Wimbledon 2016: Djokovic and Goffin put out both Wards, as Edmund joins British exodus
Defending champion Novak Djokovic beats Britain's James Ward in straight sets in the first round at Wimbledon 2016
It was not a surprise that world No2 Andy Murray would be asked about the fellow Brits who were populating the Wimbledon draw as play got under way in the 130th Championships at the All England Club.
For this year, there are no fewer than 15 men and women—the most representing the home nation since 2006, with more than half—eight—into the draws by right rather than with wild cards.
The two seeds, Murray and No16 Johanna Konta, would not begin their campaigns until Tuesday, but many were throwing their hats into a very interesting ring on opening day.
Murray was clearly very happy to talk about this impressive development: “I do feel right now it’s pretty positive. I don’t think it’s in a bad place just now…
“Johanna has been doing very well. I think Kyle [Edmund]’s going to continue to keep improving. Dan Evans is now getting everything together, is going to be on the tour hopefully for a while now.
“I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s more positive than some of the years I’ve been here, for sure.”
Sadly for Liam Broady, he was drawn against Murray in the first round. The second Brit, Aljaz Bedene, did not have it easy either, drawn as he was against No7 seed Richard Gasquet for his opener—and in Murray’s quarter. But the prospects for those in the other halves of the draws, those opening on Monday, were just as tough.
Laura Robson, here with a wild card but using a protected ranking for most of this year after almost two years struggling through wrist injury and surgery, had drawn the No4 seed and Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber.
Naomi Broady did not fare much better. Ranked No84, she opened against No17 seed Elina Svitolina.
But it was perhaps James Ward, also here with a wild card, who had the most unenviable draw of all: a baptism of fire against world No1, defending champion and favourite for the title, Novak Djokovic.
The chances never looked good for Ward: ranked 177, he had lost in the first round on eight of his 10 previous Grand Slam appearances, and was on a seven-match tour-level losing streak. He had, though, enjoyed his best run here, the third round last year that took him to a career-high 89.
However, there is nothing more demoralising for a player, particularly to a packed home crowd, than to struggle to get on the scoreboard. That is what happened to Ward: three breaks to lose the opening set, 6-0.
But anyone who had seen Ward’s efforts in Davis Cup competition knew he liked nothing better than rising to the occasion for his home nation. Had he not come back from two sets to love down to win his rubber, 15-13, against John Isner in the fifth set, GB may never have gone on to win the Cup at all.
Of course beating a man who has won the title here three times, had lost just three matches in 47 this year, and had not lost a Major since winning here last year is a different prospect from Isner.
Even so, at 0-3 down in the second set, he lifted his level, Djokovic was slow to respond, and the Briton, who had made just 15 points to the Serb’s 42, won his first game with a second-serve ace to the acclaim of Centre Court. He went on to break Djokovic, come back from 0-40 down in the eighth game, and very nearly broke Djokovic in 11th game. As it was, they went to a tie-break, and the top seed switched up a gear to race to the set, 7-6(3).
Ward dropped serve at the start of the third and, despite some gutsy play, he could not break down Djokovic before the match’s conclusion, 6-4, after two hours.
It had been entirely possible that Djokovic would play another Brit in the second round, for Edmund had a more winnable match against Adrian Mannarino, a talented but wayward player ranked just 14 places above him at 54.
Edmund, age 21 and one of the ATP’s #NextGen players, impressed against Murray in their recent Queen’s quarter-final and had won two Challenger titles from three finals this year. He had yet to win a main-draw match at Wimbledon in three previous appearances as a wild card, but this year, he was in the main draw by right.
However, this did not start well either. Mannarino, who has all the touch and slice to make life difficult on grass, broke quickly, and broke again to take the first set, 6-2, in just 26 minutes.
The slight Frenchman did the same in the second, though Edmund stayed with him and got his reward with a break back to level at 5-5. But Mannarino broke again and this time served it out, 7-5. Another break in the ninth game of the third set, and Mannarino served out the win, 6-4, in two hours.
Two more Brits were in the Djokovic quarter, too. Brydan Klein, ranked No257, was up against a great grass exponent in s-Hertogenbosch champion Nicolas Mahut, and after a spirited first set that Klein lost in a tie-break, 7-6(0), the 34-year-old Frenchman began to ply his serve-and-volley skills to dominate proceedings, 6-4, 6-4.
Alex Ward, ranked No244, also faced an uphill task in No11 seed David Goffin, who stands at a career-high after his best ever season. The nimble Belgian never lost control of the match, serving it out, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, in a tidy hour and a half.
As luck would have it—again—two more Brits fell in the same eight-man section, this time with another superstar, Roger Federer.
One of them was Daniel Evans, who opened against Jan-Lennard Struff, a man ranked just five places about him at 86. Should he make the third round, he could meet the great Swiss man.
But perhaps the most compelling story, from a British point of view, was that of qualifier, Marcus Willis. Not only a qualifier, the 775th ranked player—No23 in the British pecking order—had to come through LTA qualifying rounds to earn a place in qualifying proper, the last direct acceptance in the play-offs.
A look at his stats ahead of his first ever main draw match, at a Major or on the main tour, said it all: zeros from top to bottom, not a match played, not a match won. So tough had it been for the 25-year-old plying his trade on the Futures and Challenger circuit, and supplementing his meagre winnings with part-time coaching jobs, that he had come close to walking away. He was persuaded to stay by his girlfriend, and what a reward he got.
Now, if he were to win just one more match, he could not just earn enough money to survive another year, but perhaps set up the most sought-after contest in tennis: a chance to play seven-time champion Federer himself. First, though, as the lowest ranked man in the Championships, he had to beat Ricardas Berankis, ranked 53.
Murray, who knew Willis well from Davis Cup, summed it up: “Yeah, it’s just a really cool story. He pretty much stopped playing, then was coaching. So to then go to prequalifying last minute, get through to qualifying. Obviously no guarantees he wins his first match, but with the potential to play Roger, yeah, it would be an amazing story… He’s earned his chance now.”
But after four swift exits by fellow Brits in as many hours, could this surprise package cause an upset? Wimbledon, and a raucous outside court, would wait a few more hours to find out.