By Bill Simons
Don’t you dare call it a sports cafeteria!
It is a gathering spot like no other, a hang out you can only imagine, and it offers the best tennis view this side of Monte Carlo.
It’s Wimbledon’s formerly-named “Competitor’s Restaurant” or, to you and me, it’s simply “The Tea Room.” It’s an enclave that buzzes with excitement, the celebrated place where Wimbledon gathers.
After all, there’s Roger Federer, right in the middle of it all, dreamy hair, calm demeanor, laid back and quietly holding court. This is a man who commands, so comfortable in his skin.
Three tables away from our game’s Superman is the game’s super mom, Oracene Williams, who now knows well the boulangeries of Wimbledon village and the finer hangouts in tennis. Who else has sat through so much tennis: Venus, Serena, singles, doubles, rain delays, triumphs and crises? For decades, this (weary long-ago) lady has been a witness like no other.
But the Tea Room is not about a single star or parent. It’s about the mindset of the whole game: family and fraternity, a moveable feast. Hordes hover on a dreary, drizzly day, or on a sunny afternoon, or at dusk, when England’s clouds go pink. From a distant corner of the fourth floor tea room, there is a lofty and singular tennis view. You gaze out at the magical horizon and all of tennis seems to be at your feet.
By Bill Simons
After scoring the biggest win of her career and the biggest shock upset of this Wimbledon, a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Serena Williams, Alize Cornet kissed the soft grass of Court 1, while Williams—the No. 1 seed, and prohibitive favorite—kissed away her third straight Grand Slam opportunity.
Why has Serena Williams been slumping?
She’s the dominant player of our era. Some say she’s the best player of all time. She has power and ‘tude and 17 Slams.
She only considers it a good year if she wins two Slams a season. But now she seems a bit sluggish, and her confidence and ability to bring it at crunch time appear to have waned. She lost to Ana Ivanovic in the third round of the Aussie Open. Well, anything can happen in the first Slam of the year, said some. Then she lost to Spain’s, big hitting youngster, Garbine Muguruza in the 2nd round at the French Open. Well, clay still is not her best surface.
But here on the grass at Wimbledon, where she has won five times, it would be a different story. One of the greatest motivational players ever, she would be dialed in and determined, and there’s nothing like a motivated Ms. Williams eager for blood and todayafter a four-hour rain delay, Williams wasted no time sprinting to a domineering 6-1 first-set win.
By Bill Simons
LI NA—ALTERING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD: “Andy Murray,” noted writer Simon Barnes, “knows all about being a British success when he wins and a Scottish failure when he loses—well, Li Na is a national darling when she wins … But [when] she loses, she is a bad-tempered, non-patriot with a tattoo. Li takes all this in her stride.”
But she doesn’t exactly take her losses in stride. Tears can flow, anger can flash. This year, the woman with the brief name—20 letters shorter than that of her third-round opponent , Barbora Zahlavova Strycova—had as brief a run as possible at Roland Garros, losing in the first round. And today, despite her wondrous Aussie Open triumph, she got bounced by the Czech Zahlavova Strycova, losing 7-6(5), 7-6(5) .
On one level, the loss made no sense at all. Twice before, Na has beaten Zahlavova Strycova. Twice, she’s won Grand Slams (at the 2011 French Open and this year’s Aussie) She was seeded No. 2.
Na is the first Chinese player to win a Slam, she’s No. 1 when it comes to tennis players recently making the cover of Time Magazine, and of course, she outdistances everyone in pro tennis when it comes to laughter. She’s the queen of comedy. But while Na cracks everyone up, she often cracks at Slams. Unfortunately, she’s also No. 1 when it comes to elite champions who are completely erratic.
By Bill Simons
In Paris, they say that the hardest thing to do in tennis is beat Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros. In London, tennis folk claim the toughest feat in the game is to win the French Open and Wimbledon back to back—of late, only Roger Federer (in 2009) and Nadal (in 2008 and 2010) have done it.
And from Reno to Rishikesh, many claim that lightning just doesn’t strike the same place twice.
There was no way that the less-than-distinguished Czech Lukas Rosol could again take down the best player in the world, Nadal, a second time. Then again, Rafa’s last few Wimbledons have been misfires. Since 2011, he hasn’t gotten past the second round. Besides the marathon physical demands, winning the French Open is also an emotional drain, and it cuts down on your prep time for grass.
Plus, this year, the draw was most unfriendly. Yes, Rafa’s great Roland Garros nemesis Robin Soderling has long been sidelined. Belgium’s Steve Darcis, who shocked Nadal last year, didn’t make it out of qualifying. And incredibly, Rosol, the man who beat Rafa in five sets in 2012 to score what many call the greatest shock upset in Wimbledon history, would once again be Nadal’s second-round foe.
But don’t worry, lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice.
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:
By Bill Simons
It was the greatest dynasty in the history of college tennis. Maybe one of the greatest legacies in all of college sports. But, for whatever reasons, the glimmering legacy left by Stanford Coach Dick Gould—with its 17 NCAA Championships —was tattered and in disarray.
Forget McEnroe—John or Pat. Forget the Bryans, Bob or Mike. And don’t even mention the Mayers —Sandy or Gene. The glory days of Maze, Mayotte, Tanner, Stark, Goldie, Grabb, O’Brien, Palmer, and Wolters were but a distant memory. The mighty Casey had long ago struck out. Jeez, this year, Stanford didn’t even get to the playoffs.
Stanford men’s tennis was no longer as good as gold, or Gould. But now, after the recent retirement of John Whitlinger, enters another golden guy: Paul Goldstein, named today as Stanford’s new men’s tennis coach.
By Bill Simons
VICKY DUVAL—LITTLE GIRL, BIG FUTURE: While most all of Britain gathered around TVs in pubs from Manchester to Portsmouth; while much of Wimbledon gathered in Centre Court to watch Serena Williams demolish another overmatched foe; and while American Taylor Townsend went down quickly in a tearful match on Court 17, a cadre of six American writers and one Brit crowded into a tiny interview room the size of a Texas closet to chat with “yesterday”‘s hero, eighteen-year old Vicky Duval, the US Open darling who shocked Sam Stosur last summer.
The small room was packed. “You’re popular,” said one writer.
“I know,” replied Duval, but it sounded more cute than vain.
Duval has a high-pitched voice and a high-level game.
Some feared that her win in New York would prove to be a one-hit wonder. But Duval has hit the practice court, grown to be 5′ 10″, and now seems to be thriving. Never mind that she is now “just” coached by her mom.
Of course, many recall the tale of her father who, though he remains paralyzed, survived a killer hurricane in Haiti. More to the point, Vicky recently survived the killer competition of Roehampton qualifying. There, she says, “You just don’t know where the ball is going.”
Now, after scoring yet another first-round Grand Slam upset over a seeded player, it’s clear where the No. 115 player in the world is trending: upward. Her win over Romania’ s Sorana Cirstea out on court 16 was yet another rung on an intriguing ladder which might reach stardom.
By Bill Simons
A SMALL COMMENT ON A BIG MAN: Asked about chatting with Shaquille O’Neal, Andy Murray said, “He’s a big boy. He’s very entertaining.”
VICTORIA AZARENKA AND THE ART OF TENNIS: Vika Azarenka recently revealed that during her months on the sidelines she discovered she loved to paint. So we asked the former No. 1 about the joy of art. “Painting came to me … all of a sudden,” Vika responded. “I just wanted to try it. I feel it’s one of the best ways to express your emotions. I don’t look at it [like] I’m going to sell the painting or make money out of it.
I’ll tell you a funny story. I start painting. I don’t know what in the hell I paint. I was like, ‘Okay, I feel very emotional right now. I am just going to put [in] all the colors.’ I started doing it with my hands. I didn’t want to wash my hands, so I just did like that on my shirt.
Then I forget. It dried out. I put the shirt on. I walked outside because I was lazy. People were like, ‘Wow, that’s such an amazing shirt, where did you get it?’
I was like, ‘Really?’
They [said], ‘It’s so cool.’
By Bill Simons
THE DEATH OF A THEORY: Okay, it’s not exactly as if Darwin’s take on evolution was proven wrong. It isn’t as if Freud’s notion of the id was debunked, or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity exposed as a fallacy.
Far from it!
Still, as a sports analyst, there is nothing more disturbing than having your brand-spanking-new pop-psych theory blown out of the water from the get-go.
My oh-so-insightful theory went a little like this…Asked who’ll be America’s great WTA player—the one to rock the tennis casbah—most experts have said Sloane Stephens. Sure, the Californian’s results and ‘tude have been less than stellar of late. But when Madison Keys‘ scored her key title win at Eastbourne Saturday, surely the breakthrough by a younger compatriot would serve as a kind of wake-up call—or a hefty kick in the butt—for Sloane. Right?
Before you could digest your first bowl of strawberries and cream, before you could down your first Pimm’s, Sloane, the No. 18 seed, was out.
Yesterday’s blonde Russian glamour girl, 27-year-old Maria Kirilenko, ousted today’s African-American glamour girl 6-2, 7-6 (6). The loss was contrary to Stephens’ modus operandi. The highest-ranked active WTA player never to have won a tournament, she’s a limelight player. At Slams, Sloane has been 31-12, while outside of them, she’s only been 55-54. At the majors, she’s consistently stepped up, with a 25-0 record against lower-ranked players. Until today. For the first time in seven Slams, Stephens—whose best result this year is a run to the quarters at Indian Wells—didn’t reach the round of 16. In fact, she didn’t even reach the second round.
Worse yet, she destroyed my favorite pet theory.
By John Huston
MARIA AND SERENA—THE SAGA CONTINUES: Last year at this time, Maria Sharapova was taking aim at Serena Williams in the press room, stung not only by a loss to her nemesis in the French Open final, but also by some comments by Serena in a controversial Rolling Stone profile. This year, Maria heads into Wimbledon on a high, with a win in Paris, and the battle has shifted back to the court—just like in Roland Garros, she and Serena are in the same quarter of the draw. It’s the tenth anniversary of Sharapova’s “debutante” Slam win over Williams in the 2004 final, and you can rest assured that even that 2012 drubbing in the Olympics isn’t enough payback for Serena, ultimate master of the grudge match. But Serena’s quest to match Martina Navratilova’s Slam count has been in a holding pattern, and her second-round defeat at the French had her worst-ever scoreline at a major. Will she rebound?
YOUNG AMERICANS—IT’S NOT JUST A SLOANE THING: The arrival of another major means that Sloane Stephens has her sights set on joining “the big girls” in the second week—but if she reaches it, can she take the next step? Last year, she gave surprise champ Marion Bartoli her closest scare. Should she make her usual date with the fourth round, she might face Petra Kvitova.
The good news is that some other young (or youngish) Americans are asserting themselves on the grass—first and foremost, Madison Keys, who says it’s by far her favorite surface. Keys took a set from 2012 finalist Agnieszka Radwanska at Wimbledon last year, and she’s blitzed through the field in Eastbourne this week, but she isn’t alone. Coco Vandeweghe is also on a sudden tear, having served well over 100 aces in two grass tournaments, including a perfect four-ace game. Will either Keys and Vandeweghe (or both) win a maiden WTA title before Sloane? They’re relatively green on the grass, but let’s not forget wild card Taylor Townsend and qualifier Victoria Duval. Both face seeds in the first round, but if Townsend wins, she’ll likely take on Keys in a next-generation marquee match.
THE ENIGMA THAT IS LI NA: With her compact, relatively flat groundies, Li Na should excel on grass, and she’s been solid at Wimbledon. But her year to date has been characteristically erratic, careening from an Aussie Open win to a first-round French Open exit. Which Na will show up in London?
VIKA’S BACK (AND ANA, TOO)! We last saw her throwing f-bombs at her coach in Indian Wells. Now, after a three-month hiatus to heal a foot injury and recharge, Vika Azarenka has returned—sans Redfoo. Grass isn’t her favorite surface—in fact, she picked up her nagging foot injury in the first round of Wimbledon last year, so she’ll be playing with nothing to lose. She has some big hitters in her immediate path, including a potential third-round bout with Coco Vandeweghe or Serena’s French Open conqueror Garbine Muguruza. And while it’s a bit of cliche to say that Ana Ivanovic is showing signs of past Slam-winning glory, the 2008 French Open winner—still just 26—is having a resurgent year, having won three titles already.
SIMONA AND EUGENIE—THE HEIR APPARENTS: Romania’s Simona Halep won new fans during her close loss to Sharapova in the French Open final. Halep was the only pro to win tournaments on all surfaces (hard, clay, grass, and indoor) last year, and her soft draw this go-round is a nice reward after facing Li Na in the first round in 2013. But she retired from her only match since Paris, citing a shoulder injury. Eugenie Bouchard has reached the semis of the last two Slams, and grass suits her aggressive court positioning. The draw gods haven’t been kind this time, though, giving her Daniela Hantuchova in the first round, and a possible fourth-round date with Serena.
VENUS AND PETRA—PAST CHAMPIONS, CURRENT QUESTION MARKS: Aside from Serena and Sharapova, the only other Wimbledon champions in the draw are five-time victor Venus Williams and 2011 winner Petra Kvitova. They’re set for a third-round collision, but even though these two have been incredible on the All England Club’s turf, let’s take things one match at a time.
THE WOZ—SINGLE AND LOVING IT: Caroline Wozniacki entered Roland Garros reeling from a romantic breakup, but some bikini wedding party time—yes, you read that right—on the beach with Serena (who knows a thing or two about post-relationship rebounds) seems to have renewed her focus on court. Her serve was a weapon during impressive wins over Sam Stosur, Sloane Stephens, and Camila Giorgi in Eastbourne this week.
ITALY IS FIERY ON THE GRASS: Speaking of Giorgi, if Sharapova honors her part of the Serena-Maria quarterfinals date, she might have to beat the financially controversial young Italian in the third round—the same round where Giorgi defeated her at Indian Wells this year. Some fire blasted out from under Giorgi’s icy exterior during her Eastbourne match against Wozniacki, where she half-angrily, half-reflexively struck a dead ball into the crowd (pegging a spectator—other players have been disqualified for less) and gave the kind of handshake that immediately inspires GIFs and goes viral. In the process, she outdid countrywoman Francesca Schiavone, who had a 10-minute argument with officials at the same tourney.
SABINE LISICKI—THE FRENCH CONNECTION: For the past three years, Sabine Lisicki has knocked the reigning French Open champ out of Wimbledon: Li Na in 2011; Maria Sharapova in 2012, and Serena Williams last year. But Lisicki has her work cut out for her making it four in a row: she’ll have to reach the semifinals to face Sharapova (if Sharapova gets there).
MARION BARTOLI—ONE YEAR LATER: This year’s Championships is a rare one in which the defending champion has already retired. In fact, Marion Bartoli bolted like lightning from the courts shortly after realizing her childhood dream of a Wimbledon title. Bartoli recently got people talking by retiring while a set and a game down—something she had a rep for on tour—in an exho match against a British junior. She’ll be doing commentary this year.
BEWARE—GRASS GOATS LURK IN CORNERS OF THE DRAW: Gotta love the randomness of the English lawns and Wimbledon, where grass wonders such as Sabine Lisicki, Jie Zheng, Tsvetana Pironkova, Tamira Paszek, Kirsten Flipkens, and even Michelle Larcher de Brito suddenly reverse losing streaks and topple the highest seeds, sometimes contending in the late stages. Who will join their ranks this year? Break out the strawberries and cream and place your bets. I have this hunch about Alison Riske…