Wimbledon: In the Footsteps of Pope Francis and Other Notes From Tennis Heaven on First Wednesday

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By Bill Simons

THIS COULD BE TENNIS HEAVEN: It’s 8:47 p.m. Dusk is beginning to gently descend. It kisses the sky. Still, clouds are just beginning to gather their gentle pastels, friendly puffs floating free. The British crowd on Court 2 is proper and dignified. The bells of St. Mary’s Chapel, up the gentle hill on Church Road, chime a traditional sing-song Christian melody, which is completely ignored by a burly Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, as he battles LA’s lanky Sam Querrey deep in the fifth set. As the aces fly and fans cheer, the umpire, in his cream pants and purple blazer, says “4-all.” And you think alright, this is alright. Tennis heaven may just look—and sound—a bit like this.

A WONDERFUL BUT FAR FROM WACKY WEDNESDAY: How many times has a quirky individualist or uppity rebel been dressed down by some puffed-up authority figure: “Imagine, if everyone did it your way, there would be chaos, pure chaos. Don’t do that again!”

Well, imagine tennis fans, if every first Wednesday at Wimbledon was as wild and weird as last year’s Wacky Wednesday. Tennis would be unfathomable, a landscape devoid of form, pattern, or reason, an odd helter skelter world.

After all, last year on the first Wednesday at Wimbledon, Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky shocked Roger Federer. Victoria Azarenka, Marin Cilic, and Jo-Willie Tsonga all pulled out with injuries, and qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito shocked No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova.

This year on first Wednesday, there was plenty of drama:

—The stately Lord Frederick Windsor found himself stranded outside the media centre without the proper ticket.

—A fan fell ill in the stands of an outer court, delaying play for 18 minutes.

Andy Murray told an eager press corps that when he tossed his wristbands into the stands, he wasn’t aiming them at the Duchess of Cornwall (that would be Camilla Rosemary Montbatten-Windsor.)

—Word emerged that Judy Murray had broken up with her boyfriend. Also on the intriguing Murray front, Andy revealed that while driving yesterday, he got out of his car and stopped traffic to grab a lost dog, eventually tracking down the pet’s owner. Such intrigue.

To be blunt, it was not an earthshaking day. Indeed, it was the kind that prompted one grizzled writer in the press room to ask rhetorically, “You know what a journalist is? A journalist is somebody who writes about the death of Colonel Smith, and nobody knew who Colonel Smith was.”

Well, Colonel Smith didn’t die at Wimbledon today, and not much else happened, until No. 8 seed Victoria Azarenka—rusty, but still loud—was bumped out by Serbia’s Bojana Jovanovski, who’d broken a five-match losing streak in the previous round.

Aside from Azarenka’s noteworthy but understandable loss, the day still promised to be underwhelming. One year after his win over Federer, Stakohovsky’s defeat of No. 12 Ernests Gulbis hardly registered as a surprise. And after all, No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic was two sets up and cruising against the aged Czech Radek Stepanek.

Yes, the crafty 35-year old Stepanek is simply a delight. Serve and volley, bold dashes to the net, wild leaps to reach passing shots—he is different. He even offers an old school, scissor-kick leap of the net. “He’s great value for the dollar,” said one fan on Murray Mount. “He works his butt off.”

Much to the glee of the Centre Court crowd, Stepanek—thanks to exquisite, expressive free-form volleying and flat, varied, and effective groundies—rallied to win the third set. With the crowd behind him, he fought bravely to force a fourth set tie-break. Once there, he fell far behind, only to surge yet again. Facing match point, Stepanek watched a subtle Djokovic forehand float crosscourt and brush the line—match over.

Or was it?

Stepanek challenged. On his knees, he gathered his hands to pray. But God—make that Hawkeye—said no way. Stepanek dropped his head. Defeat stings. Then he gathered himself up and embraced his friend, foe, and practice partner, Djokovic. Centre Court fans—in their floral tops, pink ties, straw hats and ample bonnets—knew this Wednesday wasn’t exactly wacky, but it had been rather wonderful.

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF POPE FRANCIS: When asked about gay rights, Pope Francis famously said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” When asked about Andy Murray choosing a woman, Amelie Mauresmo, to be his coach, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov said, “Everyone is sufficient. Whatever works for you. It’s very simple. Who am I to judge?”

SAY IT ISN’T SO: On Centre Court, defending champion Marion Bartoli was introduced as “Maria Bartoli.”

16 GOING ON 18: Croatian 16-year-old Ana Konjuh hit 18 aces to advance to the third round today. Next up for her: a match against former junior phenom (and adult No. 1) Caroline Wozniacki, who’s also serving well.

DAVIS UP: Well, Sloane Stephens made an uncharacteristically early exit from Wimbledon, but American hopes are still alive in her quadrant of the draw, thanks to 5’1″ Lauren Davis, who powered past No. 12 seed Flavia Pennetta in straight sets. BTW: Davis’ dad, Wheat Belly author William Davis, co-wrote Novak Djokovic‘s “gluten-free autobiography” Serve to Win.

LOSE SOME, WIN SOME: Recently touted as a promising player, Croatia’s Petra Martic won her first game in three Slams this year while down 6-0, 5-0 to Spain’s Lourdes Dominguez Lino (who hadn’t had a victory on grass in over two years). In Australia, Martic lost 6-0, 6-0 in the first round, and she retired down 5-0 in her first match at Roland Garros. Martic, said to be struggling with an arm injury, has collected roughly $100,000 for these defeats.

WIN SOME, LOSE SOME: The ever-demonstrative Italian Fabio Fognini was fined $27,500 by the All England Club for visible obscenity and unsportmanlike conduct during his first-round match.

HE WOULD KNOW: During a Fox Sports podcast, Andy Roddick remarked, “The serve is the most overrated aspect of playing on grass. Ever.”

SOUNDBITE OF THE DAY: Asked about the outrageous behavior of Uraguay’s soccer player Luis Suarez, Andy Murray said, “It looks really weird [when] someone bites someone else.”

CHOKING ON BAGUETTES: Veteran British journalist Barry Flatman noted that you couldn’t find two more different people than Murray‘s previous coach Ivan Lendl and his new coach Amelie Mauresmo. Slightly harsh, Flatman recalled that Parisians used to note that Amelie “chokes on a baguette.” Still, Flatman said the appealing French woman should bring “a little bit more panache” to Murray’s game, and might “encourage him to come in a little bit more and finish matches off more efficiently.”

SOCIAL TIP OF THE FORTNIGHT: A reporter asked Caroline Wozniacki (who was sort of left at the altar by golfer Rory McIlroy), “Have you considered internet dating?”

QUOTEBOOK:

“There is no way a team will do what this team did. It is just not humanly possible.”—Stanford’s Dick Gould on his ’98 Dream Team, which went 28-0, thanks in part to the play of the school’s new men’s coach, Paul Goldstein.

“I don’t think the sport has ever seen anything like this.”—John Isner, on the incredible dominance of the Big Four of men’s tennis.