Hot weather, high humidity and a humdinger of a schedule on Centre Court.
That was the scene on Wimbledon's second Monday, and it served up a banquet both for those who had come to feast on the tennis, and for those simply wanting a taste of this uniquely English event.
As the temperature soared to over 30oC, the elegantly refurbished Centre Court—all deep greens, dusky taupe and highlights of indigo blue—was filled to capacity with the glowing shoulders of spectators caught in a couple of hours of brilliant sunshine.
And on the dot of 2:00 p.m., the maestro that is Roger Federer, following his Roland Garros victim Robin Soderling, walked nonchalantly onto the emerald patch he loves so much.
This crowd loves him, too, and he received the now-routine standing ovation simply for appearing on the hallowed turf. He continued his panther-like amble to the far chair, saluting the applause with the confident gesture of a man thoroughly at ease with adulation.
This, however, promised to be a tough match for the top seed.
Soderling showed outstanding form in Paris and the grass was expected to suit his powerful game and big serve. And the match was indeed dominated by excellent serving, but as much from Federer as Soderling. Little surprise, then, that two sets went all the way to tie breaks.
What turned out to be the decisive factor, though, was the return of serve. While Federer quickly picked up his opponent’s deliveries, Soderling misread his opponent’s time and time again.
Indeed by the third set, Federer had reduced the pace of the majority of his serves to less than 120 mph—some to just 110 mph—but the disguise, positioning, and spin were such that Soderling remained rooted the spot.
So Federer ran out the winner in straight sets, but there were some wonderful rallies to savour, and it was in those that the tone was set for the rest of the day’s schedule.
In every match, the crowd was treated to a bouquet of backhands and—even more delightful—an exhibition of the glories of its one-handed execution.
Federer’s iteration of the backhand needs little introduction. He has honed and polished it in response to accusations that it constituted a weakness in his game.
On grass, his silky, skimming slice is one of the most perfectly timed and executed shots in his repertoire, and viciously difficult to deal with.
He has become practised, too, at suddenly switching to a top-spin drive or cross-court backhand, and this proved to be a rich source of success against Soderling.
The change of pace, height, and spin drew numerous errors, or such weak responses that Federer was able to apply a killer blow, finishing off with his signature forehand or a deft volley. That was enough—with the proliferation of aces—to ensure the win.
The top-seeded man was followed on court by the top seed in the women’s draw. However, it was Dinara Safina’s opponent who might more accurately be compared with Federer—at least in her playing style.
Amelie Mauresmo received passionate support from the crowd—maybe for her style of play, but more likely because she intends soon to retire from the game that she has graced for so long.
She turned in a truly crowd-pleasing performance, running away with the first set in a display of elegant grass-court tennis that had touches of Yvonne Cawley in the nimble footwork and crisp volleying.
But it is with her backhand slice that she morphs into Federer, and even that flattering comparison is inclined to diminish the grace of Mauresmo’s shot.
Rather than swing her arms back in Federer’s eagle-like sweep, she extends her arms like a weather vane, perfectly balanced like a ballet dancer poised on one point. The action is fleeting, the feet move quickly back into position, but it is a moment of beauty.
To Safina’s immense credit, she upped her power game, rifling drives throughout long rallies all around the back of the court. On several occasions, she confidently took the net position and, fighting an inspired Mauresmo and the partisan crowd, tussled her way into the second set.
She even retained focus and composure through the brouhaha of rain and roof closure, and eventually imposed herself on the match to take the deciding set.
Mauresmo garnered the standing ovation, but Safina won the crowd round with her powerful shot-making and guts. She beamed in delight under the beautiful, diffused light of the famous roof’s white fabric.
And so to the final event of the day.
If the Centre Court thought it had heard a partisan crowd supporting the French woman, it had seen nothing yet.
There was again a standing ovation, this time to welcome the British hero that Andy Murray has become. So confident is his nation that he might as well have won the Wimbledon crown already. At least that was the view until Stanislas Wawrinka played him into the ground in the opening set.
Wawrinka is one of those under-the-radar players who neither seeks nor is accorded the limelight. Yet he is a formidable player, recently top 10 and still top 20.
He lacks the natural tennis build of a Murray—is stockier and barely reaches six feet. But he has been blessed with arguably the best backhand in the game and, wouldn’t you know it, he wields it with one almighty arm.
The crowd, with Murray down 4-0 in the first set, fell silent and noticed just what a shot Wawrinka had at his disposal. Murray made the mistake of allowing a ground-stroke rhythm to develop, and Wawrinka reeled off every type of backhand you could wish to see (and threw in a fair helping of forehands for good measure).
Less stylish than his Centre Court forerunners, Stan’s right arm and shoulder deliver a powerful shot with such full-blooded power that it’s a wonder the ball stays court-bound. He simply takes his arm back and drives it through with uncomplicated vim.
There is clearly disguise, since it ends up in all areas of the far court, though his favorite is the cross-court top-spin version. But all variants—combined with 17 aces—left Murray without an answer until well into the second set.
Even then, Wawrinka had break opportunities aplenty. He may put his eventual loss down to a failure, on no fewer than 10 occasions, to break the Murray serve.
As it was, and spirited as Wawrinka’s attack and composure were, Murray would not acquiesce in front of his roaring crowd, nor let the first complete match under a Centre Court roof be remembered as a worthy loss.
So while Wawrinka outnumbered Murray in outright winners, he also outnumbered him in unforced errors. That, the weight of the occasion, and the surge of the crowd’s support, were enough of a combination to deprive Wawrinka of his upset.
In the end, then, on this magical Monday, the double-handers won through—just—in two matches. Federer continued to fly the flag for the most elegant shot in tennis and will be ably backed in the quarters by chum and fellow traditionalist Tommy Haas.
Let’s hope that the Centre Court, and a few up-and-coming tennis players, have seen just enough of the creativity a sliced single-hander can bring to grass court tennis to give it a try.