WIMBLEDON, England — Assorted thoughts from the first day of Wimbledon, where the Americans had a bad day at the office and Ernests Gulbis continued to entertain.
Rough day for the Americans: It’s hard to call any of the losses huge upsets by any means, but to lose Venus Williams, John Isner and Melanie Oudin (along with Donald Young) on the first day of a Slam is just…bad. While there were a few bright spots in the form of Ryan Harrison and Jamie Hampton (who apparently goes by Jamie Lee Hampton nowadays), it was, on the whole, a disaster.
It’s always difficult to know how Venus will come out on any given day, and she came across a veteran in the likes of Elena Vesnina, who already played two grass-court events before Wimbledon. For years there has been an aura around Venus when it comes to her ability to flip a switch on grass, but that’s an unfair expectation these days. She gave a resilient press conference after the match, clearly disappointed but with the perspective of a woman who has fought (and is fighting) bigger battles than the ones between the lines.
While Venus’ problems seem to be physical, Isner’s are mental, and he admits as much. Once again locked in a four-plus hour duel, Isner just couldn’t find a way to break Alejandro Falla when it mattered. He secured two breaks to win the third set, but that would be it. Despite having a match point in the fourth set tiebreak, Big John went down to the Colombian (who also upset Mardy Fish in Melbourne) 6-4, 6-7 (7), 3-6, 7-6(9), 7-5, thus ending a disappointing two and a half month European season. After the match, a very down and out Isner came down on himself. Hard.
“It’s just now I get out there sometimes, and lately it’s happening quite a lot, and I get out there in the match and I’m just so clouded,” he said. “I just can’t seem to figure things out. I’m my own worst enemy out there. It’s all mental for me, and it’s pretty poor on my part.”
The rest of his press conference was littered with phrases like “I just can’t get out of my own way,” “I’m just getting too down on myself,” and “I’m not letting things flow.” With that sort of negativity it’s not hard to understand why things haven’t clicked for him. Because of his powerful service game but weak return, Isner’s matches turn on a small handful of points. Those points, which were going for him during the early part of the year, have consistently gone against him now. He lost a tight three setter in a tiebreak to Andreas Seppi in Rome, the epic five setter that ended with him on the losing end of 18-16 in the fifth set to Paul-Henri Mathieu in Paris, and now failing to convert a match point in the fourth set tiebreak and eventually losing 7-5 in the fifth. These aren’t blowouts by any means and that’s what’s most frustrating.
“I’m trying not to feel the pressure of, you know, the outside pressure of ‑‑ there are some good things expected of me and I’m glad I’m in that position, but I’m just not performing right now. It’s just too ‑‑ I don’t know. It’s just ugly right now.”
Billie Jean King famously said pressure is a privilege, and Isner seems to recognize as such. But it can’t be a coincidence that his tight play started right after he solidified his tag as “The Next Big Thing” when he beat Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells in March. Aside from his Davis Cup wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon in April, it’s been a series of disappointing results since. As Mardy Fish can attest, it’s not easy being the American No. 1, and while rewards are tangible (have you noticed all those sponsor patches on Isner’s kits these days?), the pressure and expectation can be paralyzing.
Ernests Gulbis: mental giant. No, that’s not a typo. Long beloved by fans and pundits as a worthy heir to Marat Safin’s throne, the witty and entertaining Gulbis has been an absolute disaster in 2012 (or since 2009, if you want to be cruel). Other than his innate talent, he’s given us no reason to think he could pull off the upset over Tomas Berdych, having won a mere six matches in all of 2012. And yet there he was, playing with a calm focus that we hadn’t seen in years. That’s the thing about the talented ones: they always have the potential to pull of an upset. But the way Gulbis manufactured this was almost surgical.
He attributes the change to a new coach, Gunther Bresnik, who’s motivated him in practice and altered his technique. The positive practice sessions have paid off. Not once did he get tight in the three tiebreaks he won, and not once did he get rattled by adversity. That’s simply not the Ernie we have come to know and love/hate. On his third match point of the match, Gulbis hit a winner that Hawkeye revealed to be out by mere blades of grass. The Latvian turned to his box and let out a wide grin in response, and Berdych went on to hold. Surely that call would unravel him, but no. He held at love and went on to win the match, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4). Asked about his mental fortitude after the match, Gulbis sarcastically quipped, “I’m known for my mental strength. Ask around.” And that’s why we love Ernie.
Cruise control. Obviously there were some notable upsets, but the top seeds had a good day. Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer, Agnieszka Radwanska, Samantha Stosur, Angelique Kerber, and Li Na made it through without dropping a set. In Stosur and Li’s cases, that’s news in and of itself. And a tip of the cap to Janko Tipsarevic, who didn’t let David Nalbandian get into their highly anticipated first round match. Tipsy was surprisingly solid in his 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win. And thus endeth Nalbandian’s stay in London.
Heather Watson wins one for the home team. It had been 27 years since a British woman had won a match on Centre Court at Wimbledon, but thanks to some late scheduling changes, 20-year old Heather Watson got her shot to break the streak and she did. With her 6-2, 6-1 win over Iveta Benesova, Watson notched her first career win at Wimbledon, and that includes juniors. It gave the Brits something to smile about, especially after last night’s Euro Cup quarterfinal, wherein once again England was shambolic in the penalty shootout. As for Benesova, let’s say she’s ready to move on.
Quote of the Day: I yield the floor to Mr. Gulbis:
Q. Is there anything you enjoy more than playing tennis?
ERNESTS GULBIS: “Yeah, a lot of stuff.”
Q. Like what? Give me some examples.
ERNESTS GULBIS: “What do you mean, enjoy most in life?”
Q. Without being really, really like polite, what is the biggest thing which you enjoy in life? Music? Verdasco says it’s food.
ERNESTS GULBIS: “Okay, Verdasco, it’s his hairstyle it looks like he enjoys the most. Put gel in his hair. Me, I will keep it a secret what I enjoy. Think about it. I think you all know.”