Wimbledon, the oldest and most traditional Grand Slam, made some strange new record this year. For the first time in the Open Era, six of the top eight women’s seeds have fallen by the second round, with the ninth and tenth seeds falling in the third.
Before Wimbledon, at least four top-10 seeds had reached the fourth round of a Major this year, but at the All England Club only two of the top-10 remain standing. And it has only been five days. On the men’s side, 16 of 32 men’s seeded players are out, including four top-10 seeds. Of the last year’s four singles finalists, only one is still in the hunt, a certain Roger Federer.
Even as the football World Cup of upsets rages on in Russia, tennis fans are still coming to terms with the bloodbath on the manicured lawns in England. Why are seeds falling like nine pins at Wimbledon 2018?
Top-10 seeds out of Wimbledon already:
Women: Caroline Wozniacki (2), Garbine Muguruza (3), Sloane Stephens (4), Elina Svitolina (5), Caroline Garcia (6), Petra Kvitova (8), Venus Williams (9), Madison Keys (10)
Men: Marin Cilic (3), Grigor Dimitrov (6), Dominic Thiem (7), David Goffin (10)
Chalking out a definite answer to this is probably as difficult as returning a full-blooded forehand from Rafael Nadal, on clay, with one hand tied up. Or perhaps a sharp ace from Serena Williams when she is facing a break point.
For starters, the form guide has been shredded and thrown out of the window. None of the women who won a title on grass in the preparatory lead-up to Wimbledon remain in the draw. As this tweet points out, neither do the runners-up.
The condition of the men’s draw isn’t much better either, with a few exceptions.
Roger Federer and Milos Raonic were the finalists at Stuttgart, and are still in the draw. But Richard Gasquet and Jeremy Chardy, who played the finals at Hertogenbosh, are out. Queen’s champion Marin Cilic crashed out, but runner-up Novak Djokovic is wading his way through, as is the one at Halle, Federer, whose grass-court streak ender Borna Coric was knocked out in the first round.
Antalya winner Damir Dzumhur was ousted by qualifier Ernests Gulbis, but runner-up Adrian Mannarino has a date with Federer next. Mischa Zverev, who lifted his first ATP title at Eastbourne, was out in the first round, while runner-up Lacko was beaten by Federer.
As for favourites, apart from record-breaking champions Federer and Serena, the ones most picked were Petra Kvitova and Marin Cilic, who both went down in a rubble of nerves.
Head in the game
The women’s draw has especially seen carnage with top seeds falling every single day. The only two left in the fray are world No 1 Simona Halep, who plays her third-round match on Saturday, and Karolina Pliskova, who fought her way out of trouble on Friday, coming back from 1-4 down in the second set to defeat Mihaela Buzarnescu.
The field is wide open, with the most consistent player being seven-time champion Serena. Although ranked 181 in the world, she jokingly admitted that she may not be a top player, but is out there with her record.
But this little joke is actually the closest to the truth. She has gone through in straight sets so far, even against the battling Kiki Mladenovic, because of her incredible ability to dig herself out of holes. She has the wealth of experience and knows just how to respond, with racquet or willpower.
If one sees the players who vanquished the top guns, the gap between the rankings and career graphs of most of them is sizebale.
Unlike, say, a Grigor Dimitrov who lost to former world No 3 Stan Wawrinka, or doubles veteran Ekaternia Makarova who beat Caroline Wozniacki, most upset-makers have been journeymen players, who created a moment of magic and exploited small chinks for big gains.
Evgeniya Rodina is a qualifier and also a playing mother on tour, as is Tatjana Maria. Donna Vekic, Belinda Bencic, Kiki Bertens have been around for a while and given good accounts of themselves on tour, but have not made consistent deep runs at Majors. Alison Van Uytvanck, who got her first top-10 win, and Aliaksandra Sasnovich admirably threw the kitchen sink at their higher-ranked opponents and that made all the difference.
At such times, it is nerves and grit that count as much as winners.
As Madison Keys candidly stated, she got ahead of herself and thought of the next round in a “massive mishandle of nerves”. Kvitova was honest when she said that her own nerves were her biggest opponent, as she wanted the win a little too much.
Defending champion Muguruza said her level of play was not good enough. Wozniacki took out the frustration of buckling under pressure with jibes at her opponent. Cilic, who continued his match after an ill-timed rain break and lost his serve at a crucial time, wilted under pressure and made it very evident with his body language and creased forehead.
In simple words, it was a failure to adhere to the age-old phrase of “keeping your head in the game”.
Body not keeping up
Of course, it is not all in the head, and there was the physical angle involved as well. The transition from clay to grass in under a month is strenuous as aspects of your game need to be altered. Grass aids the big servers, the ones who can score the ace or kick and slice to make a successful return impossible. It is not as much about power and thundering returns from the baseline as it is about smart, swift movement to the net and back, while cracking groundstrokes on the fast surface.
In the end, warm-up tournaments can only help so much; playing a Major is a whole different ball game. With a packed slab of grass-court events in between two Majors, fatigue is inevitable. French Open winners Nadal and Halep didn’t play a single competitive match on grass before Wimbledon, Federer skipped the entire clay season, Dominic Thiem got injured in the first round after pushing his body.
With most of the grass title-winners out of contention, it is evident that exhaustion played some part in this seed rout.
Then, there is more elemental angle of not getting the shots right despite everything. Service is a crucial weapon on grass, and it is one that has looked very shaky in these big losses.
On Friday, when Serena Williams struggled, she brought out the big guns and served aces to bail herself out. Pliskova used her booming serve to good effect as well. And this is where Wozniacki and Venus were especially hit.
The oldest woman in the draw at 38, Venus was quick around the court but couldn’t hold serve, while Wozniacki blew hot-and-cold with her service games. Another upset, although not a top seed, was Maria Sharapova, who was too erratic with her serve to win, despite a tight contest.
On the men’s side, Cilic is among the best servers, but lost his footing against relentless attacking from Guido Pella. He saved match points but when confronted with the situation, he just could not stay afloat on serve. Sam Querrey, who beat Djokovic in 2016 and Andy Murray in 2017, also struggled to serve with Gael Monfils returning from everywhere.
At the end of it, though, it is just the charm of a Grand Slam, where stacked draws and top seeding don’t often count as much when the odd-hour of faults or a brief period of mental strain can change the game. With one last day of third-round matches to go on Saturday before ‘Manic Monday’ kicks off the second week, it remains to be seen how much more chaotic Wimbledon can get.