Tuesday June 29th, 2010

Ten thoughts on Wimbledon's second Monday, for sheer quantity the sport's greatest show on earth:

1. Here's the hell of it for Andy Roddick: Over the next six months, as he tries to digest a fourth-round loss to Yen-Hsun Lu at Wimbledon, he'll have exactly one chance to redeem himself -- the U.S. Open. Nothing else will suffice. He could win back-to-back titles at Toronto and Cincinnati and no one would care. One shot in six months to take a stand, and he can't just be a sturdy battler at the Open, he'll need to win it. This isn't baseball, where you bounce back from an 0-for-5 with a tape-measure blast, or football, where redemption is just a Sunday away. Roddick is about to face an endless period of introspection, to the tune of critics mercilessly questioning his big-stage mettle.

2. Wimbledon is known for its polite, reverential audiences, but even these patrons have their limit. In the wake of some big-league heckling aimed at Victor Hanescu, the player who blatantly tanked and then just quit against Daniel Brands on Saturday, Venus Williams heard some very loud booing from certain pockets of the Court 2 stands Monday when she showed up 10 minutes late for her match.

Reaction: Hanescu had it coming, especially after he spit in the direction of the crowd. He insulted the sport for the better part of an hour. For Venus, a five-time Wimbledon champion and a model of comportment, the scene was disturbing. Venus had a valid excuse -- having to walk the considerable distance from the locker room to Court 2 after a vehicular escort never showed up -- and the fans should have been grateful to watch one of the all-time greats in such an intimate venue. A 10-minute wait wasn't going to ruin their day.

3. Rafael Nadal would never admit it, but I'm betting he played angry. He's not used to being fined for coaching (from his uncle Toni), as he was after his third-round match. He doesn't take kindly to accusations that his in-match medical treatments (on his knees and arms) amounted to gamesmanship. It was remarkable, too, to hear Nadal admit he was "scared" over the condition of his long-tormented knees. He took the court with a lot to prove on Monday, and he was commanding in his straight-set dismissal of Paul-Henri Mathieu.

There's no question that Nadal can infuriate opponents and the chair umpire with his nerdy, time-wasting superstitions, but he is a fair and honest competitor of the highest order. Desire and anger from this inherently kind man: intriguing combination.

4. It must be depressing for Maria Sharapova to realize that after all that rehabilitation on her shoulder, building it back to full strength, she was let down by her serve against Serena Williams: seven double faults, including a real killer that handed Serena a set point (10-9) in the first-set tiebreaker. As if to show how it's done, Serena then closed out the set with a wicked ace down the middle.

Also: When Serena's serve is really on -- as it has been throughout the tournament -- who in the history of women's tennis has done it better?

5. I've never grasped the fascination with Caroline Wozniacki, beyond the fact that people are intrigued by her looks and that the WTA features her prominently among the glamour set. The game, sorry to say, is simply ordinary. Nothing much happening with the serve, scattershot forehand and, of course (she joins a cast of thousands here), no variety. Wozniacki leveled some complaints about the grass, but in essence she was blown off the court (6-2, 6-0) by a talented young lefty, Petra Kvitova. Serious wake-up call, and a cold dose of reality.

6. Novak Djokovic did some serious rehab on his reputation. He has become known as a blatant hypochondriac, eternally citing fatigue or some sort of ailment as he comes up short in important matches. Some could only laugh on Monday when, after winning the first two sets from Lleyton Hewitt, he left the court for a bathroom break. But when Djokovic returned, he clearly was ill. He had to stop play a few times to fend off nausea, and there were times when he almost entirely stopped moving. Hewitt wasn't at his best as the four-set match unfolded, but Djokovic gutted it out, giving himself an excellent chance to face Roger Federer in the semifinals. But not before ...

7. Federer meets Tomas Berdych. This could be a titanic battle between Wimbledon's grand master and a player in that Robin Soderling-Juan Martin del Potro class among the game's hardest hitters. If Berdych is on his game -- and that's the case lately, more often than not -- we'll find out an awful lot about this stage of Federer's career.

8. Between Lu's titanic upset of Roddick and Li Na's decisive victory, giving her a shot to play Serena in the quarters, Monday was one of the most significant days in the ever-evolving history of Asian tennis. And I couldn't help but savor this passage from Drew Lilley's account of the Li-Agnieszka Radwanska match on the Wimbledon Web site: "Not for them the moans and shrieks. These two prefer to let their tennis do the talking, and their lack of peripheral noise allowed spectators to hear a far lovelier sound: that of the ball coming off Li's racket. Like a baseball nestling into a mitt or the leather on willow of cricket, hearing the world No. 12 hit the ball is a symphony in itself."

9. There's something bothersome about Justine Henin's return to the game. She still has all the strokes, still enchants the aficionados with that elegant one-handed backhand, but she's riddled with self-doubt. It's refreshing to hear a player offer such honest self-critiques, but at times it seems she's setting herself up for failure. Clearly, she and her longtime coach, Carlos Rodriguez, are trying to relieve as much pressure as possible at Wimbledon, a title Henin desperately wants, but it's a bit odd to hear her say (on Saturday), "I see myself as an outsider. I don't know how I will deal with the high level."

And what to make of her loss to Kim Clijsters? Henin simply owned the first set, staging a vintage all-court display, but after tweaking her elbow on an awkward fall, she found herself losing the psychological battle against her longtime Belgian rival. There was no evidence that the injury was debilitating; it was more a matter of Clijsters sensing a shift of momentum and never letting go.

10. Yes, Andy Murray is from Scotland, and that raises some serious issues among hard-line Englishmen, but it must be refreshing for Wimbledon spectators to watch a British player charging through the draw after England's sorry exit from the World Cup. Murray was out there Monday against Sam Querrey, too often flat-footed and lacking any body-language conviction, and it was no contest. Each year, Murray gets a little more comfortable on Centre Court. As the esteemed Neil Harman wrote in The Times of London last year, "In the past, I think there was that reaction, 'Oh, bloody hell, we don't want that scruffy urchin to represent us.' Now it's turned completely. People see someone who's an amazing athlete, a wonderful tennis player."

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