June 26, 2013

Who's Safe Now?

It's funny -- clay courts have a reputation for really messing with players' games. But some of the weirdest days in tennis the past year have come on the grass. And over the last couple days, we've seen the lawns of the All England Club take quite a toll on the draws, and even though it hasn't rained yet, the outlook at Wimbledon has never been more cloudy.

The upsets started early and came often. Rafael Nadal, fresh off his reaffirming, record-crushing eighth Roland Garros crown, was shocked on Day One when world #135 Steve Darcis handed him the only Major first round loss of his career, and fifth seeded Sara Errani -- admittedly never a force on the grass -- was summarily dismissed by Puerto Rican teenager Monica Puig. And while they were the highest-ranked causalities that day, the ghouls that haunted early round matches lingered a while longer.

Recent world #1 Victoria Azarenka took quite a spill when up a set and a break against Portugal's Maria Joao Koehler, requiring a long medical timeout before completing her match. The knee injury proved too much, though, and she pulled out before this morning's second round. And Darcis, having scored the second top-ten victory of his career -- he beat Tomas Berdych last year in Winston-Salem -- also gave Lukasz Kubot a free pass to Round Three. They, along with Marin Cilic, John Isner and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, made today one of the most anti-prolific days I can remember at a Slam.

But it didn't stop there.

Black Wednesday saw a slew of former champions pack their bags, not because of injury or slippery turf, but due to the pure skill and strength of their opponents. Lleyton Hewitt, champion here over a decade ago, was coming off an upset over Den Bosch runner-up Stanislas Wawrinka, was upended by little known Dustin Brown, ranked just inside the top two hundred. Then 2004 champ and 2011 runner-up Maria Sharapova, hampered by hip injury late in her match, fell in straight sets to Michelle Larcher de Brito, her worst loss at a Major in five years. But perhaps most shocking was the departure of seven-time champion Roger Federer, who lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky, previously 0-20 against top-ten players.

With so many surprises in just a few days' time, it seems even the things we thought we knew have come into question. Heavy favorite Serena Williams dominated her most recent meeting with second-round opponent Caroline Garcia, dropping just three games to the woman who once nearly beat Sharapova in Paris. But after winning her way through qualifying rounds, the French teenager took out 2008 semifinalist Jie Zheng in her opener, and might be able to take advantage of whatever magic has touched these courts. And Andy Murray, hoping to continue a seven match win streak at the All England club, is suddenly in a half with no one ranked in the top ten. But he could faces threats from any of several remaining -- Mikhail Youzhny put up a fight in the Halle final and looms in the fourth round, while Jerzy Janowicz, who beat him last year at the Paris Masters, might just challenge him in the semis.

It's easy to assume the favorites will thrive at Wimbledon, but if the last few days have taught us anything, it's that no one's future is certain here. And perhaps this year, more than any other, a Cinderella has a real shot at becoming royalty.

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