The second Monday at Wimbledon is both manic and magic: the 16 best men and women from the first week do battle on the grounds of the All-England Club, ensuring first-rate tennis anywhere you look, and, perhaps, even a shock to savour.
But, with Monday dawning sullen and sodden, a steady, spitting drizzle never too far off, it seemed as if only Centre Court, because of its roof, would see action. At 11.30 a.m. local time, when the outside courts usually begin their business, the signs weren’t good.
Wet covers inflated by blowers from underneath so they bloated like beached whales; umbrellas opened like toadstools in dark, wet places: tennis in this weather?
But things change quickly here, and although the rain continued to intervene from time to time, we had Maria Sharapova, the reigning World No.1 and Roland Garros champion, exiting, kicking and screaming.
And Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova, the defending champion, endured tough three-setters to set up a fascinating quarterfinal meeting.
Sharapova’s straight-sets defeat to Sabine Lisicki, something of a Wimbledon specialist, was startling. They are fairly even in terms of the strength of their ground-strokes — they hit the ball differently, Sharapova with better leverage from her lean length, Lisicki with a touch more body in her low-to-ground stroke — but Sharapova appeared to have a clear mental edge. She led their head-to-head 3-0, including a win here in 2011.
As expected, the match was a fight for time: each sought the first decisive strike to take away from the other the time to set up and react dangerously. Sharapova won this contest in the first game breaking immediately, but thereafter it was Lisicki who was more successful. Most of the rallies were conducted at high pace — unsurprisingly many ended in one of the players being just a fraction late on the ball and thus erring.
Lisicki was also the stronger server. Both women hit the forehand return from the deuce court particularly well, swatting it down the line despite being stretched wide. But Lisicki’s better variation of serve, which included the one into the body, ensured she was broken just twice.
After the first game, she was broken at 5-3, with Sharapova nailing the afore-mentioned return, but she hit back at once to take the set 6-4.
The match was interrupted in the first game of the second. On resumption, Lisicki was in even better form. But Sharapova, true to reputation, clung on, using her wingspan and ambidexterity to defend desperately. She saved two match points at 3-5. Lisicki choked the first, over-hitting her kill-shot. This was the peril — given Sharapova’s refusal to admit defeat, Lisicki could so easily have allowed her back.
But she gathered her courage and hit a second serve down the ‘T’ as if it were a first, to win.
The 22-year-old German hasn’t been beyond the fourth round at any other major, but this is her third time to at least the quarters in four attempts here at Wimbledon.
While one of the two steeliest competitors in the women’s game went out, the other, Serena Williams, survived, but only just. Yaroslava Shvedova — she of the ‘Golden Set’ — outplayed Serena for a large part of the match. Once she started to play that is.
The first set went by rather quickly, Serena realising the threat the Kazakh wild-card represented and taking it to her. This was the American at her best: clean, aim-for-the-lines tennis.
But Shvedova has an athletic all-round game with the ability to both use her opponent’s pace and generate her own. She’s very good at making others play badly, for she keeps them off-balance: one time, Serena smacked a two-handed return deep and wide. Shvedova’s flexibility and hands allowed her to not just get to the ball, but to guide it, so Serena, mentally celebrating a winner, was caught out of position.
The third set was a test of nerve, with Serena serving behind. The four-time champion created multiple chances to break, but Shvedova did a Serena and played great clutch tennis.
Eventually, in the 11th game, the pressure told, and Serena served out the match.
The women’s round of 16 had two routs, both suffered by former No.1s. Kim Clijsters’ final Wimbledon ended a touch embarrassingly, in a 6-1, 6-1 defeat to the left-handed Angelique Kerber.
Victoria Azarenka destroyed a nervous Ana Ivanovic 6-1, 6-0 in another pre-quarterfinal, and if she keeps up that form, she will take some beating.
Quarterfinal line-up: Sabine Lisicki v Angelique Kerber; Agnieszka Radawanska v Maria Kirilenko; Serena Williams v Petra Kvitova; Victoria Azarenka v Tamira Paszek.