WIMBLEDON, England — Wimbledon 2019 kicked off today. Even by tennis standards, it was a wild and wooly and upset-riddled Day One. Here are five thoughts on the action, which saw Naomi Osaka and Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas suffer upsets and one teenaged American announcer herself as a star.
• It looked like someone misread the score. 15-39. No, that should be 15-40. But that was the age difference between Cori Gauff—born March 13, 2004—and her opponent, five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, when the two faced off Monday on Court 1. Last week, the teenager from Atlanta became the youngest player to qualify for the Wimbledon women's singles draw in the Open Era. Today, she truly announced herself by beating a tennis icon and a seven-time Grand Slam champion, at the world's most famous tennis tournament. 6-4, 6-4. What a moment.
You never want to put undue pressure on a player younger than many of the ballkids, but Gauff has an undeniable star quality about her. The Williams sisters' tennis legacy is already secure, of course, but seeing a player like Gauff beat one of them underscores the massive impact they've had on the sport. It was, in a sense, poetic. Granted, at 39 Venus is not in the prime of her career, but beating Venus Williams at Wimbledon is still beating Venus Williams at Wimbledon. This certainly had unmistakeable generational implications.
This also did not feel like a one-off performance. Gauff cruised through qualifying, beating the top seed in the qualifying draw 6-1, 6-1. During that dominant victory, someone courtside murmured that she is a top 20 player in the world, right now. That seems quite plausible. She'll get another chance to prove it on Wednesday when she faces Magdalena Rybarikova.
• One reason the sport’s titans win so many majors: they survive the first week and cruise through the early rounds with minimum drama. The ritual excellence of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams was thrown into particularly sharp relief today as a trio of contenders—nominally, anyway—went out within the span of an hour. Naomi Osaka, winner of two majors in the past year, turned in an absent performance and was bounced by Yulia Putintseva. Assessing his confidence level as “somewhere below zero,” Sascha Zverev lost yet another early match at a major, this one to qualifier and world No. 124 Jiri Vesely. And, maybe most surprisingly, Stefanos Tsitsipas, the player, notionally, most likely to play trust-buster and break up the Big Three monopoly, fell to No. 89 Thomas Fabbiano of Italy.
The three upsets all come with their own context and alibis. (Osaka hasn’t been in the right head space for months, struggling with the onslaught of fame; Vesely is a fine player far better than his ranking; Tsitsipas is still adjusting to grass.) But when you hear stats like “Federer hasn’t lost a first round match at a major in 16 years” or “Serena is 70-1 in first round matches,” it carries a little extra today.
• It’s been an interesting 72 hours for Novak Djokovic, the defending champ. He spent much of the weekend mired in ATP politics, including spending time at an emotional eight-hour meeting Friday night that resulted in the resignation of four player council members. (Question for another time: why is the ATP holding marathon meetings on the eve of perhaps the biggest event of the year?) On the plus side, he landed in the half of the draw containing neither Federer nor Nadal. Other potential foils were upset. And above all, he looked perfectly sharp today beating, Philip Kohlschrieber—a tough veteran with graccourt chops—in three drama-free sets.
• Stan Wawrinka is a Wimbledon title away from a Career Slam. It’s perhaps unlikely to happen given A. the persistence presence of the Big Three and B. Wawrinka’s strokes, which often require more time than grass permits. But Wawrinka sure looked like at least an outside contender today, making fast work of qualifier Ruben Bemelmans, winning 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 in 87 minutes. After knee surgery in 2017 really threatened Wawrinka’s career, he’s back to contending. He gets Reilly Opelka, the seven-foot American, next.
• “Best Player Never to Have Won a Major” is a (topspin) backhanded compliment, an “honor” conferred on a player with skill but without the big prize to back it up. The BPNTHWAM right now is, unquestionably, Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic. The third seed arrived fresh having won Eastbourne without dropping a set. She didn’t get an “A” today, but she passed her test, beating Zhu Lin of China 6-2, 7-6. This result was driven into the shadows given all the upsets. But keep an eye on Pliskova.