LONDON (June 20, 2017) Many seemingly easy finishing shots are missed in tennis because the player is thinking a split-second ahead to its safe landing. That fractional percentage point of lost concentration can make the difference between the tournament winner and the first-round loser. The smart tennis player learns to focus as much as possible on the now, taught to be mindful before it was a thing.
This makes for a serious mismatch between players and the journalists who cover them. Journalists this week are vying to read the tea leaves for prospective Wimbledon winners, while the players are just trying to get through their first-round matches here at Queen’s.
By tea time on Tuesday journalists’ ideas had collapsed. Aljaz Bedene withdrew with a wrist injury, leaving Andy Murray to play lucky loser Jordan Thompson, an Australian player so obscure that no one knew anything about him; Milos Raonic, last year’s Queen’s and Wimbledon finalist, was up against Thanasin Kokkinakis, freshly returned from injury; and Stan Wawrinka was facing 2014 Queen’s finalist Feliciano “the grass Spaniard” Lopez.
On Sunday, Stan Wawrinka said he wanted only to think about adapting to grass in time for this match, his first round here at Queen’s. But no: how did he think about his chances of becoming the ninth player in history to have won all four Grand Slam titles in a couple of weeks’ time? Wawrinka felt that was a long way away: “To win a Grand Slam is very tough. There are many things to do.” Or becoming number one? That, he suggested, is an even longer way away and much more difficult, if you look at the Race numbers. And then this, re Wimbledon: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray haven’t been displaying particularly good form this year so far, and Rafael Nadal is complaining about his knees…so a better opportunity?
“And Roger?” Wawrinka asked, laughing? Um, well, he lost first round at Stuttgart, right? Wawrinka finally conceded that the draw might be more open this year, while still downplaying it as a better chance for him personally.
Raonic, who said on Sunday that he needed to be “more exertive energy-wise” when playing last year’s Wimbledon final, dropped his first set in a tiebreak after failing to take advantage of eight break point chances. Twelve games later, he had three set points, the first two on the Kokkinakis serve. The first disappeared into a wide-serve/down-the-line combination, the second to a service winner. At 6-5, on his own serve, Raonic slapped the third set point into the net. It took Kokkinakis three tries to fashion a match point on his own serve – and that one he took to win 7-6,7-6.
Despite the vastly different result, Raonic commented afterwards that he didn’t think this match was much different from his first-round match last year. In that match, too, he struggled to take advantage of his opportunities, though he managed to find a path through in a way he didn’t this year. “I wasn’t efficient in those moments,” he said, explaining this. Overall, “I was a bit too passive.” Kokkinakis, jubilant over the “best win of my career”, said his strategy was simple: “Get on top of the point before he can.” Also, he admitted, “A lot of it is hoping he misses first serves, and he did a couple of those when it mattered.”
We were hearing a lot more about Kokkinakis a couple of years ago. Since then, the list of injured body parts reads like an ER inventory of a crash victim: “Obviously the shoulder was the big one. I tore my oblique, I had osteitis pubis, I tore my pec, I had an elbow issue, and I’m still dealing with my groin and shoulder issues, and my back is stiff.” His injury count dates back to the juniors: he missed seven months at 15, and another seven months at 17. A player of this fragility will struggle to win seven best-of-five matches in a row, as Kei Nishikori could tell him. Kokkinakis’ fellow Australian, Nick Kyrgios, similarly dropped his first set to Donald Young after an alarming slip-and-fall, and then retired with a wrist injury.
Wawrinka faced the toughest customer, as Lopez was fresh off the Stuttgart final two days ago. Lopez won in two tight sets, 7-6,7-5. Afterwards, Wawrinka said he thought he was serving well, and that for a first match on grass it “wasn’t that bad”.
But, Murray! Bidding for his sixth title here, three-time defending Queen’s champion, number one in the world, and defending Wimbledon champion…playing a guy ranked number 90 in the world who only got into the draw by signing in and hanging around just in case. On Sunday, Murray had been talking about how valuable he finds the week between the French Open and Queen’s that debuted last year after 20 years of negotiation.
“It’s so much better having the extra week to let your body get used to grass again,” he said. His game, he said, is better now than it was before the French Open but is still far from where he wants it to be. “You have to be doing everything well to win Slams.”
Thompson, however, seemed to view the occasion as an exciting lottery win and went all out to celebrate with aces, service winners, and solid play. Murray, who appeared to be in a somewhat sour mood, meanwhile obliged by knocking forehands long, not returning as well as he can at his best, and never taking charge for more than a point or two in a row. Once Thompson took the first set tiebreak, he stayed in charge, winning the contest 7-6,6-2.
Murray called the loss “a big blow”. When asked what happened, he said, “He played better than me.”
While the loss of the top three seeds leaves giant holes in the draw, it doesn’t leave it without serious grass contenders. There are still three former Queen’s champions left: Sam Querrey (2010), fourth seed Marin Cilic (2012), and Grigor Dimitrov (2014), plus (besides Lopez) former finalists Nicholas Mahut (2007) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2011, also a two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist), and 2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomáš Berdych. All of their next matches appear to be winnable; the most interesting are Querrey, who plays Thompson next, and Berdych, who faces this season’s dark horse, Denis Shapovalov.
It might be worth keeping your eye on that one. Shapovalov is last year’s Wimbledon junior champion. Just two months past his 18th birthday, he has a big serve and a wicked one-handed backhand. Against 44th-ranked Kyle Edmund, he was able to place serves that kicked so high that Edmund, 6’2″, couldn’t reach them. Queen’s is only his fourth ATP tournament, and the first where he qualified instead of getting a wild card – so he’s already won three matches in a row on a surface he never had the opportunity to play on growing up in Canada.
Murray’s, Wawrinka’s, and Raonic’s losses all have one thing in common: all pitted top players in their first competitive grass-court match since last year’s Wimbledon against players who had already found this year’s footing. Thompson lost in the second round of qualifying, but he won four matches (the first over Shapovalov) last week at the Surbiton Challenger, where he lost in the final and he’d played (and lost) a qualifying match at ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Shapovalov lost first round in the main draw at Surbiton, but had won three qualifying matches to get there, plus a qualifying match he lost at Nottingham. The same might be said of Federer’s second-round loss to Tommy Haas at Stuttgart: Haas had to play and win his first round, where Federer had a bye.
So, two comments. First, Berdych, playing Shapovalov next, has already played two grass-court matches this year, losing to Lopez in the second round at Stuttgart. If Shapovalov wins this match it may really mean something. Second, don’t write off any of these top guys come the first week of Wimbledon. The year so far appears to be Federer’s and Nadal’s, but you can bet neither of them is thinking that far ahead.