All Fall Down: Examining the Rise of Bizarro Wimbledon

Shocking upsets. Countless withdrawals. No explanations. What is going on at the All England Club?

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CARL COURT / AFP / Getty Images

Switzerland's Roger Federer reacts after a point against Ukraine's Sergiy Stakhovsky during their second-round men's singles match at the Wimbledon Championships in Wimbledon, southwest London, on June 26, 2013

Traditionally, the Wimbledon Championships have served as a measuring stick for the tennis world, separating the exceptional from the merely talented. The grass courts at the All England Club reward the sport’s biggest servers and best shotmakers, and severely punish those who make even the smallest of mistakes. Nearly all of the game’s greatest players have won titles at Wimbledon, while surprise champions are few and far between. It is for these reasons that it is widely considered tennis’ most prestigious tournament.

So what has happened in just the first three days of the event is rather unexpected, to say the least. Here’s an abbreviated list of players who had lost, withdrawn or retired by the conclusion of Tuesday’s second-round action: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Sara Errani, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Marin Cilic, Janko Tipsarevic, Maria Kirilenko, Nadia Petrova and John Isner. Among them, they have 36 Grand Slam titles, seven are former No. 1s and all are ranked in the top 20 in the world. Oh, and the second round isn’t even over yet.

Federer’s early departure is the most surprising. He had not lost before the quarterfinals at Wimbledon since he fell in the opening round in 2002 (he subsequently won the next five titles at the All England Club). He also had not lost before the quarterfinals in any Grand Slam event since 2004, when he lost in the third round at the French Open. In fact, this was the first second-round match at a Grand Slam event that Federer has lost in his entire career.

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The seven-time Wimbledon champion had dispatched his first-round opponent 6-3, 6-2, 6-0 in just 69 minutes and — after Nadal’s first-round loss dashed hopes of their quarterfinals matchup — seemed ready to cruise into a semifinal showdown with Andy Murray. Instead, he was defeated by Sergiy Stakhovsky, ranked 116th in the world, in four hard-fought sets. And just like that, the defending champ was done, unable to offer much in the way of explanation for his early departure: “It’s normal that, after all of a sudden losing early, having been in Grand Slam quarterfinals 36 [straight] times, people feel it’s different. But I still have plans to play for many more years to come.”

Nadal’s first-round loss two days earlier was nearly as shocking. The two-time Wimbledon champ was coming off his eighth French Open title and had lost just twice in 2013, but still fell in straight sets to unheralded Belgian Steve Darcis (who then withdrew before his second-round match). Though speculation has run rampant in the past 48 hours that Nadal’s balky knees — which left him out of action for six months — are to blame, Nadal refused to answer any questions about his health in the postmatch news conference. Some experts have suggested that he’d be better off skipping Wimbledon for the rest of his career because of the stress grass courts place on his knees and its proximity on the schedule to the French Open.

In addition to the unexpected losses by Federer, Nadal and Sharapova (among others), 10 players have withdrawn from Wimbledon because of injury. The previous record is 13, but that was over the course of an entire tournament — this year’s is just three days old. Some players and pundits have placed the blame on the manicured grass of the All England Club. Though the surface is considered the most punishing of the year’s Grand Slams, complaints are typically reserved for the tournament’s second week when the grass is often dried out and chewed up. This year, players haven’t waited to level their criticism.

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Azarenka, the second-ranked women’s player in the world, took a nasty tumble during her first-round match with Maria João Koehler. She came away with the victory on Monday but withdrew before her second-round match on Wednesday. “The court was not in a very good condition that day. My opponent fell twice, and I fell badly,” said Azarenka. “There is nothing I’ve done wrong that caused me to just withdraw from Wimbledon.” Sharapova, the third seed in the women’s draw, felt similarly. She lost 6-3, 6-4 to 131st-ranked Michelle Larcher de Brito on Wednesday and reportedly called the surface “dangerous.” A fall that Darcis, Nadal’s first-round opponent, took was so severe he was unable to sleep later that night. In response to the criticism, the chief executive of the All England Club Richard Lewis issued this statement:

There has been a high number of withdrawals at the championships today, and we sympathize with all the players affected. The withdrawals have occurred for a variety of reasons, but there has been some suggestion that the court surface is to blame. We have no reason to think this is the case. Indeed, many players have complimented us on the very good condition of the courts.

The court preparation has been to exactly the same meticulous standard as in previous years, and it is well known that grass surfaces tend to be more lush at the start of an event. The factual evidence, which is independently checked, is that the courts are almost identical to last year, as dry and firm as they should be, and we expect them to continue to play to their usual high quality.

Former top-ranked British player Tim Henman defended the courts as well: “It’s bizarre how all these injuries are happening this year. I’m as interested as everyone else as to why there have been so many injuries as the courts are in fantastic shape.”

But if not the courts, then what? The weather hasn’t been any worse than usual — rains usually pound London during the tournament in late June, but precipitation over the first three days has been negligible, and temperatures have been rather balmy.

Odds are, whatever Lewis has to say, the courts are at least partly to blame. Scheduling may also be a culprit. For years, Wimbledon has begun just two weeks after the conclusion of the French Open. Though played on a relatively forgiving clay surface, the French Open can prove trying for competitors. Temperatures are often quite high on the outskirts of Paris in June and rain frequently disrupts matches, forcing a condensed schedule of play. Players who grow accustomed to sliding along the fabled red clay are in for a rude awakening when they arrive on the lawns of the All England Club. This helps to explain why many decide to cram a grass-court tune-up tournament (usually either Halle or Queen’s) into the brief layoff between the French Open and Wimbledon.

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Whether they do or don’t decide to participate in a tune-up, one thing is clear for players: the June schedule is a grueling one. After years of lobbying, something is finally being done about it. Beginning in 2015, Wimbledon will move its tournament back a week to allow for greater preparation after the French Open. And yet, the schedule has been this way for decades, and upsets and withdrawals have never piled up so prolifically or as rapidly as they have this year.

We may have to accept that there’s no all-encompassing explanation for what has happened at the first three days of the Wimbledon Championships. Federer isn’t the player he once was, Nadal has put remarkable strain on his knees since returning in February, Sharapova has lost in the early rounds of Wimbledon in years prior, and injuries befall everyone, especially on slippery grass courts after a grueling spring schedule. Still, there’s no denying that the upsets have been surprising and the injuries altogether too frequent. At this point, all anyone can do is embrace the notion that the 2013 edition of tennis’ most storied tournament has entered the twilight zone. Who knows, maybe it’ll be fun.