Players must deal with Wimbledon's changing climate
WIMBLEDON, England Thunder and lightning moved from the rackets to the heavens late Friday afternoon at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. After four hot, dry, sunny days, squalls moved in. The wind picked up, the skies turned the shade of pewter, and then the first rain of this Wimbledon interrupted play first for half an hour, later for the rest of the day. The ability to adapt on the fly to changing conditions, which is an enormous part of the challenge of winning the event, moved to the forecourt as did Andy Roddick.
In a daring and ultimately successful fifth-set push to end unexpected turbulence he encountered against Daniele Bracciali of Italy, Roddick swept in to the net and unleashed a storm of volleys like we had not seen from him before. This change of tactics was dictated less by the unsettled weather than by the gale-force serves and groundstrokes Bracciali produced in the fourth set of their match. The match had been suspended overnight by darkness Thursday. Both players left the court upset: Roddick because he had let a pesky opponent with a punch into the match, Bracciali because he wanted to keep going and thought Roddick cursed him and stomped off the court prematurely.
Roddick the 2003 U.S. Open champion, 2004 Wimbledon runner-up and No. 2 seed here ultimately prevailed, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 4-6, 6-3, in the last second-round singles to be completed. Total playing time was 2 hours, 54 minutes, not counting the overnight hiatus and the rain delay in the fourth set. The rhythm and momentum kept shifting, like the meteorological conditions, until Roddick decided that desperate times called for desperate measures.
Roddick holds the record for the fastest serve measured, 155 mph in a Davis Cup match last year, but he seldom follows it to net. He prefers to play his heavy percussion, rock 'n' roll tennis primarily from the backcourt. But Bracciali, ranked No. 120 in the world and in the main draw as a "lucky loser" from the qualifying, matched him serve for serve. He also blasted high-velocity returns and winners, playing with the blissful abandon of a player who had nothing to lose and worldwide headlines to gain.
"My whole mantra was if I'm holding serve and feel like I'm dictating my service games by staying back and playing my most comfortable game, then I'm going to do that," Roddick said. "But if the situation called for it, I was going to switch it up."
Suddenly he was serve-volleying, and chipping-and-charging. He played much of the final set more in the manner that male champions used to win Wimbledon before equipment, playing styles, and the slower pace and higher bounce of the reformulated grass courts lessened the priority of dominating the net.
"That was a decision that I felt had to be made there in the fifth because the first ball he got, he was just cranking and hitting," Roddick said. "I mean, the fourth set was pretty amazing stuff from his part. I at least wanted to give him a different look and make him think about his returns a little bit."
When Bracciali won the tiebreaker to stay in the match at dusk Thursday, he wanted to keep playing. Roddick, who says the umpire had already signaled a suspension, quickly packed his bag and exited, snarling a familiar four-letter expletive that the Italian thought was intended for him. Suffice it to say, he wasn't happy, and when the two resumed Friday, Bracciali played with a vengeance.
He broke Roddick's serve for a 4-3 lead just before the rain delay, then held for 5-3 and for the set with aces. "I have a great return of serve, but I also have a very good serve," Bracciali reminded anyone who hadn't noticed, recalling that he served 31 aces and withstood a record 51 from Ivo Karlovic, the Leaning Tower of Croatia, in the first round.
With the match tied at two sets apiece, Roddick was mindful of his disappointing 4-7 career record in five-set matches, and especially the five-setters he lost to Joachim Johansson in the U.S. Open and to Ivan Ljubicic in the Davis Cup last year, and to Jose Acasuso in the second round of the French Open last month after leading by two sets. "Yeah, I thought about it," Roddick said, realizing fully that his post-match interrogators had similar flashbacks. "I thought about how to avoid that. This is big for me."
So he started coming to net. "I get up there sometimes," he joked, "but most of the time it's to shake hands."
He broke Bracciali for 4-2 but was down 15-30 in the next game after a double fault. Bracciali made a lunging backhand return that looked like a winner that would take him to 15-40, but Roddick went horizontal to rescue himself with a lunging forehand volley that would have made Boris Becker, the grass stain king of Wimbledon, proud.
He looked like a goalkeeper on that one, someone said. "I don't think anybody would want me on their team as a goalkeeper," Roddick said, "but I had a good save today."
Roddick was clearly proud to have won in five, going to net. "I'm not going to come out and serve-and-volley every match, because that's not my game. That's not my most comfortable area," he said. "But if someone's getting on my serves and he's getting the better of me from the baseline, I think it's important to at least have that option."
It was a feisty and flexible performance from the 22-year-old, the sort that you need to win major championships.
"I wanted to prove something out there today," Roddick said. "There was definitely a chip on my shoulder. It's not totally turned around, but the more matches I win that are tough, in tougher circumstances, the more you remember what it's like to do that. I think it was big to get through. It would have been a devastating loss."
Roddick has to play again Saturday to reach the fourth round, along with the bottom half of the draw and three men from the top half (including two-time defending champ Roger Federer) whose matches were washed out by Friday's early-evening thunderstorm. But the march of the men and women with title aspirations into the second week has begun. Also beginning: the process of responding rapidly to irregular rhythms and radical changes in playing conditions that is so vital in determining the champions.
Days like this start to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Players who handle shifting winds, slippery grass and other vagaries well both advance in the draw and grow in self-confidence and in the reservoir of experience from which to draw next time.
Although this is true of any outdoor tournament, it is especially important in the two-week major events, and Wimbledon most of all. One service break frequently decides a set on grass courts, so a player cannot afford a mental lapse.
"Time seems to move faster here, unless you know how to slow it down and keep control," John Newcombe, the champion of 1967, '70 and '71, used to say. "On grass, you can go into a mental freeze and lose a stretch of games without even realizing it. You have to pick up quickly on the different conditions, and what you need to do about them. There's a mental pressure at Wimbledon that's not quite like anyplace else."
Newcombe, who has only missed one Wimbledon since 1961 and is the commentator for Australian television, reiterated those points in a lunch conversation this week. He also observed that Lleyton Hewitt, the No. 3 seed who prevailed in three tough sets Friday over American lucky loser Justin Gimelstob on Centre Court, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 7-5, is "a bit underdone." That means he has not had enough play yet after being sidelined with an injury after the Australian Open, where he was runner-up to Marat Safin, to be really sharp.
"Underdone" also could describe Taylor Dent, the No. 24 seed, who looked surprisingly quick if not fully fit in dispatching Czech Tomas Berdych on Friday, 6-3, 7-6 (5) 6-3. Dent is just back from an injury as well, but he will meet Hewitt on Monday, a repeat of their classic five-setter in the second round in 2001 -- a match won by Hewitt.
The only major upset Friday was No. 5 Safin, the 2000 U.S. Open champion, going out in straight sets to No. 26 seed Feliciano Lopez of Spain, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3. That was not really a surprise, though. Safin's uneasy détente with the gods of grass court tennis ended, though he said he feels much more comfortable on the surface than he did before a nifty run at a gras court tuneup in Halle, Germany, a few weeks ago. He even said he is looking forward to Wimbledon next year.
Lopez, a Spanish left-hander, is still looking forward to Wimbledon this year. He likes grass and reached the round of 16 here for the third time. His next test, on Monday, will be tough, though. He plays Mario Ancic of Croatia, a semifinalist last year and the last man to beat Federer at Wimbledon, in 2002.
Many of the winners Friday talked about how happy they were with the way they made the necessary adjustments. That will become increasingly important as The Championships move toward the climactic second week in uncertain climatic conditions.
Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.