June 23, 2009

A Final Bow & a Final Blow

Most of the headlines covering today's action at Wimbledon focused on the fact that defending champion Venus Williams sailed through her first round in an easy seventy-eight minutes while Britain's best hope for a title, Andy Murray, himself survived a tough four-setter against American Robert Kendrick.

But there were some other results that merited just as much attention -- including a few performances that marked, or could mark, the end of some storied careers.

Former world #1 Marat Safin announced earlier that this would be his last year as a professional tennis player, and so of course, this would be his last Wimbledon. Though he is currently ranked twenty-fourth in the world he was given a generous fourteenth seed, thanks in part to his semifinal appearance here in 2008, and should have had a clear road to at least the fourth round.

His farewell tour hopes, however, were dashed when he met qualifier Jesse Levine in his first round. The twenty-one year old has only played in two non-challenger events this year, failing to make the main draws at Roland Garros or this month's Queen's Club, and had to win three matches just for the right to play Marat at Wimbledon. But that didn't stop him from bringing his A-game today. He kept his first serve percentage high and dominated the veteran Safin in winners. After four sets, Levine had sent the Russian home, his earliest exit since 2004 when he lost to Dmitry Tursonov.

Guess the Safin family's Wimbledon title hopes will have to rest with the younger sister.

Kimiko Date Krumm is another player who's no stranger to the grandeur of the All England Club. She's played in seven Wimbledons during her career -- the last one in 1996. The thirty-eight year old, once ranked fourth in the world, first made headlines this year when she survived three qualifying rounds in Melbourne to make the Grand Slam down under. In London she was pitted against Caroline Wozniacki, a girl who wasn't even born when Kimiko went pro.

Date Krumm held her own against Caroline, less than half her age, even taking the first set, 7-5 and grabbing an early break to lead in the second. But Wozniacki, who's already proven she's no slouch this year, rebounded in the clutch, winning the next five games and ceding only one more in the final set. After less than two hours, Kimiko's Wimbledon comeback was over.

She hasn't made any formal announcement about whether this will be her last appearance at the tournament, and given her obvious perseverance there's no need to believe she won't be back. But at the same time, you can't help but feel she walked off Court 2 for the last time this afternoon.

I worry that wonder if the same might be true of James Blake.

Of course you must know how it pains me to say so, but I fear the best is over for Blake. Yesterday's loss to Andreas Seppi marks his second straight opening round exit at a Grand Slam, and while he keeps raising my hopes by making the finals at Estoril and even advancing to the championship match at Queen's, he hasn't been able to convert where it counts.

It's now been nearly two years since his last title in New Haven. And just a few months away from turning thirty Blake's no spring chicken -- four of the top five players in the world are twenty-three or younger, and James is easily the oldest man in the top twenty, which admittedly says a lot about his staying power. Of course I hope he sticks around much longer and stays a healthy, competitive player. But as for being one of the best and hoping he captures his first Major title -- well, that might be asking too much.

Then again, if Kimiko's story doesn't inspire him to stick around, I don't know what will -- and as we all know, tennis is one sport in which anyone can mount a comeback!

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