London: One of the joys of sport, and Wimbledon especially, is unpredictability. Nothing in the form book or on the practice courts would have predicted that the Polish seventh seed Hubert Hurkacz would lose in his first round. He had arrived fresh from trouncing the world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in the finals of the grass court warm up in Halle in Germany, which has been Roger Federer’s route to victory at Wimbledon over the years. But Hurkacz, who destroyed Federer in last year’s quarterfinals, was beaten by the pugnacious Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in one of the first matches of the tournament.
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His compatriot, the women’s top seed Iga Swiatek looked as if she were a serene young queen trained for the role most of her life. She did a dizzying round of interviews on Saturday with aplomb and charm. The 21-year-old, who won the junior Wimbledon title in 2018, admitted to feeling star-struck when she saw Serena Williams and decided not to approach her. “I wanted to meet her but I saw that she had so many people around her. It was pretty weird. So, I came back to, like, (being) myself a few years earlier when I was too shy to say hi to anybody for a second,” she said.
Swiatek is on a 35-match winning streak this summer which included winning the French Open a second time. The convention on the opening Tuesday is for the women’s defending champion to lead the action on Centre Court. Ashleigh Barty’s abrupt retirement this year left a void, with some suggesting another former champion such as Simona Halep, who won in 2019, be given that honour. The All England Club wisely ignored such silliness, not least since Halep is out of form. Swiatek has been an anchor for the women’s game this year while crafting a winning streak rarely seen in the past couple of decades. Of course, she deserves regal protocols on Centre Court even if the challenge of adapting her baseline game to grass lies ahead of her.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The weekend before Wimbledon starts is a magical time and being at the courts is similar to being on the sets of a film as it is being made. This year it was hard not to miss the groups of volunteers and temp staff being taken around for tours to acclimatise them before the tournament started on Monday (27 June) and over 40,000 spectators came through those hallowed gates.
For the press, watching players at practice is a thrill because they are sometimes a racket or two length span away from you, and it allows one to try and gauge if they are transitioning to the lower bounce of tennis balls on grass and the manner in which it skids if it has been hit with slice. Arriving late for a practice session between Felix Auger Aliassime and Grigor Dimitrov, I nearly walked into the Canadian in my rush. He had come off the court a little early and all I could do was wish Aliassime the best for the tournament.
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Taking in the action at the practice courts is akin to visiting the paddocks to watch racing thoroughbreds before placing a bet on a favoured horse. At the weekend’s practice, the 19-year-old Spanish sensation, Carlos Alcaraz, looked shaky. He continued to seem that way through the first three to four sets against Jan-Lennard Struff on Court 1 on Monday and was very nearly bounced out of Wimbledon. He then pulled off a comeback, powered by unrestrained pulverizing of the ball and sheer courage. The crowd nearly blew the roof off that court in relieved cheers for the youngster when the match ended. Just when men’s tennis needed it most, a star has been born.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Tennis player interviews often have a scripted quality to them. Almost uniquely among sports, tennis protocols require that players speak to journalists after every match. This year at Wimbledon, however, has been an exception. Even the usually predictable pre-tournament interviews, on the weekend before Monday’s start of play, seemed weighed down with world affairs. None more so than Novak Djokovic’s press conference on Saturday when he said that unless the US government changed its entry requirements (foreigners who have not been vaccinated cannot enter the country), he would not be playing at the US Open in New York this autumn.
“I would love to go to the States. But as of today, that’s not possible. There is not much I can do any more,” he replied. “I mean, it's really up to the U.S. government to make a decision whether or not they allow unvaccinated people to go into the country.” This was said with such firmness and without hesitation that remarkably the next question was about tennis and his quest for four consecutive Wimbledon singles this year, a rare feat since tennis became a professional sport in the late 1960s.
Despite all the headlines that accompanied his eventual deportation from Australia in January, Djokovic has said relatively little about his decision not to take a covid vaccination shot. Yet his position appears to be so much about unsupported beliefs about the vaccine and not science that it seemed as if the assembled reporters were going to treat the subject as a matter of religious faith. It was left to Ben Rothenberg, who writes for Racquet magazine and through a regular Twitter presence is one of the most followed tennis journalists, to point out that there was relatively little the Serbian had to do to be allowed to compete at the US Open in New York. “But you do still have time to get vaccinated before New York to make it in time for the US. Is that something you've completely closed your mind to as an option going forward or...,” Rothenberg asked, in question that sounded also like a plea for rational thinking. Djokovic’s response was quick if monosyllabic. “Yes,” he said firmly and then repeated himself. “Yes.”
That short reply may well prove to be the biggest news event of this year’s Wimbledon. Djokovic has only once before spoken very briefly about his decision not to take the vaccine in a BBC interview and has never ruled it out so explicitly. The shockwaves that emanated from his firmly stated position on the weekend are because in effect it means that he has taken himself out of the race with Rafael Nadal to amass the largest number of Grand Slam titles in men’s tennis and is forfeiting his claims to be the greatest tennis player of all time.
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