WIMBLEDON, England — I’m not old enough to remember what the U.S. Open looked like, felt like or sounded like when it was played on the grass courts of Forest Hills, but for almost 10 hours on Wimbledon’s middle Saturday, the Americans grabbed hold of the spotlight and turned the All England Club into Forest Hills, N.Y.
• Baker fabulous again: Brian Baker was the first of the Americans in action, taking the court on a warm but blustery day out on No. 3 Court against the talented but unpredictable Benoit Paire. It turned out to be the most straightforward win of the day for the Stars and Stripes, as Baker, despite dropping the second set, played steady, smart tennis to win 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3.
So Baker — yes, Brian Baker — is now into the second week of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in his career (Baker’s made a living out of checking off “firsts” these last few months). Did I mention this is his Wimbledon debut? There just aren’t enough superlatives for what Baker has been able to do over the past two months and the Baker Bandwagon is growing by the minute. He’ll play Philipp Kohlschreiber on Monday (it could have been Rafael Nadal if not for the Lukas Rosal phenomenon) and regardless of the outcome, this story just gets better and better.
• Serena overcomes: This is the match she needed. As the wind swirled around Centre Court, whipping Serena Williams’ ponytail left and right and providing more Marilyn Monroe moments than anyone should ever need, you started to get that feeling. Against these conditions and this player, Zheng Jie, a former Wimbledon semifinalist, I grew convinced that the pressure would get to Serena. She’s been playing with an air of desperation all week, as though she’s worried that what happened in New York, Melbourne and Paris would happen again. There’s a vulnerability to Williams on court these days, and it looked like it might get the better of her today.
Neither woman was able to secure a break in the first set, a remarkable feat considering Zheng doesn’t possess a big serve by any means and Williams is one of the best returners in the game. But after Zheng stole the set in the tiebreaker with some remarkable scrambling play, Williams bounced back to take the second set 6-2. In the third set, the women did their best Isner-Mahut impression. They proceeded to hold their serves for seven straight games each, pushing the match past the 7-7 mark in the final set. The tension was evident everywhere you looked. Williams was in full-body fist pump mode when she won points, and collapsing to the ground in disappointment when she missed. Across the net, Zheng ran herself absolutely ragged but continued to hit every line on the court with some impossible angles.
But Serena didn’t buckle, and that was as much a surprise as Zheng’s ability to push her. Serving from behind in the final set, she sent a message by holding at love for three straight games. The pressure finally came to a head in the 15th game. Up 40-15, Zheng’s backhand failed her. Williams finally got the break she needed and eventually head to take the match 6-7 (5), 6-2, 9-7.
As she roared at her box in celebration, in both relief and triumph, Williams seemed to regain the belief that these were the matches she could win, shedding the baggage of her last three-set loss that so devastated her at the French Open. Who knows how this will play out over the next week, but if I’m Serena, the belief is back. And that’s a scary development for the rest of the field.
• Fish recovers: In fairness to Mardy Fish, expectations have been tempered. What could — or should — we expect from the American No. 1, who endured a frightening health scare just three months ago, when he began to suffer from irregular heart palpitations? The issue was rectified via surgery for a heart arrhythmia in May, but Fish came into Wimbledon with no match play since early April.
His return has been remarkable. He survived a stern test against James Ward in five sets in the third round, and turned around 48 hours later to subdue a feisty David Goffin 6-3, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (6). The baby-faced Goffin, who knocked out Bernard Tomic in the first round, was bidding to become the first man in the Open Era to advance to the Round of 16 in his first two majors. Fish slammed the door shut on that dream with some clutch play in the tiebreakers, great evidence of his confidence and belief. Fish has shown tremendous fortitude through this first week and he deserves all the praise.
• Is this goodbye?: Andy Roddick came up against the brick wall that is David Ferrer, losing 2-6, 7-6(8), 6-4, 6-3. But the significance in the match wasn’t confined to what happened between the lines. We’ve seen Roddick lose before. The familiar ritual is that he walks off with this head bowed, buried underneath his dripping cap, with a quick cursory wave to the crowd. In particularly frustrating losses he’ll even throw his rackets into the crowd.
But that’s not what we saw today. As he walked off Centre Court alongside Ferrer, he held his head high as he surveyed the crowd. And then with a quick turn, he put his fingers to his lips and blew them a kiss in thanks. I don’t like speculating about a player’s retirement, but given the scenes and his performance in that match (he played as well as he has in months), the moment felt like a farewell and thank you.
Roddick refused to discuss the gesture or his future. Not because he was being ornery or difficult, but because he simply had no answers.
“Guys, if I don’t have a definitive answer in my own mind, it’s going to be tough for me to articulate a definitive answer to you,” Roddick told reporters.
Roddick is a pragmatist. If his body holds up, he could play for another five years. If it doesn’t, well, he can’t. But while his joints and muscles are trying to figure out what they want to do, it’s nice to see Roddick recognize that these moments may not come as frequently as they used to. Take the mental Polaroid, thank the fans and press ahead. He can scrapbook when he’s done.
• The battle is the battle: Ah, the American work ethic. Apparently we just can’t help ourselves. Two years ago it was John Isner and Nicolas Mahut setting the record for the longest match at Wimbledon (11 hours and five minutes), and now Sam Querrey and Marin Cilic play out the second longest. Their epic, which Cilic won 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-7 (3), 17-15, clocked in at five hours and 31 minutes, edging the previous mark of five hours and 28 minutes set twice in 1989.
Querrey almost pulled out the comeback, coming within two points of winning the match eight times in the final set, but he failed to execute on the big points. As darkness fell and the match ran the risk of being suspended for light, Cilic held on, finally breaking in the 31st game of the set and holding for the win. It was a disappointing loss for Sam, but say this: for a guy who has a reputation for playing soft, it was a welcome 24 hours for Querrey. He came back from a set down to beat Milos Raonic yesterday in four tight sets, and he came a hair of pulling off the two sets to none comeback on Saturday.
By the end of the night Britain wrenched back control of its own tournament, as Andy Murray overcame Marcos Baghdatis and bucked the 11 p.m. residential curfew (the match finished at 11:02) to win 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 in the latest finish of a match at Wimbledon.
And thus ends a highly entertaining first week at Wimbledon. When play resumes on Monday with the entire Round of 16 in action, Serena Williams and Mardy Fish, the No. 1 Americans, as well as Brian Baker, the No. 1 American story, will be last three left to fly the flag. From the expected to the unexpected, I can’t wait to see how Week 2 unfolds. Remember, we now live in a post-Rosol world. Anything is possible, expect the unexpected, and everyone believes. Buckle up, Wimbledon. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.