Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Wimbledon round one: review

The headlines

Rafael Nadal crashed out at the early stages for the second year running, as an inspired Steve Darcis triumphed 7-6 7-6 6-4. It was part of a hugely exciting line-up for day one of the championships, with Federer, Murray and Sharapova also featuring. On Tuesday, Laura Robson pulled out all the stops as she blasted through the tenth seed, Maria Kirilenko, while Heather Watson was knocked out by the impressive American teenager, Madison Keys.

What next for Rafael Nadal?

Many pundits tipped Nadal to win Wimbledon this year given his remarkable form in 2013. Nine tournaments played, seven titles, and his knee seemed to be holding up well. However, most of these had come on his favourite surface, clay, which is relatively kind to the knees compared to hard courts and especially grass.

From the very start against Darcis, he was constantly running around his backhand to hit forehands, making errors and finding himself out of position against a savvy grass court player.  The damp, heavy conditions would not have helped the Spaniard either; he was unsure with his footwork and his classic spinning forehand caused fewer problems.

By the third set, it was clear he was struggling physically when he limped trying to chase down a drop shot. His left knee had given up although Nadal refused to talk about it during the press conference. Darcis was clearly feeling tense towards the end, aware of the enormity of what he was about to achieve, but he completed one of Wimbledon’s biggest upsets.

But was it? A fully fit Nadal would have cruised through that match on whatever surface and, let’s be honest, Darcis did not play blindingly good tennis throughout. It was different to Nadal’s early exit last year; even though Nadal did have knee problems, Lukas Rosol could have beaten anybody playing as he did. He went for the big shots and, somehow, they all came off.

The result is deeply concerning for Nadal fans. His comeback was arguably incomplete until he experienced a change of surface; the shift from clay to grass was going to be the acid test. The danger is that he has become a one-surface player again, too vulnerable to play his intense style on the less forgiving fast courts. He at least has time to recover and contemplate what he’s doing for the rest of 2013, because this could be a defining period of his career.

Mixed bag for the Brits

Overall, the first round was somewhat disappointing for the British players. Anne Keothavong and Elena Baltacha completed their annual first round exits while Johanna Konta and Tara Moore both put up a good fights but narrowly lost out.

Heather Watson was clearly not fully fit after a bout of glandular fever. Her game doesn’t depend so much on shot power, but on athleticism, being a solid returner and chasing down lost causes – a bit like Andy Murray a few years ago. Against a big hitter like Madison Keys, it was always going to be a difficult task to retain such intensity.

James Ward performed well, but succumbed to the experienced Yen-Hsun Lu in four sets. This is the same player who defeated then-runner-up Andy Roddick in the fourth round in 2010, and also beat Murray at the 2008 Olympics. Meanwhile, no one expected 18-year-old debutant Kyle Edmund to beat Jerzy Janowicz – it will be crucial experience if he is to reach the top 100.

As for Laura Robson, her win over Maria Kirilenko will surely give her huge confidence going into her the second round match against world number 36 Julia Goerges. She hit an astonishing 31 winners to the Russian’s 8 and won 80% of points behind the first serve. This was intimidating enough, but perhaps most encouraging was the fact she won 60% of points on her second serve and double faulted only three times. Clearly, new coach Miles Maclagan has been trying to improve Robson’s results during the pressure moments and it’s working.

By contrast, we didn’t learn much from Andy Murray’s win against Benjamin Becker; it was similar in many ways to their clash at Queen’s the other week. For me, his only weakness is the second serve and at times Becker found it too easy to take charge of the rallies. But there’s plenty of time to tweak these things before the potential semi-final against Federer, who looks in ominous form after his straight sets win over Hanescu.

First round summary

Best men’s performance – Steve Darcis: Not quite a Rosol performance but still mightily impressive, as the Belgian took out Nadal in straight sets. Despite playing an injured opponent, he still had to produce his best tennis and utilised the slice and drop shot to devastating effect.

Best women’s performance – Laura Robson: Outgunned the world number 10 Maria Kirilenko with a masterclass display of serving and dictacted points from the baseline.

Best men’s match – Bernard Tomic vs Sam Querrey: The talented, yet unpredictable, Australian Tomic came through in five sets against the 21st seed despite suffering from dizziness. His next opponent will also be an American – James Blake.

Best women’s match – Ajla Tomljanovic vs Bojana Jovanovski: This was a marathon which 21-year-old Serbian Jovanovski eventually won 3-6, 6-1, 9-7 against a plucky qualifier.

Second round: ones to watch

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs Ernests Gulbis: Here we have two supremely talented players but only one who is fulfilling their potential. While Tsonga is pushing hard for his first major under the gaze of new coach Roger Rasheed, Gulbis’ career is languishing somewhat. Expect some remarkable shot-making from both players. Prediction: Tsonga in four sets

Tomas Berdych vs Daniel Brands: Keep an eye on the speed gun for this match – these two give the ball a good whack. Former finalist Berdych is expected to progress but Brands is no mug, having taken a set off Nadal at the French Open. Berdych’s superior backhand will probably be the deciding factor. Prediction: Berdych in four sets

Monica Puig vs Silvia Soler-Espinosa: It will be interesting to see how Puig, who toppled fifth seed Sara Errani in round one, fares against lesser opposition. If Puig maintains her aggression (she hit 38 winners against Errani) she could go deep into the tournament. Prediction: Puig in straight sets

Madison Keys vs Mona Barthel: Keys was impressive against Heather Watson and struck the ball so cleanly on both wings. With a big serve and excellent temperament to boot, she will surely be a top 10 player in future. Great things are also expected of 22-year-old Barthel, one of the youngest players in the top 30. Prediction: Keys in three sets