WITHIN 24 slightly surreal hours at Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal lost a match, Novak Djokovic lost a set, and Roger Federer retrieved what had seemed, well, lost. The owners of 28 of the past 29 grand slam titles were either beaten or, at best, worried before the end of the third round.
So what does this say about the state of the Big Three?
”Can’t play tennis no more, right?” quipped Federer, who had recovered from a two-sets-to-love deficit and been two points from defeat a handful of times in the fourth set against France’s world No. 32 Julien Benneteau.
Not that. Clearly not that. But perhaps the gap is finally closing, given that Tennis 101 is not just an education in forehands and backhands but the type of lesson that Djokovic – the winner of three of the past four grand slam titles – considers it wise to take from Thursday’s astonishing second round upset of Nadal by 100th-ranked wonder Lukas Rosol.
”It can serve as an example for everybody that anything is possible in this sport,” said Djokovic, who tomorrow returns from his golf weekend to play fellow Serb Viktor Troicki in the round of 16, having surprisingly dropped a set to veteran trickster Radek Stepanek before winning 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. Again, the match-up was Big Star versus Some Czech Guy. This time, Big Star prevailed.
”Even though myself, Rafa, Roger, [Andy] Murray, a couple other players, we’ve been dominant in a way in grand slams, and the last couple of years later stages of events, and it’s expected of us to reach the last four, tennis is improving,” Djokovic said. ”Everybody plays equally well.”
Certainly, the depth in the men’s game is exceptional, and Djokovic and Federer both enter the second week having dropped their first set – or two – of the tournament in round three. Yet while Djokovic’s was a minor hiccup, the health of Federer’s quest for a record-equalling seventh Wimbledon title was almost terminal. Rosol, however long he may last, came from nowhere; the 32nd-ranked Benneteau came from closer, even as he cramped in the fifth set to lose 4-6, 6-7 (3-7), 6-2, 7-6 (8-6), 6-1.
”Two sets down and he’s a champion,” said Benneteau of his friend and fellow 30-year-old. ”I think he was a little bit … not panicked, but not comfortable, I will say. But at the end of the day he’s here; he doesn’t make any mistakes. At the end of the fourth set his serve was incredible. Only first serve, only first serve, only first serve.
”Mentally he’s a rock, you know. He’s two sets down and he doesn’t show anything. After that, if your level is a little bit lower, right here, right now he takes the opportunity. At the beginning of the third set I was a little bit not as good as I was during the first two sets, and in five minutes it’s 4-0.”
Overall, the Swiss was encouraged for several reasons, and more generously than one might think.
”What this victory of Rosol does to me is give great belief for other players that they can beat the top guys, which I think is great, even though it might not be that great for me down the stretch. Hopefully not,” he said, smiling. ”But I think it’s great for the sport that it is possible, such a victory for a lower-ranked player – it’s not a low-ranked player, but in terms of Rafa Nadal being No. 2 in the world and the champion he is, it’s obviously a massive upset. I hope it does give many other players great belief in playing us in the future.”
Next for Federer is another veteran, Xavier Malisse, who unseated Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in five sets to revive his career, yet again, at his best grand slam, a decade after he reached the semi-finals in Lleyton Hewitt’s championship year.
”He’s a great player with great talent and reads the game extremely well, the geometry of the courts. He’s got a good first serve and he moves smoothly, especially on the grass, which you’re supposed to be doing,” said Federer, who will soon usurp Nadal at No. 2. ”I think he does all those things very well, which makes him a tough player to play against.”
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