Wimbledon: Big names aren’t done just yet

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First we had mad Monday with Rafael Nadal beaten and Victoria Azarenka crocked but still winning, closely followed by Weird Wednesday when Roger Federer lost and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga limped out behind a host of injury withdrawals – including Azarenka. Wimbledon had gone mad and the draw was in tatters.

In between the medical emergencies, Maria Sharapova managed to stumble out in the second round and Serena Williams was undone in the fourth. Wimbledon had not seen the like of it before but, in truth, most people in the tennis world have very short memories.

It was back in 2001 that the grand slams introduced 32 seeds to their singles draws, a move designed to protect the star names for a couple of rounds before they had to meet a player of note. That eliminated the first-round shocks that used to leave gaping holes in the draw and terrify the TV schedulers – particularly in SW19.

Grass is the great leveller. The season is only four weeks long (although that will be extended to five weeks in 2015) and that leaves little time to get used to the movement on the slicker surface. As the good and the great slipped and fell and then whinged and moaned about the condition of the courts, those with a grass court pedigree were running about like whippets and keeping their feet as they did so.

Azarenka and Sharapova both complained about the slipperiness of the grass as they headed for the exit, while Williams looked as if she was playing in roller skates on an ice rink as she went down to Sabine Lisicki. Yet none of the three had played a warm-up event before they got to the All England Club and their footwork was woeful.

“I do think players are quicker these days and grass is a tough surface to stop on,” Andy Murray pointed out as the mayhem continued in the first week of the tournament.

“The way the guys throw their bodies around the court now, they seem to slip more than they used to. You can’t move like that on a grass court. You need to be very particular with your foot placement and that’s the thing that takes time to get used to coming from the clay. There, you can be throwing your right leg into sliding for a ball. Here you have to take small steps to slow yourself down or you’ll fall.”

But it was in the men’s draw that the real damage appeared to have been done. When Federer and Nadal headed home by the end of day three, it felt as if the world had stopped turning. But, looking back with 20-20 hindsight, Nadal’s loss was not that much of a surprise. His comeback from a seven-month break with a knee injury had been impressive (nine finals reached, seven titles won and only two matches lost since February) but he admitted freely that his knee still hurt and always would.

Moving away from the comfort of the clay courts – and even there he did not want to move to his backhand side for fear of aggravating the injury – he found the grass harder than ever on his knee and was clearly hobbled as he lost to Steve Darcis.

As his uncle and coach Toni let slip: “Rafael’s health dropped after Roland Garros and we did not come here with the best preparations”.

Federer, too, had played a shocker of a match to lose to Tsonga at the French Open and, faced with Sergiy Stakhovsky, a man who plays an even more aggressive game than Tsonga, he could not cope.

The Swiss will be 32 in August and not even he, gifted and all as he is, can stop the ageing process. He is still spectacularly good, but expecting him to be that good day in, day out, week in, week out is asking too much. He has been at the very top of the game for a decade – nothing goes on forever.

So, from the madness of the first week, order has finally been restored.

Of the world’s top eight, five made it through to the quarter-finals as seeded, one was outplayed early on and two were injured. And of those who saw a gap open up in the draw ahead of them, only Jerzy Janowicz, Murray’s semi-final opponent, had the wherewithal to make the most of it.

When we come back to SW19 next year, it is hard to see too much of a change at the top of the rankings. Provided they all stay free of injury, Murray and Djokovic ought to be arguing over the No.1 and No.2 spots and Federer should be in the top five mix along with Nadal (if his knee can withstand the hard-court pounding in the second half of the season).

The Gang of Four who have ruled the top of the rankings for the past five years all still have major titles within their reach, while little David Ferrer will continue to nip at their heels for as long as he has breath in his body. Wimbledon may have looked chaotic but not a lot has changed.