RIO -- Despite soaring attendance, solid television ratings and a good many exhilarating matches in the early rounds, the World Cup has been plagued by a persistent, consistent complaint: too much attention has been siphoned by Wimbledon. The concurrent tennis tournament being contested an ocean and five time zones away has robbed the quadrennial soccer event of some prestige, assert fans and players.
“We all like tennis, don’t me wrong,” says Lionel Messi, the Argentine star. “But enough already. World Cup is supposed to be the pinnacle of our sport. Instead, it’s as though the world is obsessed -- like, utterly, thoroughly, helplessly captivated -- by this tennis tournament. It's Wimbledon! …And, oh yeah, in another part of the world, there’s also this soccer competition going on.”
A cursory scan of the tableau in Brazil supports Messi’s concern. On the strips outside the World Cup stadiums, restaurants and bars invariably display a Wimbledon motif. Fans have been showing up to the soccer matches wearing the jerseys of their favorite tennis players. On days when, say, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has a match at Wimbledon, it seems as though half the fans in Brazil are bedecked in French jerseys. On days when Andrea Petkovic takes the court, a sizable swath of the soccer stadium appears to be wearing the German-themed apparel. While they could hardly be convinced of playing “the beautiful game,” lacking as they do in subtlety and nuance, some American players have experienced some early success, furthering bolstered interest in Wimbledon at the expense of the soccer.
Even deep inside the inner sanctums of the World Cup, Wimbledon fever rages unchecked.
“It would be nice to go through one press conference and not be asked about that bloody Andy Murray,” complained Wayne Rooney, the British forward. “Nice bloke and all, but what he does in another hemisphere, with a stick and ball, has no bearing on my play. None. None, whatsoever.”
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Adds Neymar, the Brazilian star: “Every day starts fine. You feel like you're part of this seminal sporting event. But, then three times a day, the tennis matches start, and the attention shifts away from soccer. In the locker rooms, at least one television monitor is constantly tuned to the tennis.”
Soccer players -- and the odd media member -- are particularly miffed when they take inventory of their sport and compare it to tennis.
“Look, there a lot of similarities,” explains Cristiano Renaldo. “We're both global sports that are well suited for international competitions, for arousing this sort of passion all over the world. We're both well-suited to take advantage of technology and social media. (And, if we're being honest about it, we’re both popular with the betting crowd.) It’s just a shame that tennis has moved passed internal politics and ineffective sportocrats and figured out of a way to capitalize on the bounty that comes with holding meaningful international competition, while soccer seems stuck in its ways, unwilling or unable to change an old model.”
Soccer players interviewed here have expressed guarded optimism that, in the future, the sport’s leaders (such as they are) will see the success of tennis and realize the missed opportunity. But until then, all this attention on another sport is enough to make the Republic of Soccer a bit, well, envious.
Five thoughts from Tuesday
• Rafael Nadal lost the first set of his match today, meaning that, dating back to 2012, he lost five-straight sets at the All England Club. This is remarkable, given that between 2006 and 2011, he reached five finals and won two titles. He regrouped, though, and ran through Martin Klizan, winning 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
• Roger Federer barely broke a sweat -- no surprise there -- dropping only five games against Paolo Lorenzi.
• On the women's side, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova breezed through to the second round. Between the two of them, they lost four games.
• Strangest point of the day: In her loss to Sabine Lisicki, Julia Glushko was late on a forehand. The ball hit the chair umpire in the leg and landed in the court.
• Today’s tremendous exchange goes to Caroline Wozniacki. After smoking Shahar Peer, 6-3, 6-0, Wozniacki was asked about pretty much everything but the match:
Q. You seem to have a great admirer in Feliciano Lopez?
WOZNIACKI: You noticed?
Q. He told us. He said he watched two of your matches, likes you, admires you, knows your dad.
WOZNIACKI: He's already making his way in through my dad (laughter)?
Q. Then he followed you on court today.
WOZNIACKI: Yeah, I noticed he was on the sidelines in Eastbourne. No, he's a great guy. Playing well... This is very awkward (smiling).