Bye, Bye, Miss Wimbledon Pie: The Day All Logic Died at the All England Club

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Sergiy Stakhovsky pulled off the biggest upset of a day dominated by shocking surprises at Wimbledon, defeating seven-time champion Roger Federer in the second round. Photo: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images.

By Bill Simons

Shock.

Today in London, pure, unadulterated shock shattered the most pristine of sporting venues.

At Wimbledon, order is worshiped and adored. “Know your place, be proper, fit in, good man.”

But here, on what should have been just another sleepy Wednesday, the world shook and a sport exploded. In just nine inexplicable hours, poor old Wimbledon withered as it witnessed a tennis day like no other. The tall fell, the meek prevailed, the mighty departed, the obscure gained fame, the strong were humbled. The middle did not hold. The unthinkable now was common. Victorian propriety was shaken up by a whole lot of helter skelter.

Like a North Sea storm—where one torrent after another buffets an unsuspecting shore—the good ship Wimbledon was buffeted by story after massive story.

It all began when Steve Darcis,  the tournament darling after ousting Rafael Nadal in the first round, withdrew due to a sore shoulder.

Then John Isner, tennis’ macho marathon man, quit when he tore his knee after landing a serve, a stroke he’s only  hit a million times. Next Victoria Azarenka, the ladies’ No. 3 seed, and one of the few human beings on this planet who can scare Serena Williams just a bit, withdrew due to an right knee injury sustained from an agonizing fall during her first round match.

The quiet giant Marin Cilic, ranked No. 12 and zoning, also retired due to a bum knee. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the charismatic Frenchman who’d dismissed Federer here and was considered a trendy longshot to go all the way, also rather meekly stepped down, due to an ailing left knee tendon.

Memo to players: Can somebody, anybody, puh-leez finish a match?

Well, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, the No. 9 seed, survived an ankle injury and soldiered on. At least until the little-known qualifier Petra Cetkovska shot her down.

“Great,” the grand and elegant Maria Sharapova must have thought. “Two top rivals on my side of the draw—Azarenka and Wozniacki—have vanished, so sign me up for that final with Serena Williams. Then I can pay that girl back for all those jabs she’s been sending my way.” All Sharapova—who first gained worldwide fame here in 2004, when she beat Serena in the final—would have to do is dismiss a lowly wannabe whose results were as quiet as her shriek was loud.

Michelle Larcher De Brito, from Portugal by way of Bradenton, Florida, was ranked No. 131. But she had a distinction. Her grunt may well be louder then Maria’s. Unfortunately, she hadn’t won a single tour match this year, and had lost more Grand Slam qualifiers than main draw Slam matches in her career. But the 20-year old came through the Wimbledon qualies this year with impressive scorelines, then went on to beat Melanie Oudin in the first round.

Against Sharapova, the Nick Bollettieri product played smart tennis. She took the ball early, moved the Russian around, and watched as her bigger opponent tumbled three times during the match. Two service holds from the finish line, she retained her focus during and after Sharapova’s medical time out for an injured hip. Still, after the Russian saved four match points, it was easy to suspect that Sharapova—one of the toughest mental players ever to walk among the WTA ranks—would enter a new dimension, tidy things up, and silence the loudmouthed upstart.

But this was a day like no other, and in the 59th minute of a tense second set, mighty Maria meekly netted a standard forehand. An elated De Brito prevailed, receiving a lengthy standing ovation. We thought this would be a match all about grunting. It probably was the loudest match ever: Maria’s grunts reached 105 decibels, while De Brito’s topped out at 109 and were compared with a lion’s roar and a buzz saw. But, after de Brito’s 6-3, 6-4 win, it was reality that had clearly been “buzz sawed.”

At least tennis had Mr. Reliable in the wings: that would be the ever cool Roger Federer. “Our Roger” would now set things straight. Mr. “Genius at Work,” who some call “The Perfect One,” is not too tall, plays with balance, rhythm, and a dreamy athleticism, and unlike so many others (dare we mention Messrs. Nadal, Murray, and—in his early years—Djokovic?) is oh-so-rarely sidelined by injuries. Surely he would not fall prey to grasses made slippery (as some wildly speculated) by the atmospheric effects of distant melting Arctic glaciers.

Sure, our astrological savants yelled out that Mercury just went retrograde. But Roger is our sun, our rock: 17 majors, 36 straight majors without a loss before the quarterfinals. Plus, the man who was born on August 8th (8/8 if you will) was going for his eighth Wimbledon. The good omens were present and plentiful.

Hardly a fool, Sergiy Stakhovsky, a lean Ukrainian journeyman known more for his tweets on equal prize money and for taking out his cell phone during matches, knew he faced a daunting task.

After all, the thin man contended, when you face Federer you play two Rogers: Roger the player and Roger the ego. “When you come here, on the cover of the Wimbledon book is Roger Federer,” Stakhovsky explained after the match. “You’re playing the guy and then you’re playing his legend, which follows him … You’re playing two of them. When you’re beating one, you still have the other one who is pressing you. You’re saying, ‘Am I about to beat him? Is it possible?’ … It’s just psychology. You cannot run from it. It’s just how it happens.”

And what happened today was that the hunter became the hunted. Stakhovsky, who in 20 tries had never beaten a top-ten player and was ranked 113 slots lower than the No. 3 Federer, had a clear strategy. “You can’t really keep up with Roger on grass on baseline rallies. It’s just impossible, especially here … He feels the grass. He feels the slice. He can do whatever he wants with the ball.

The only tactics I have is press as hard as I can on my serve and come in as much as I can. The shorter [the points are], the less rhythm he got. Today I was successful enough that he didn’t get into the returning rhythm, only somewhere in the middle of the fourth set he find it.  So I was lucky to pull it out in the fourth and finish it.”

Federer—after enduring 96 net charges—mishit a standard rally backhand wide into the alley and soon found himself reflecting on his soul-shaking 6-7,7-6, 7-5,7-6 loss, his earliest exit from Wimbledon since 2002. “I think there was a time where some players didn’t believe they could beat the top guys,” he reasoned. “So maybe there’s a little bit of a thing happening at the moment. I’m happy about that, that players believe they can beat the best on the biggest courts in the biggest matches.

It’s very important, that belief.  We’re missing the teenagers overall, so it’s up to other guys to do it.”

One blazing Ukrainian certainly did it. “Our sport is Roger Federer,” said Stakhovsky. “[But] right now I can definitely tell my grandkids, ‘I kicked the butt of Roger Federer.’”

And on  this day a wild and crazy Wimbledon certainly and swiftly kicked the butt of tennis. Or maybe it the other way around?

Seven players who had been ranked No. 1 were defeated. There were a record seven singles withdrawals and retirements. For the first time at a women’s Grand Slam in the Open era, two of the top three seeds failed to reach the third round. A cadre of younger players, like Sloane Stephens, are now beginning to change the climate of tennis, just as the climate of our globe may have changed a day at Wimbledon like no other; a day where logic imploded and the impossible exploded.

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