Roger Federer. Angelique Kerber. Sania Mirza.
All three are former champions at Wimbledon. All three are familiar with the grass at All England Club and the triumph and disaster it promises on the doorway.
On Thursday, all three were in action and earned important wins, bigger than just the W on the scorecard. Each win was vastly different from the other, but held a special value in the bigger picture.
Roger Federer, once poetry in motion on Centre Court, had to quite literally rediscover his feet on the grass after a lucky escape in the first round. He was far from his best but he played himself into form against familiar rival Richard Gasquet in a match that had a vintage feel.
Angelique Kerber had to fight a marathon battle to remain standing after three hours. On a grass-court winning streak, her endurance was tested by Sara Sorribes Tormo and she fought back after wasting match points in the second set to win a gruelling match.
Sania Mirza, playing doubles, was making her Wimbledon return after four years that included a maternity break and a pandemic. But when it came to her forehand and partnership with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, it felt like she had never been away. They knocked out the sixth seeds in straight sets, settling into an easy, familiar rhythm.
All three were left smiling at the end of the match... Federer’s massive grin, Kerber’s double fist-pumping cheer, Mirza’s celebration with her toddler. On a bright day at SW 19, the former champions lit up the Championships in their own special way.
Federer finds form
Having undergone two knee surgeries and played just nine matches in 17 months, Federer has been utterly transparent about two things: he’s not finding the injury comeback easy and he’s completely focussed on the grass.
Yet a third obvious thing, although not conveyed verbally, was that Federer is struggling to find rhythm. A player so reliant on his fluid shot-making, he was just not getting his timing and placement right. He had won just one match on grass and carried the patchy form against Adrian Mannarino, having to force a decider before the Frenchman retired hurt.
With this background, there was genuine uncertainty when he played Gasquet and the veteran showed early promise carving out break points and passing winners with ease. Both men held serve under constant attack and the 39-year-old was taken to a tiebreak, having lost the last two he played; the first in the infamous 2019 final. But then Federer caught fire and raced through the tiebreak, making all the shots he had missed during the set and dropping just one point.
Then came the best point of the match, which proved to be the turning point. Gasquet thought he had the game point on serve with an on-the-run backhand lob but it was returned and he fired his one-handed backhand down the line with such sparkle, the crowd and he celebrated already. And yet, Federer fought back from 0-40 to break and suddenly transformed into the eight-time champion he is. Gasquet would win just one game in that set and was soon blown off by a controlled, precise Federer.
Afterwards, Federer said he was inspired by the shot. After his previous match, he had spoken about how a point can change a match and a career while talking about Mannarino’s fall. It seemed like the script was being written for him. The best shot played against him changed the match and probably the tournament for him .
Kerber battles through
The 33-year-old German feels like an anomaly even in this era of inconsistent Grand Slam champions. She beat Serena Williams in the 2018 final and lost to lucky loser Lauren Davis as defending champion. In 2021, she comes in as a form player having won her first title in three years last week at bad Homburg.
Yet, she was close to a second straight second-round exit after being taken the distance by World No 50 Sorribes Tormo. She needed three hours and 18 minutes to win 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 and by the end, it almost felt like a boxing match. No stranger to long, hard rallies, Kerber met a match in the Spaniard as they exchanged blows from all over the court, incongruent with the amount of time they had spent on court.
After taking the first set in the final game, Kerber was up a break twice in the second at 2-0 and 4-2m and Sorribes Tormo kept fighting back. The 25th seed then had match points at 5-4 but the Spaniard’s crafty backhand saved it and then converted the set point in the next service game, as Kerber lost serve soon after squandering match points.
Sorribes Tormo then got the early break in the third before Kerber roared back into form to get three straight breaks and clinch the match. Such was the quality and intensity of the match that the crowd gave them a standing ovation for a long time. The German was run ragged but her dogged ability to defend and stay in rallies came to the fore in grass and she stayed in the match. In a quarter that has lost the top seeds in Serena and Elina Svitolina, the 25h seed is carving out a spot for herself.
Sania Mirza marks return with her son and a win
Like Federer, Mirza has played very little tennis in the last couple of years and was coming off a first-round loss at Eastbourne. She was back at Wimbledon after four years, this time with her two-and-a-half year old son, having needed government intervention to get a visa for the toddler.
But on Court 8 with Mattek-Sands, it didn’t take long for the veteran pair to shake off the rust. They knocked out the sixth seeds Desirae Krawczyk and Alexa Guarachi with a mix of great touch and chemistry, saving three break points right at the start. Mirza then smashed a winner to clinch the first set and served out the second after an early break.
It was a satisfying start for the 34-year-old, who won the doubles title with Martina Hingis in 2015. Coming back from maternity leave and the pandemic-forced break, the former world No 1 has not had many opportunities to travel and play. But on the grass... with an old partner, both Mirza and her forehand felt like a throwback to the times when Indian tennis had constant representation at the highest level.