July 7, 2015
Two of the greatest players of all time…plus Andy Murray!
Centre Court line-ups are usually special but Monday’s array of stars was unforgettable.
The Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, were opponents in an intriguing opening match. Both have won Wimbledon five times, so something had to give. When Venus didn’t win a point in the first two games, there was near-tangible discomfort in the crowd.
Serena’s 20 Grand Slam titles in the modern era make her one of the best there has ever been. But was she about to use that superiority to destroy her sister on the biggest stage of them all?
The Centre Court crowd cheered when Venus won a point at last, and the elder sister soon managed to come up with some stunning winners. But it was always going to be Serena who progressed, her power was too much for her willowy sibling on the big points.
They hugged each other for what seemed like an age when all was said and done. The crowd savoured this delightful moment, not knowing whether we would ever see them joined in fresh battle against each other at Wimbledon. How we will miss Venus and Serena when first one, and then the other finally retire from our stage.
Lost in such thoughts, there was just time to use the privileged position of a Wimbledon Debenture Holder to take a quick break from the intensity of Centre Court, without even going far. A brief climb of the stairs at the back of the arena leads to the magnificent Gallery, where you can buy a Pimms and step out onto the balcony that overlooks all the outside courts between Centre and Court One. It is a magnificent spectacle, to see so many doubles players still in action below, and it offers the perfect change of air before returning to your seat to take in more big-name singles action.
Andy Murray, the local favourite, was dwarfed by the gigantic and likable Ivo Karlovic of Croatia when they stepped out like the sporting gladiators they are. From the wonderful position always provided by Wimbledon Debenture Holders on Centre Court, you could imagine yourself facing Karlovic and that fearsome first serve, because there were times when it felt as though the ball were coming straight at you.
You could ask yourself whether returning it, or simple physical survival would be the priority, if you were in Murray’s shoes. You could question whether mere mortals would have time to move their racquet into anything approaching a protective position against the serve into the body. Though the honest answer might have been no, you could dream of success, all the same.
The fact that Karlovic managed to take a set from Murray showed that he isn’t just a superb serving machine. Indeed his all-round game seemed to improve as the match went on.
But Murray had to find a way, he couldn’t let the Wimbledon crowd down, so he conjured a few surprises. How many times does a 6ft 11-inch player expect to be lobbed during any match? Murray made an embarrassing habit of it against Karlovic, revenge perhaps for the number of times he had been aced by the dangerous underdog.
And then we witnessed something even more unusual. Murray, well-known for making futile challenges, actually challenged successfully three times in a row! You half-expected Hawkeye to break down with the shock of it all. And these new powers of judgement helped Murray to victory.
That meant we could be treated to what is still, for most people, the main event: the appearance of Roger Federer, the most graceful and poetic sportsman of them all, the player many travel across the world to see for a few hours in the flesh.
Roberto Bautista Agut was a plucky opponent, but he was no match for the Federer forehand. So much has been written about the most beautiful shot in tennis; but to see it in full flow, just a few yards away from you, almost defies words. It is stunningly graceful and effortless. Little more than a flick of the Federer wrist, exquisitely timed, harnesses all the energy pulsing through that fluent right arm. An explosion on the racquet face, disguised as a cunning caress, and the ball flies past his opponent in an instant.
So why was Federer showing unusual annoyance on Centre Court? Ah, the backhand. There’s nothing much wrong with it, and yet…it isn’t as good as the forehand, or at least it wasn’t on this particular day. It dared to let Roger down at times; and to risk the wrath of a perfectionist is asking for trouble.
Although Agut was dispatched with comparative ease, Federer himself wasn’t fooled. To fulfill his dream of winning Wimbledon for a record eighth time, Roger must summon the best of that backhand over the next few days. Yes, the master must raise his game, ridiculous as that seems, and we can be pretty sure he will.
That’s the beauty of Wimbledon. The most successful players know that they must build their performance to a crescendo, time their title charge perfectly. So the best is yet to come from the greatest players.
Amazing as this very special day was, there will be even higher levels of excellence on show before Wimbledon 2015 is over. And that’s an extraordinary thought, for those of us lucky enough to have witnessed so many champions in a single, magical day on Centre Court. Second Monday was such a pleasure.