July 3, 2012

Back to Normal?

Things sure got hairy for a moment or two at the All England Club. With what's often referred to as the "Greatest Day in Tennis" largely rained out -- only the ladies and a handful of men were able to complete their Round of Sixteen matches on Monday -- and storms looming overhead for much of today, there was the potential weather and not talent would be the deciding factor of early Week Two matches. And while we did see some shocking upsets, some stunning comebacks and a couple utter dominations, now that we're all caught up, it sure looks like the strongest survived.

The surprises started early on Middle Monday with unseeded Tamira Paszek ousting feisty Italian Roberta Vinci, while Francesca Schiavone, who'd only reached the fourth round here once in her eleven previous tries, took a set lead over defending champion Petra Kvitova. But things got even more interesting as wildcard Yaroslava "Golden Set" Shvedova, a breakout last month at Roland Garros, pushed four-time titleist Serena Williams to a deciding set, risen star Angelique Kerber decimated Kim Clijsters in her last Wimbledon appearance, and often-injured Sabine Lisicki got revenge over world #1 Maria Sharapova for her loss in the semis here last year.

The men weren't spared from drama either. Roger Federer, who'd barely survived a two-set deficit late last week against Julien Benneteau, took a medical time-out before the end of his opener versus Xavier Malisse. He got an early lead against the fellow veteran but after a rain delay found himself down a break in the fourth set. Mikhail Youzhny, trying to get his year back on track post-injury, traded sets with unseeded Denis Istomin and even found himself trailing in the fifth. Both favorites ultimately scored the wins over their opponents and, along with 2011 champion Novak Djokovic, booked their tickets to the quarterfinals before the clouds sun set Monday.

Most everyone else only got a few shots in yesterday. World #4 Andy Murray lost his first service game to Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga dropped a set to Mardy Fish, playing his first tournament since Memphis. They had started to turn things back in their favor by the time play was called and eventually won their matches early Tuesday. With David Ferrer rolling over former U.S. Open winner Juan Martin Del Potro and Philipp Kohlschreiber ending the run of American comeback story Brian Baker, almost all the on-paper favorites succeeded in their efforts. The only exception was world #29 Florian Mayer, just barely seeded at the All England Club -- sporting a middling 9-15 record on the year, the twenty-eight year old German's best result this season was a title at a Challenger event in the Czech Republic. But he took a two-set lead over 2007 semifinalist Ricard Gasquet and eventually closed out the win to make his second Major quarter, his first since 2004.

With the men's quarters set the ladies were free to re-take the court and really get our hearts pumping. Serena got off to a quick start against Kvitova in what should have been a hard-hitting battle on Centre Court, and despite all her recent struggles she proved just how relevant she still is with a straight set win over the defender. Several hours later former world #1 Victoria Azarenka ended the run of Eastbourne champion Paszek by a slightly tighter score than last year, but one which reminded us she might be flying a bit too far under the radar this fortnight.

The tougher battles came in the remaining two matches. Rising Risen star Angelique Kerber took a set and a break from last year's Cinderella Lisicki and had earned match points when her fellow German raised her game and fought through a tiebreak to force a decider. They traded serves throughout the third, but Kerber stayed slightly stronger -- when her opponent failed to serve out the match at 5-4, it was all over for the fifteenth seed and higher-ranked Angelique had scored the win.

And in the last match to end today -- ironically one of the first to begin -- third seed Aggie Radwanska and supremely overlooked Maria Kirilenko were both fighting for their first Slam semi. Odds were squarely on the Pole's side -- she'd won the pair's last four meetings and was playing some of the best tennis of her career. Unfortunately Radwanska was unable to consolidate early breaks, and though she eventually closed out the opening set, she lost the lead in the second as well. Just before rain stopped play for the first time, Kirilenko had forced a third. They stopped again at four-all, waited for Vika and Paszek to finish their quarter, moved to Centre Court and resumed with just over an hour left before Wimbledon curfew. Then, about eight hours after starting their battle, Aggie broke again and finally was successful in serving it out. By securing the semi against a similarly exhausted Kerber -- the woman who beat her last year in New York -- she might just have earned her best shot at actually making a final.

It may have taken a few long and winding roads to get here, but the men and women left standing at Wimbledon have certainly proven just how strong they can be on the lawns of the All England Club. A couple upstarts still remain, yes, but it certainly seems like we're getting to the point where the field represents the best of the bunch. We might not have predicted the eventual king and queen at the outset, but it's looking good that the winners will have earned it.

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