Wimbledon, Day Six
Tomic d. (9) Gasquet, 7/6 5/7 7/5 7/6
Never let it be said that Wimbledon lacks that special British touch. For the record I don’t believe anyone does say that, except mumbled ironically through a fifteen dollar mouthful of strawberries and cream. Even irony was stretched when the All England Club kicked off today’s Centre Court ticket by having Sue Barker name every British Olympian present in the royal box, of which there were many, presumably by invitation. Great Britain, it was reiterated several times, had a very successful Games, so it took a long time. It was all very moving if you were British, and especially if you are into British rowing and cycling. Many television networks around the world apparently are, and they summarily gave up on showing live tennis so that their respective audiences could be suitably moved as well, except for ESPN, which doesn’t believe in live tennis, and instead cut away from another interminable feature about Serena Williams’ favourite breakfast cereal. I’m not sure why a global audience was obliged to witness this love-in. Perhaps it was a requirement of the broadcast rights.
Some moments almost confound irony. Often it’s because they extend beyond a mere moment, and continue on past watchability. The self-congratulation attained an ecstatic pitch when Andy Murray appeared, clad in member’s duds, to absorb the adulation of the crowd. Stiff upper lips were already trembling, but now local tennis journalists began openly to weep. Knowing how diffident and nuanced Murray is off the court, I could imagine how exposed he felt having to idle there while the orchestra swelled – if only it had been a real orchestra; Centre Court has an orchestra pit, right? – and thousands of strangers hurled their love at him. The urge to clutch his hamstring must have been immense.
Australia’s Channel 7 has naturally risen to the patriotic challenge. As ever when an Australian plays, his or her name is accompanied by a small icon of the Australian flag, lest those viewers who tune into tennis precisely twice per year mistake their compatriot for a foreigner, who aren’t to be supported under any circumstances. It is perhaps indicative of our current struggles that this is necessary, since it probably wouldn’t have been when Australia’s best players ranked nearer the top. Pat Rafter wouldn’t have needed a flag. Awarded Australian of the Year in 2002 for his services to underwear advertising, he practically is the flag. Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Stosur probably don’t require flags either, but it’d look weird if they alone lacked them, and Hewitt’s patriotic fervour is sufficiently volcanic that he wouldn’t be without one, anyway. He’s probably requested two.
Bernard Tomic has to have one, lest his home support vaporise entirely. He is so persistently vilified in the Australian media, and held in such low regard by the small portion of the public who cares about tennis, that even to defend him brands one as iconoclastic, except in those parts of Australia that will support a local over a foreigner no matter what. Those parts of Australia are admittedly large, and are the parts Channel 7 is most interested in. The coverage kicked off at 11.30am local time, when play began on the outside courts, but fully an hour and a half before Our Bernie was due on Centre Court. Lest we forget about Tomic, a timer was positioned in the bottom left of the screen, counting down the minutes until he appeared. Thus those who care so much about him that they can’t be bothered to follow his fortunes for the rest of the year could feel reassured that they wouldn’t have to endure Mikhail Youzhny’s excellent tennis indefinitely. Periodically the vision would cut away from Youzhny out-serving Victor Troicki to reveal such earth-shattering events as Tomic and Stosur arriving at the facility. The indefatigable Todd Woodbridge would talk us through the details: first they get out of the car, then they sign in. Channel 7 was also at the forefront of that other putative innovation of modern tennis coverage – interviewing players as they are about to go on court – as part of their long-term goal of creating situations in which nothing of interest can possibly be said. With Tomic still an hour away, and viewers at risk of warming to a Russian player, there was no time to wait. They interviewed Tomic as he was about walk onto his practice court. It was revolutionary. Nothing of interest was said.
Sadly this situation couldn’t go on forever. The doomsday clock in the corner of my television screen made that clear. Eventually the wait was over. Youzhny was well on his way. Murray had absorbed all the adulation he feasibly could. Woodbridge was finding it difficult to go on pretending the syndicated feeds we kept cutting to were part of Channel 7’s telecast, especially as he kept getting the commentator’s names wrong. Tomic and Richard Gasquet made their way out onto court. It was the young Australian’s first time on Centre Court – even during his quarterfinal run two years ago he was never granted this privilege – and thus something of a big deal. On the other hand, Gasquet has built a career on winning third round matches on big courts. It’s the fourth rounds he famously struggles with. He’d also never dropped a set to Tomic, although they’d only played twice, and never on grass.
Still, Gasquet is hardly averse to the stuff. He loses a lot in the fourth round, but Wimbledon is the one event at which he has progressed beyond the quarterfinals. Admittedly that was back in 2007, when we were still learning to be disappointed in him, but he was nonetheless the favourite against the young Australian. He was certainly the superior through the opening set, but could never quite get the break, which would have been crucial since Tomic was returning with his accustomed ineffectuality. Though beset, Tomic held on for the tiebreak, which initially lurched around, before he finished it with one of those forehand dropshots he does that owe their efficacy not to spin but to vicious deceleration of the racquet head, and that fool everyone.
John Newcombe, who’d joined Woodbridge in a snug green and gold leotard, could barely contain himself, or else barely tried. Elsewhere Tomas Berdych had dropped the first set to Kevin Anderson, but only as prelude to eventually coming back to win in four sets. It is Anderson’s ninth straight loss to Berdych in just eighteen months. Nowhere is it recorded what Anderson did to irritate Zeus, although it must have been serious, given the Promethean level of repetitive agony he has been doomed to suffer: facing Berdych every other month until the heat-death of the sun. Anyway, I bring this up because the winner of that match is drawn to face the winner of this one.
The roles were switched in the second set, with Tomic superior, and Gasquet, as many have been, felt himself progressively submerged in the Australian’s psychic mire, but appeared powerless to stop it. They say drowning is the most peaceful way to go. At his best, Tomic has a way of noodling the ball about that invites his opponent to do the same, and invitation that only the finest players seem able to resist. At his worst, Tomic just noodles the ball around, and gets hit off the court. It works best when the passive noodling is backed up by the threat of lethal and arbitrary force. Fortunately for him, and for Newk, he was somewhere near his best today, and Gasquet never quite knew what was coming. Tomic finally gained three break points late in the set, so late in fact that they were also set points. Gasquet saved them all, then, with a mighty effort, took the set.
It was mostly the same through the third and fourth sets, with games thudding by as serves found the backstop and returns found the net, with the odd fine rally rippling out like a snatch of melody, to be quickly snatched away. This was grass court tennis, with its familiar pulse and delicate rubato, between two guys with no interest in dallying between points. It was close, but Tomic was the one who claimed the biggest points. Gasquet, vastly more experienced, was too often meek when he should have known to be bold. The long sequences of comfortable holds between those big points probably didn’t help; the trick of the lullaby is in its rocking pulse. Thus lulled, Gasquet was too slow to perk up. Tomic played a fine final tiebreaker, repeatedly hustling Gasquet across and off the court with a suddenly vigorous assault, earning three match points. Newcombe was no longer making any attempt at all to contain himself, having lapsed into nervous babbling, but that was understandable: his man was not only up but had done so by playing the way everyone believed he should.
Gasquet saved the first two match points with his serve, before Tomic took the third with his. The Frenchman’s proud sequence of six consecutive fourth round defeats at Majors is now over, although this is admittedly not the mightiest streak to be ended this week. For Tomic, it is his first victory over a top ten player since Shanghai 2011. Two years ago he reached the quarterfinals here at Wimbledon, the youngest man to do so since Boris Becker in 1986, defeating world number five Robin Soderling in the fourth round. To repeat that effort, he’ll need to beat Berdych, who by now had finished his bi-monthly feast on Anderson’s liver. I don’t know when that match is to take place, but trust that Channel 7 will install a countdown timer.
Tomic’s interview immediately after the match was more revealing than the one immediately before it, as they invariably are. Mostly it revealed that he doesn’t give a toss about Rugby: informed that the Wallabies had just defeated the Lions, thereby levelling their series, Tomic pronounced himself disappointed, since he supported the Lions. “Really?” gaped the guy with the mic. “Yeah, I’m a Queenslander.” Confusion briefly reigned, before Tomic was told that the Lions in this instance were a combined British and Irish rugby team, as opposed to an Australian Rules team based in Brisbane. Supporting them would be a stretch, and probably wouldn’t do wonders for his popularity back home. But then again, if he keeps on winning, it’ll hardly matter.