TENNIS: Seven-time champion Federer bounced on wild day at Wimbledon
LONDON — The day began, oddly enough, with word that Roger Federer’s orange-soled shoes did not conform to Wimbledon’s all-white dress code and would need to be replaced.
It ended, shockingly enough, with Federer losing in the second round at the All England Club, his earliest Grand Slam exit in a decade. It ended his record streak of reaching at least the quarterfinals in 36 consecutive major tournaments.
And in between? Oh, there was so much more to this unpredictable Wednesday, including four-time major champion Maria Sharapova’s loss to a qualifier, and the injuries that forced seven players to leave because of withdrawals or mid-match retirements, believed to be the most in a single day at a Grand Slam tournament in the 45-year Open era.
In that group: second-seeded Victoria Azarenka; sixth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; Steve Darcis, the man who stunned 12-time major champion Rafael Nadal in the first round; and 18th-seeded John Isner, who will forever be remembered for winning a 70-68 fifth set in the longest match ever, more than 11 hours. This time, Isner lasted all of 15 minutes, stopping in the third game after hurting his left knee.
Federer, Sharapova and Azarenka were three of seven players who have been ranked No. 1 that departed in a span of about 8½ hours. They also were among 12 seeded players heading home.
Most remarkable of all, of course, was Federer’s 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) loss to 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky in the day’s last match on Centre Court. Federer hadn’t been beaten this early at a Grand Slam tournament since the first round of the French Open on May 26, 2003, back before he owned a single trophy from any of the sport’s most important sites.
Now his collection is 17 total, with seven from Wimbledon, including last year’s.
“This is a setback, a disappointment, whatever you want to call it,” Federer said. “Got to get over this one. Some haven’t hurt this much, that’s for sure.”
In addition to the hard-to-believe results and the slew of injuries, there was all manner of sliding and tumbling on the revered grass courts, prompting questions about whether something made them more slippery.
“Very black day,” summed up 10th-seeded Marin Cilic, who said a bad left knee forced him to pull out of his match.
One had to wonder what Thursday might bring. The Day 4 schedule featured defending champion Serena Williams, who took a 32-match winning streak into the second round against Caroline Garcia; last year’s runner-up, No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska; 2011 Wimbledon winner Novak Djokovic; and 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro.
They were to take the court knowing that after three days of the two-week tournament — merely halfway through the second round — a total of five of the 10 highest-seeded women were gone, along with four of the top 10 men.
“Bizarre,” said 17th-seeded Sloane Stephens of the U.S., who stuck around by winning her match 8-6 in the third set. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
No one did.
One hypothesis making the rounds: The grass is different because there is a new head groundsman at the All England Club, Neil Stubley (keep in mind, though, that he’s been helping prepare the courts here for more than 15 years, albeit with a less distinguished title).
Another popular idea was that the recent weather — it’s been in the 60s and humid, but without a drop of rain so far — is affecting traction.
“I don’t know if it’s the court or the weather. I can’t figure it out,” said two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka, who said she bruised a bone in her right leg when she slipped on the turf in her victory Monday and couldn’t face Flavia Pennetta on Wednesday. “It would be great if the club or somebody who takes care of the court just would examine or try to find an issue so that wouldn’t happen.”
Sharapova managed to finish her match, at least, despite losing her footing a few times, but told the chair umpire the conditions were dangerous.
“After I buckled my knee three times, that’s obviously my first reaction. And because I’ve just never fallen that many times in a match before,” said the four-time major champion, noting that she thought she might have strained a muscle in her left hip.
“I just noticed a few more players falling a bit more than usual,” Sharapova added.
The All England Club took the unusual step of issuing a statement in response to Wednesday’s events — and complaints.
“There has been some suggestion that the court surface is to blame. We have no reason to think this is the case. Indeed, many players have complimented us on the very good condition of the courts,” the statement read. “The court preparation has been to exactly the same meticulous standard as in previous years and it is well known that grass surfaces tend to be more lush at the start of an event. The factual evidence, which is independently checked, is that the courts are almost identical to last year, as dry and firm as they should be, and we expect them to continue to play to their usual high quality.”
Hours earlier, the club confirmed it had reminded Federer — and other players — that rules are rules, so the neon bottoms of his sneakers simply would not be tolerated. He complied, wearing white soles Wednesday, at the tournament only two other men have won as many as seven times (Willie Renshaw, whose titles came in the 1880s, and Pete Sampras).
“Beating Roger here on his court, where he’s a legend, is, I think, having definitely a special place in my career,” Stakhovsky said.
That’s something of an understatement.
Stakhovsky owns a losing record for his career (108-121) and at Grand Slams (12-18) and never has been past the third round at a major tournament. Until Wednesday, he was best known, if at all, for grabbing his cellphone to take a photo of a disputed ball mark in the clay during a first-round loss at the French Open last month.
Federer’s consistent brilliance extends beyond Wimbledon, of course: He reached 23 Grand Slam semifinals in a row in one stretch, which also included 10 straight finals.
Not since a third-round loss at the 2004 French Open had Federer failed to reach the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam. That means he’d won 141 consecutive matches in the first through fourth rounds at the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (he advanced four times via an opponent’s withdrawal).
On Wednesday, though, the third-seeded Federer simply was unable to derail Stakhovsky’s serve-and-volley style, breaking the 27-year-old Ukrainian only once.
Still, there actually was a real chance for Federer to get back in the thick of things. Ahead 6-5 in the fourth, he held a set point as Stakhovsky served at 30-40. But Stakhovsky came up with this sequence: volley winner, 111 mph ace, serve-and-volley winner.
“I had my opportunities, had the foot in the door. When I had the chance, I couldn’t do it,” said Federer, who is 122-18 on grass over his career, while Stakhovsky is 13-12. “It’s very frustrating, very disappointing. I’m going to accept it and move forward from here. I have no choice.”
In the closing tiebreaker, with spectators roaring after every point, Stakhovsky raced to a 5-2 lead, and the match ended with Federer pushing a backhand wide on a 13-stroke exchange. Stakhovsky dropped to his back, then later bowed to the stadium’s four sides. He sat in his sideline chair, purple Wimbledon towel draped over his head, as Federer quickly headed for the locker room. Stakhovsky peeked out and saw Federer leaving, then applauded right along with the fans’ standing ovation.
“You’re playing the guy and then you’re playing his legend,” Stakhovsky said. “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?’”
On this wildest of days, it was.