Slow Courts, Hefty Fines, and Expectant Women: Wimbledon After the First Week

The first week of Wimbledon saw the big four of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray restore or revisit their old hegemony at the top of the men’s game, while the women’s draw – thanks to the absence or early departure of several major contenders – seemed more open than ever. Secondary storylines saw a series of hefty fines in response to some questionable on-court and post-match behaviour, Venus Williams under the spotlight following a fatal car collision, and criticism over the state of the Wimbledon courts amid the hot and dry weather.

After winning his second Wimbledon title last year, world number one Andy Murray entered the tournament as the top seed, with Novak Djokovic second, Roger Federer – seven-time Wimbledon champion and Australian Open titleholder – third, and Rafa Nadal fourth, fresh off a record tenth French Open triumph. Despite being third in the world rankings, Stan Wawrinka – who has never gone beyond the quarter-final stage at Wimbledon – was seeded fifth, and justified his relatively low seeding with a tame first round exit at the hands of Daniil Medvedev, a four-set success story for the 21-year-old Russian.

Wawrinka was the only top name to fall at the first stage of the men’s draw, although the big serving Ivo Karlović lost out in five sets to Britain’s Aljaž Bedene, and Nick Kyrgios was forced to retire with an ongoing hip injury. In fact the first round saw seven men succumb to early retirement, easing the passage of Federer and Djokovic among others, but raising questions about a possible rule change as players are lured whatever the state of their health by the prospect of lucrative Grand Slam prize money. A new rule on the ATP tour, allowing players to collect their prize money if they are forced to withdraw shortly before an event begins, has so far not been taken up by the four Grand Slam tournaments.

The third round saw exits for Kei Nishikori, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and perennial third-round departee Gaël Monfils. Heading into the second week, Marin Čilić, Milos Raonic, Alexander Zverev, and Grigor Dimitrov all look threatening. Raonic and Zverev will face each other in what is arguably the match of the fourth round and too close to call, while Dimitrov gets to pit his wits against Federer. And despite the challenges posed by Zverev’s youth and vitality, Dimitrov’s agile resurgence, and reliable big-hitting grass court competitors in Cilic and Raonic, the first week really belonged to a familiar foursome.

Perhaps Murray least of all, who might be making the most of a supposed hip injury, but one way or another was fortunate to escape a fifth set in the third round against Fabio Fognini. The Italian had momentum on his side and was outhitting his opponent in the fourth set, but his failure to capitalise on five set points – stopping midway through one to question a line call when he was already out of challenges – allowed Murray into the next round relatively unfettered. Otherwise, Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal are yet to drop a set between them. Djokovic seems happier than he has in months, Nadal untroubled by his usually suspect knees, and although Federer faces the toughest path to the latter stages – Dimitrov followed by the winner of Raonic/Zverev – it is difficult to see the Wimbledon trophy not ending up in the arms of one of these three former champions.

Last summer at Wimbledon, Serena Williams defeated Angelique Kerber in straight sets in the women’s final to equal Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slams in the Open Era. Her pregnancy has left the women’s draw wide open. In Paris last month, Jelena Ostapenko – ranked 47th and just turned twenty – became the first unseeded woman to win the French Open since 1933, the youngest winner of the French for twenty years, and the youngest winner of any Grand Slam since Maria Sharapova took the US Open title aged nineteen almost eleven years ago.

Ostapenko was seeded thirteenth ahead of what is already her third Wimbledon campaign, and she remains one of a plethora of contenders. The departure of early favourites Karolína Plíšková and Petra Kvitová, both of whom fell in three sets in the second round, only added to the air of uncertainty and expectation. Kvitová is a two-time Wimbledon champion and entered the tournament on the back of victory on the grass at the Aegon Classic Birmingham. Yet her elevation to the status of early favourite in only her third event back after suffering a knife attack and career-threatening hand injury in retrospect seems premature, and she expressed a measure of relief over her early dismissal.

The grass of Wimbledon is a surface which can still favour the heavy hitters of the women’s game, yet as Plíšková demonstrated, it often proves treacherous to tall players who struggle for movement. Perhaps this will be the year which sees the persistence of Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwańska, or Caroline Wozniacki finally pay off, but they could find themselves outmuscled by more erratic but aggressive players in Ostapenko or Coco Vandeweghe, who reached the semi-finals of this year’s Australian Open.

Johanna Konta stands as the bookmakers’ favourite heading into the second week, no surprise as a flurry of bets go on the impressive and ever improving Briton. The other Brit who made it to the third round of the women’s draw was Heather Watson, a more capable player than her ranking of 102 would suggest, but despite taking the opening set she ultimately lost out in three to Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka – playing in only her second tournament back after the birth of her son – has all of the tools and all of the experience required to win at Wimbledon, but will hardly face a sterner test than her fourth round match versus Halep, the tie of the round in the women’s draw.

Angelique Kerber, last year’s finalist and the number one seed, versus 2015 finalist and former French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza, is a match which reads well but brings together two players who were struggling for form heading into the tournament. If she is to progress to the quarters, Radwanska must overcome the considerable challenge of Svetlana Kuznetsova, consistent and combative but not especially comfortable on the surface. Venus Williams arrived at Wimbledon in a state of turmoil, after a car collision in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida ultimately resulted in the death of a 78-year-old man. A wrongful death lawsuit was mooted and while the case is still being investigated, the police belatedly released video footage late in the week which proved she was driving lawfully. Venus will face 19-year-old Croatian Ana Konjuh in one of the most intriguing clashes of the fourth round.

The first week of Wimbledon bore more than its share of controversy. After a casual first round loss to Mischa Zverev, Australia’s Bernard Tomic took the opportunity of the post-match press conference to express just how bored he currently feels playing tennis, admitting that he used and abused a medical timeout mostly for the sake of alleviating the tedium. As a result he was struck with the tournament’s second biggest fine ever, £11,600 ($15,000), and dropped by his racket sponsor Head.

Daniil Medvedev soon followed suit. After stunning Stan Wawrinka in the first round, the young Russian was edged out in the fifth set of his second round match against Belgium’s Ruben Bemelmans. Growing increasingly agitated as a number of line calls went in his opponent’s favour, Medvedev insulted umpire Mariana Alves, received a point deduction, and upon losing the match tossed coins in the direction of the umpire’s chair having earlier requested her removal. While he later apologised and sought to downplay any accusation of bias, for the three incidents Medvedev was fined a total of £11,200 ($14,500). Finally France’s Adrian Mannarino – who will face Novak Djokovic in the fourth round after getting the better of his compatriot Gaël Monfils – was fined £7,000 ($9,000) for barging into a ball boy as he walked back to his chair, an incident which despite his protestations appeared deliberate.

Beyond well earned criticisms of player conduct, many of the players themselves have lamented the state of the Wimbledon courts. Following her second round defeat to Alison Riske, French Open quarter-finalist Kristina Mladenovic said:

‘The colour of the court, the fact that there’s no more grass, the fact that the baseline where we are running, it’s very slippery. You kind of have to run light and be careful, not to push or press too much, too hard, which is strange to play on. It’s quite unique with your opponent, after two games, you both agree on stopping playing in a Slam. I’m just honestly very happy and blessed that I didn’t injure myself that much.’

Twisting her ankle in the warm-up before tweaking her knee during the match, Mladenovic described Court 18 as ‘damaged’, asserting that the poorly playing surfaces were the talk of the locker room. It was a thought echoed by Andy Murray and Fabio Fognini after their match on Centre Court, Murray – who saw one particularly egregious bounce skid under his racket – suggesting the courts were ‘not as good as previous years’ and contained lumps and divots, while Fognini simply said they were ‘really, really bad’.

Head groundsman Neil Stubley blamed the extreme heat, arguing the courts would be up to scratch by the end of the championships. But Wimbledon this year is caught in a vicious circle, an issue exacerbated by its extreme slowness. The slowness of its courts is a longstanding development which not coincidentally plays right into the hands – or rather the feet – of Novak Djokovic and Britain’s first male Grand Slam winner in 76 years in Andy Murray.

At the fast-playing Australian Open at the onset of 2017, one of the biggest upsets for years saw six-time tournament winner Djokovic exit in the second round to the 117-ranked but courageous and attacking Denis Istomin. In the fourth round, Murray was equally flummoxed by the serve-and-volley game of Mischa Zverev. On the other hand not only Federer and Nadal but the heavy hitting and proactive Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov also excelled. As Wimbledon – once the bastion of serve-and-volley – continues to play slowly, matches become wars of attrition, and more than the apparently limitless gas tanks of some of the top male players, it is the health of the grass and the baselines which suffer.