.
Ukranian Elina Svitolina is having a fantastic Wimbledon. (AP)

Elina Svitolina also threw her name in the mix only a few months after coming back from maternity leave. The Ukranian, married to French pro Gael Monfils, gave birth to their first child in October and was back on court by January and back on the tour by April. With a new outlook on life and driven by patriotic fervour, Svitolina played perhaps the match of her life against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the fourth round of the Championships.

“I think after giving birth, this is the second-happiest moment in my life,” she said after rallying to a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (9) win. The players didn’t shake hands at the net since Svitolina had made it clear that she won’t acknowledge Russian and Belarussian players due to the war in Ukraine. “There are lots of people back home cheering for me, so I know how much it means to them.”

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The Ukranian has developed more of an attacking edge to her already water-tight defensive game and took the game to Azarenka on Sunday. Though Svitolina looked visibly moved after the win, she played some nerveless tennis in the closing stages of the match. Having entered the tournament as a wildcard, she eclipsed her previous best finish (fourth round, 2017) at Wimbledon.

The highlight in the other half of the women’s draw is the quarter-final clash between last year’s finalists Ons Jabeur and Elena Rybakina. Jabeur, the self-proclaimed Minister of Happiness, has chipped and charged and smiled her way through the draw this year. The only bump in the road was the match against former US Open champion Bianca Andreescu. But after a slow start, Jabeur prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. The Tunisian trailblazer is hungry for “revenge”, but Rybakina will probably be a tougher proposition than she was 12 months ago.

After a nervous start to her defence against Shelby Rogers, Rybakina has hit top gear this Wimbledon. She was at her ruthless best against local hope Katie Boulter 6-1, 6-1 in just 57 minutes in the third round. “You can see she's 'boom boom' all the time!” Jabeur said of the Kazakh. “There's no mercy with her, so let's see what's going to happen.” The game is afoot.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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