Creating history when he wins and creating history when he loses, Nadal may have participated in more of his generation’s most memorable matches than any other player. While the second-round earthquake delivered by Lukas Rosol will not enter Wimbledon annals as a classic, like the 2007 and 2008 finals, but it will rank among the greatest upsets ever witnessed on the legendary Centre Court. The very last name on the ATP list of the top 100 conquered the second name from the top of the list with a relentless confidence no less astonishing than the three aces that he unleashed in the last game. Not until his last serve froze a motionless Nadal did the full magnitude of his feat descend upon Rosol, flattening him to the turf in a reaction that displayed almost as much shock as joy. Experiencing those same emotions on Thursday, no doubt, the other two members of the Big Three will awaken to what feels like a new tournament on Friday. We start our preview with one of them.
Djokovic vs. Stepanek: In a rollicking affair five US Opens ago, Stepanek twisted and wormed his way to a fifth-set tiebreak against the Serb, whom he befuddled for five hours with timely serving and imaginative shot selection. When they met under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium two years later, the highly anticipated contest proved one of the tournament’s greater disappointments as the underdog never offered sustained resistance. Having won six of their seven meetings and 12 of their last 13 sets, Djokovic has relied upon his unsurpassed steadiness from the baseline to weather the occasional storm from the aging Czech, who recently has earned greater success in doubles. Against the Australian Open singles champion, the Australian Open doubles champion will bring essentially the same plan that Rosol brought to Centre Court against Nadal: winning as many free points as possible with fearless serving and attacking any remotely attackable ball early in the point. Calm through a pair of routine victories, Djokovic has looked quietly confident despite his failure to complete the Nole Slam at Roland Garros. By keeping the ball deep, a tactic at which he excels, he can expose Stepanek’s erratic footwork and timing without stepping outside his own comfort zone.
Almagro vs. Gasquet: Only once have they met on a surface other than clay, where each has achieved their most notable successes. Whereas Gasquet’s greatest accomplishments consist of two victories over Federer at Masters 1000 tournaments, Almagro can point to his seven-year streak of winning at least one title on clay. Those contrasting types of distinction illustrate the difference between the ambush artist from France and the more consistent competitor from Spain, who also has improved his fitness. On this surface, however, the advantage might shift back to Gasquet, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2007 who has not reached the quarterfinals at any major since then. The winner of this match would enter the second week heavily favored against the winner of the Mayer-Janowicz collision, so the stakes rise higher than the usual third-round match. While Gasquet justly has won international fame for his uncanny one-handed backhand, Almagro’s one-hander also should thrill those who appreciate tennis on aesthetic terms. But both men need time to set up their elongated strokes, time that the grass often denies them. Almost gone in the first round before he rallied from a two-set deficit, the Spaniard holds a slight edge over the Frenchman if the match grows complicated, for his opponent rarely recaptures his rhythm once he loses it. On the other hand, Gasquet holds an advantage in terms of forecourt prowess, an area that Almagro’s success on clay has not required him to hone.
Youzhny vs. Tipsarevic: Yet another artist of the one-handed backhand, the Russian once won the first two sets from Nadal on these lawns with his smooth all-court style. Comfortable in every area and hampered by no glaring weakness, Youzhny compensates for his lack of raw power with a keen knowledge of the court’s geometry. Too rarely in the latter stages of his career has he played poised, intelligent tennis, instead erupting in more entertaining but rarely productive explosions of temper or collapsing under pressure. Tipsarevic once faced similar questions about his mental strength in tense matches against the elite, an epic against Federer at the 2008 Australian Open notwithstanding. Over the past year, his backbone has stiffened somewhat as he has reached the top 10 for the first time. Outplayed by the anonymous Ryan Sweeting early in his previous match, Tipsarevic still found a way to survive and change the momentum, whereas he probably would have allowed his mind to wander two or three years ago. A stronger server than Youzhny, he seeks the second week here for the first time and will need his compact but risky down-the-line groundstrokes to fire consistently to accomplish that goal.
Stephens vs. Lisicki / McHale vs. Kerber: If either or both of the next generation’s leading American hopes reaches the second week at Wimbledon, their stock would soar considerably as the US Open approaches. At a tournament that their compatriots, the Williams sisters, dominated for most of the last decade, Stephens and McHale deploy a different style to succeed. Relying more on movement than power, they diverge from the stereotype of the successful grass player as a serving flamethrower who seeks to end points with maximum celerity. Both have extended their momentum from fine results at Roland Garros, where they combined to win five matches and test two esteemed clay contenders in Stosur and Li. More typical of the grass-court model are the Germans whom they face, especially Lisicki. Thrust to the brink of defeat by Bojana Jovanovski in the second round, last year’s semifinalist overcame a dozen double faults and patches of erratic returning before unleashing her first strikes when she most needed them. Not threatened so severely in her first two victories, Kerber burnished her grass credentials by defeating fellow lefty Makarova. Perfect in three-setters this year, she saved three match points before edging past McHale at Indian Wells—just a round after she had saved match points against Stephens. A poor closer at times, McHale twice failed to serve out a match here, once wasted a 5-0 lead in a third set at Roland Garros, and contrived to squander a 6-0, 4-0 lead against Cetkovska in Miami. Stephens has not accumulated that sort of reputation, but few would blame her for flinching the challenge of retrieving Lisicki’s thunderous serves while covering her wicked drop shots, a combination almost indefensible when properly executed.
Zvonareva vs. Clijsters: The only woman to defeat the four-time major champion twice in her second career, the Russian delivered one of those victories at the All England Club en route to the final there in 2010. One major later, Clijsters earned her revenge with a resounding demolition in the US Open final, where a player known for her nerves proved herself a relative titan in that department compared to Zvonareva. A mental midget for much of her career, the two-time major finalist somewhat resembles her compatriot Youzhny in her balanced style, her lack of overwhelming power, her grasp of tactics, and not least the explosive temper that has cost her so many winnable matches. Fading sharply this year in general, Zvonareva exited in the third round of the Australian Open, withdrew from Roland Garros, and came within a tiebreak of defeat against Mona Barthel in her opener here. With that near-disaster behind her, its survivor may have gained confidence from the feeling that she has nothing further to lose. Although she lacks the Wimbledon finals appearance on Zvonareva’s resume, Clijsters has displayed a much higher level of tennis through two rounds. She will not want to leave the sport’s most prestigious stage without the most vigorous effort that her body will permit her. Highlighted by victories over two top-10 opponents, her farewell to the Australian Open carried her within a set of the final. But she has played even less tennis than Zvonareva since January, so the same inconsistencies that doomed her in their three-setter here two years ago could surface again.
Radwanska vs. Watson: “Elementary my dear Watson,” crowed the witty British tabloids following their prodigy’s first victory. Well on her way to replacing Laura Robson as Great Britain’s leading female hope, this product of the Bolletieri Academy delighted her nation by overcoming the far more established Benesova on Centre Court, an experience that she should remember for a long time. Unfortunate to draw the current top two women early in two recent majors, Watson produced mixed results in those introductions to the spotlight. While she won a set from Sharapova at the US Open, almost more a home major for her than Wimbledon because of her Bolletieri connection, she scraped just a solitary game away from Azarenka at the Australian Open. Those contrasting results ultimately may have foretold less about Watson’s long-term future than about the short-term future of her opponents, one of whom lost two rounds later and the other of whom won the title. Usually at ease against foes who cannot overpower her before the rally begins, Radwanska should welcome the opportunity to massage points in her meticulous manner and bleed the Brit to death with her paper cuts. So unique is her playing style that opponents who face her for the first time, like Goerges in Melbourne, often spend most of that meeting mentally and physically off balance. With Venus and Li gone from her section, an ideal window has opened for the Pole to reach her first major semifinal, something that Azarenka accomplished here last year. On the other hand, emulating perhaps her most despised rival may not rank high among Radwanska’s priorities. Among the most prickly of the Tour’s many prickly personalities, she showcases a sharp mind through her words and understated weapons.
Cirstea vs. Kirilenko: Although she may have lost half of her matches this year, the Romanian with the exotic complexion recorded two outstanding victories over major champions: one against Stosur at the Australian Open and another against Li here. Between those two ambushes lay a semifinal appearance at Pattaya City, which ended at the hands of the other Russian Maria. Both of their last two matches have unwound through three intriguing sets, juxtaposing the forecourt play of the blonde with the baseline blasts of the brunette. Injecting a little more power into her game lately, though, Kirilenko has found her greater aggression rewarded with second-week appearances at each of the last two non-clay majors. Likely to shine in doubles at the Olympics, the Russian should use those skills to effect on grass by feathering volleys and carving slices. Sometimes a lesser version of Radwanska in her consistency and counterpunching outlook, she has become feistier as well as more powerful as her career has evolved, notwithstanding her gentle face. If Cirstea summons her volatile shot-making at key moments, however, a significant test of Kirilenko’s confidence will loom.