All of the qualifying matches, on both the men and women’s sides, have been played and today marks the official start of the main draws. There are preliminary press conferences scheduled with a select group of top players and while the interviews may have star power and a hint of intrigue – especially in light of the impact of inserting a grass court Olympics event into the already crowded summer schedule – I am drawn more to a few first round match-ups.
Veteran Nikolay Davydenko (RUS) dispatched the 13th seed Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR) with such ease and efficiency [6-1, 6-1] that I never even made it out of the press box above Center Court down to watch the match from inside the stadium. Dolgopolov fumed a bit, but was clearly not ready for the steely Davydenko who is never unprepared.
I was able to march over to the Grandstand though for the second match of the day on that court, featuring two Americans – the qualifier Jesse Levine and young upstart Donald Young who has cracked the mid-to-upper ranks (world top 30) thanks to strong recent Grand Slam showings. He’s got natural athleticism and solid command of his shots, but the knock on him has been that he’s not as disciplined mentally as he needs to be to truly make a sustained run.
And, unfortunately, today’s match offered proof to support these claims. The duel between the two American lefties kicked off with loose play from Young as he was broken easily in his first service game and then sloppily dropped enough points for Levine to hold. Watching Young, it felt like he started out in a much lower gear, so low, in fact, that I would argue it’s a gear that the top players don’t even have anymore at this stage. The guys in the Top Five start in third and shift up from there, but Young was definitely in first and seemingly stuck, although Levine wasn’t ready to jump on the opportunity. He played down to Young’s level and I found myself pondering how quickly the winner here would exit in the next round.
In a fit of frustration after a listless point, Young muttered to himself that his shot “was the worst ever” and sadly, it would have been hard to disagree with him.
The next match on the Grandstand, I was sure, would be better. In another battle of countrymen, Francesca Schiavone (ITA) faced off against wild card Camila Giorgi and I was hyped for a passionate display from Schiavone who impressed me during last year’s W&S Open with her never say die approach and gritty shot making. She has won a Grand Slam on clay, which lines up with her skills (and robs the larger, stronger players of their strengths), but the shots have to fall and alas that was not the case against Giorgi.
Schiavone struggled to withstand the power of Giorgi, a player who certainly looked equal to her in stature. There was discipline and poise in every move Giorgi made, while Schiavone settled into a surprising degree of resignation over the shots she was spraying all over (and beyond) the boundaries of the court. She quickly transitioned from frustration to acceptance that today, in this match, Giorgi was simply better, but she fought to the last point, as we would expect. In this case, as opposed to the Levine-Young match, I give Giorgi solid odds to possibly advance further, mainly because she didn’t simply let Schiavone give her the match; she earned it by seizing control of points and making shots.
My final match of the day, the first of the evening on Center Court featured the 13th seed and former Number One Jelena Jankovic (SRB) against Shuai Peng from China. Jankovic won the women’s W&S title back in 2009, but has been struggling to rebound back into the top ranks of late.
Rather than watch from the sheltered remove of the press box, I ventured down to the photographer’s pit on court and by chance ended up next to Peng’s coach. While I offered little more than a nod of greeting when he initially sat down, I found myself alternating between my own study of the match and a sneak bit of observation, focusing on his reactions to his player’s efforts.
Much is made of the idea that players should not receive coaching during a match, but a simple clap of encouragement or a reminder to keep your head in the game or to watch a stroke seems perfectly acceptable. Peng’s coach did these things, sparingly, and often, it was little more than confirming something Peng (and many of the observant fans in the stands) already knew. It was intriguing interplay that never crossed the line, but also wouldn’t intrude upon the player’s ability to think and strategize for herself. She is the one out there in the match and any adjustments, whether large or small, must come from her and their arrangement certainly gave her the control she needed.
Peng is a crafty and solid player who primarily uses a two-handed swing on both sides. I’m not much of a fan of the two-handed backhand because I believe that it limits the full range of the player’s stroke and forces them to get into position faster to reach and make certain shots, but watching Peng’s form, I must admit that she nearly won me over. When she was set and on top of the ball, the two-hand swing allows her to generate a great deal of power, which she can control and direct to either side.
The best facet of her game though is her discipline and mental toughness. Peng never once succumbed to rushing either a shot or the pace of her play. There was always a sense of an inner calm and this match certainly ended up pushing her to the limit.
Peng and Jankovic slugged it out for three long sets, the final going to a tiebreak, alternating between brilliant shot making and loose points. In addition, they suffered through a 45-minute rain delay, but in the end, Peng stood triumphant, as Jankovic seemed ready for the match to be over. After nearly 3 hours, it was hard to blame her.