July 9, 2018
As the grass rested on a murderously hot Sunday, many of the 16 contenders left standing after a week of minor carnage prepared for a charge at the final weekend suspecting – but never admitting – that the winner’s name is likely to be the one that has already been engraved on the trophy eight times.
Roger Federer, the 36-year-old defending champion, knows it is his Wimbledon to lose. He was gifted a first-week stroll as pleasant as a walk on Wimbledon Common and begins the fourth round on Centre Court at 1pm against Adrian Mannarino. The 22nd seed has taken a single set off the Swiss in five matches, and Federer allowed the 30-year-old Frenchman only seven games when they met here in the second round seven years ago; there is no reason to believe it will be a lot different on Monday.
Sometimes the obvious is invisible to the uncritical or dreaming eye. Yet, over three rounds in which the bright young things dropped like flying ants, it is the proven champions of their era who have survived most convincingly. Federer has breezed through week one as if conducting a clinic, and is on a run of 67 unbeaten service games stretching back to the eighth game of the first set in his semi‑final against Tomas Berdych a year ago. Rafael Nadal, too, has looked awesome on the other side of the draw.
If Federer does win a ninth title the chances are he will be celebrating at the champions’ ball on Sunday evening alongside his friend and contemporary Serena Williams, also 36 – and with three majors more than him at 23. They have joked all week that they probably will retire at the same time, and that could take them all the way to the 2020 Olympics.
Returning to Wimbledon on the back of a three-match run at Roland Garros – her comeback tournament after giving birth for the first time in September – the 2016 champion has swatted away her opposition for the cost of 24 games. She will follow Federer and Mannarino on to the game’s revered home patch against Evgeniya Rodina, and there will be a rare mix of respect and ambition on the other side of the net.
The Russian qualifier and Williams are the last of six mothers who began this tournament, and she told the WTA website: “I know how tough it is to come back to tennis after having your first child.” She revealed also she has never even spoken to Williams, whom she has long admired. Her own daughter, Anna, is six years old and travels with her on Tour – as does little Olympia with Williams, although the heat might keep her off Centre Court on Monday.
The heat elsewhere will be in the fire of competition. In the women’s draw it is being generated by a mix of old and young aspirants after the filleting of the top 10 which left only seventh seed Karolina Pliskova upright after six days. She plays Kiki Bertens first-up on No 2 Court, the winner advancing to the quarter-finals against either Julia Görges or Donna Vekic. Williams meets the winner of Camila Giorgi and the perennial giant-killer Ekaterina Makarova, who put out the second seed Caroline Wozniacki in the second round.
On the men’s side, the casualties have been largely among the alleged Next Generation. Gone are two of the touted glamour prodigies, Denis Shapovalov and Alexander Zverev, along with the fallen enigma Nick Kyrgios, leaving the stage to faces as familiar as your grandfather’s to fight for the prize.
On the fifth anniversary of Andy Murray’s breakthrough win on Centre Court, the player he outlasted in three sets of almost unbearable tension that sunny Sunday, Novak Djokovic, beat the Scot’s stand-in as standard bearer for the hosts, Kyle Edmund, in four rather more ragged sets on Saturday. It demonstrated two truths: Djokovic, beatable on Murray’s best day, was still too good for Edmund in one of his own less dominant moods.
But is the Serb’s recovering game sound enough yet, or his elbow sufficiently strong to keep rattling down those aces, to intimidate a player made in Edmund’s power-play mode, Karen Khachanov, in the third match on No 1 Court on Monday? Probably, although the Russian with the golden arm will make him work for it.
If Federer beats Mannarino (and what a shock it would be if he does not), he will have his first properly tough examination against Gaël Monfils, who has found some prime form in an entertaining run, or the 2017 US Open finalist Kevin Anderson, who is playing up to his eighth seeding.
Those are all 30-plus and battle-hardened – as are Gilles Simon and the world No 1, Nadal. The Spaniard has looked excellent in three quick wins, and should be equally impressive against 24-year-old Jiri Vesely, who saw off Fabio Fognini.
Lurking on Federer’s side of the draw is an intriguing unknown: the unseeded Mackenzie McDonald, who sounds as if he should have drifted down from the Highlands but is in fact a 23-year-old Californian with a solid pedigree and little to lose. His former coach, Wayne Ferreira, said at the start of the tournament, “He is one to watch” – and he is not wrong.
McDonald began the year earning $780 for losing to the world No 145 Uladzimir Ignatik in the first round of a minor tournament in Playford, South Australia – and three weeks later was taking the world No 3, Grigor Dimitrov, to five sets in the second round of the Australian Open. If he beats Milos Raonic, seeded 13, he would play either his compatriot John Isner – 10 years older than him but still hungry for success – or the youngest player left in the draw, the 19-year-old rising Greek star Stefanos Tstitsipas.
There are uncertainties in that lineup – but the story at the end of the drama is likely to be the same as it has been for the past seven grand slam tournaments: victory for either Federer or Nadal.