Tuesday July 3rd, 2012

Serena Williams struggled through another three-set match in beating 65th-ranked Yaroslava Shvedova.
Andrew Cowie/Colorsport/Icon SMI

WIMBLEDON, England -- There are plenty of reasons to call Wimbledon special and, Lord knows, by this time each year we've heard just about enough. The history! The grass! But let's face it: The French Open is just as storied a tournament, other pro stops are played on turf, and you can slop together strawberries and cream right there in your kitchen. In only one aspect do "The Championships" remain wholly unique, and deserving of an appreciation bordering on awe.

"It's like," said Yaroslava Shvedova after her 6-1, 2-6, 7-5 loss in Wimbledon to Serena Williams on Monday, "a city of tennis."

The gap between pro athletes and the real world has never been wider. Ask your grandparents, who still talk about some old Brooklyn Dodger traveling to games by subway, some Baltimore Colt selling insurance in the offseason. Riches, security and fear of the rogue camera-phone has all but ended the idea of jocks as everyday people -- except tennis, when it comes to Wimbledon Village.

Because over the last few decades, the world's players, coaches, media, administrators and officials -- if only to escape London's brutal traffic -- fled the city's swank hotels and discos and swarmed the local rental market. That's why now, during a fortnight, black-windowed luxury cars will sit idly for days. That's why you'll see the sport's biggest names buying a paper or lining up for coffee before heading to the courts. That's why, late on Wimbledon's middle Sunday, Shvedova and her mixed doubles partner, Mikhail Kukushkin, and fellow pro Denis Istomin, sat by the window of a restaurant at the top of Church Road and became the hub of one of those scenes that can only happen here.

It was just past 7:45 p.m., the streets all but deserted because of the final of the European soccer championships. There sat Shvedova who, the day before, had achieved one of sport's unthinkables, winning every point of the opening set -- 24 straight -- of her third-round match against Sara Errani. If this had been Matt Cain or Don Larsen, fresh off pitching a perfect game, a crowd would be cheering and banging on the glass. Shvedova's feat, a "Golden Set", had happened only once before in history, and never before at a Grand Slam. The waiters had no idea. The sidewalk outside was empty. Shvedova took a bite.

A man walked by: Tony Roche, owner of the best backhand volley in history, a Wimbledon finalist in '68. The door opened. In walked Martina Hingis, winner of five majors, former No. 1, 31 years old and retired, alone.

She ordered a cappuccino, saw familiar faces, came over and sat down. Waiting to meet up with her French husband, she was happy to chat: The state of today's game; an old boyfriend; her own near-Golden Set; that incredible final against Steffi Graf at the '99 French (she watched it again, recently, on YouTube); the rivalries with Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters that made hers the last great era in the women's game. Serena's serve, Hingis said, was the greatest she'd ever faced. And her dad, Richard Williams, was not only a great coach, but had an astonishingly good serve himself.

She was asked who she thought would win on Monday, when Shvedova, the No. 65-ranked wild card, would play four-time champ Serena in a fourth-round match. Hingis inclined her head toward Shvedova's table. Not Serena? "Not the way she's been playing," she said, and yes, the memory of Williams' third-round battle with Jie Zheng was still fresh. But, she added, that could change, too.

A half-hour passed. Finally Hingis stood, went out to the sidewalk to call her husband. Coming up the hill was John Lloyd, Chris Evert's ex. Two men spilled out of the restaurant next door: Johan Kriek, winner of two Australian Opens, and Kevin Curren, who lost to Boris Becker here in the '85 final and once declared he'd like to drop a bomb on Flushing Meadow. Laughs and handshakes all around, Hingis on her phone a few feet away; there went Pam Shriver, a U.S. Open finalist at 16, walking across the street.

Hingis' husband arrived. Everyone began waving, backing off in different directions. Within seconds, all had moved on. The moment was done.

The next afternoon, Monday, Hingis' skepticism about Serena was proven right, of course; there are few better tennis brains on the planet. Williams stormed through the first set on Court No. 2, serving as well as Hingis remembered, but as the weather got worse so did she. Shvedova, the 24-year old who reclaimed her health and game and then made it to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last month, began to find her rhythm in the second set. Her backhand began to sting, and as the rallies got longer, she felt Williams waver.

"She started to be a bit nervous," Shvedova said after. "At 5-2, she slowed down a lot and started to play softer. I was surprised a little bit, because she's such a great player." She laughed. "And she was nervous ... playing with me."

Such unsteadiness is hardly a Serena trademark, but she's 30 now and coming off a first-round loss in Paris. Hingis senses it, Shvedova felt it, even Serena's family has to admit: No Williams match is a sure thing these days.

"It looks like Serena's just not playing: She's not moving forward, standing still, getting caught on her back heels too much," said Richard Williams afterward. "I don't know what it is. I'm going to talk to her today about it. But if she's not very careful? You can't keep having matches like this and come through."

With the match square at a set apiece, the skies darkened and the Union Jack flying over the court began to dance. Serena's light skirt swirled, and Shvedova -- kitted out in black ankle braces, black bra straps, headband and prescription goggles -- looked ready to go spelunking. She held off one break point with a stunning backhand pass to hold at 4-3 in the third. Now the rain began to spit.

Still, Serena held and now Shvedova started to fray, going down 4-4, 0-40 before pounding a backhand winner up the line. "OK," Richard Williams, sitting high in the stands, murmured. "Let's go."

But Serena didn't hear, and Shvedova -- even with raindrops speckling her goggles -- slipped the noose to get to 5-4. Now the flagpole rocked like a ship's mast in a squall. Serena held easily. Across the grounds Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer were hurried off courts; matches began to be suspended. But this one was too near a finish.

"I'm glad we didn't stop," Serena said.

Shvedova shed the goggles to serve at 5-all. "Bit more blurry," she said. "But still I can see the ball."

Not too well, it seemed: Shvedova then double-faulted twice in a row to hand Serena the break. Up 6-5, 30-all, Williams then lunged outside the doubles alley for what seemed a sure Shvedova winner, misfiring on a backhand that somehow fell in, took her to match point and served as a wobbly, spinning emblem for the state of her game. "I had no intention of hitting that shot," Serena said. "I thought I was going for a backhand down the line, and somehow it ended up being a crosscourt lob."

"It was very weird," Shvedova said.

It got weirder. When Serena left Court 2, a mob of fans pressed in on her. "It was crazy out there today," she said. "I literally was almost knocked over today. There was tons of security guards in there just going nuts and screaming. I've never heard them scream so loud."

The crowd milling about her father after was far more polite. Richard stood for a few minutes -- Mansour Bahrami's book, The Court Jester, in hand -- and clearly wasn't happy with his daughter's play. "You're lucky the last match, you're lucky this match here: Somewhere skills have to fit in there," he said.

"You don't want to see her have to keep struggling. She's burning energy, lots of it. I think her chances are very good but she's going to have to play a whole helluva lot better."

He began walking between courts, back to the locker room. One woman asked to take a photo, another asked for his autograph. "I'm sorry," he said. "I have to get to see Serena and try and get her to play."

Told of Hingis' compliments about his coaching, Richard smiled. Funny thing: He'd bumped into Hingis earlier.

"I truly miss her being out here," Richard said. "I've never seen no one who can play as well as she can play, and put the ball where she wanted. She dealt with everything so smoothly, you wouldn't know it; she kept that smile on her face. I think tennis lost a lot when it lost her. I really do."

He walked another 10 yards, stopped and nodded at a girl of about 14 sitting by the walkway. "She looks a little like Hingis, doesn't she?" he said. The girl blinked, grinned, stared at the strange man looming over her.

"You look like Hingis," Richard said, and then he moved on. That's how it is at Wimbledon. You can barely take a step these days without seeing a familiar face.

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