It is the fourth round, and that means only 16 men now have a chance to win the oldest Major in tennis. And in what has been one of the most unexpected first weeks at Wimbledon in many a year, there were chances for a swathe on unseeded players, as well as for veterans, former champions, and even those who had enjoyed the #NextGen soubriquet. One of them was now too old for that ‘club’, age 22—Karen Khachanov—but was one up to second in the Race to Milan, the only #NextGen and teenager left in the draw, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
However, the veterans far outnumbered the youngsters. Eight of the 18 players were over 30 years of age, equalling the Open Era record for the fourth round at a Major. Not that 30, in the current tennis scene, is any longer regarded as ‘old’. As players regularly explain, training methods, equipment and the increased professionalism of the sport have ensured longer careers and greater chances of returning from injury, even surgery.
The top ranked man in each quarter, indeed, was among the band of over-30s, and three of them were also the oldest of their quartet: Only the 32-year-old No2 seed and world No1 Rafael Nadal had to give way to the 33-year-old Gilles Simon.
At the top of the draw was the oldest of the ‘oldies’, a man who has been breaking ‘oldest ever’ records for a while: The oldest No1—he regained it by winning the Rotterdam title in February—and playing his 20th consecutive Championships, his 73rd Major, and looking to extend his record eight titles at Wimbledons and 20 at the Majors.
He played 30-year-old Adrian Mannarino, seeded 22, and enjoying some of the best form of his career. The tricky left-hander’s touch, variety and craft have worked at their best on grass, yet even so, his lack of consistency had failed to yield him any titles.
The Frenchman’s fourth-round run here equalled his best Wimbledon, indeed his best at Major. And not only was he yet to reach the quarters at any Major, he was here looking to win four tour matches in a row for only the fourth time. The other three were in reaching the finals in Auckland, Antalya and Tokyo.
Federer anticipated a tactical challenge: “It will be much more of a strategic match, I believe.” He was right. After the first set, though, it had the making of a rout.
Mannarino could do nothing that didn’t come back with interest—with more pace, more slice, more disguise, more tactical smartness. The Centre Court began to hum, murmur, uncertain whether to cheer the brilliance from the Swiss or lift the Frenchman to greater effort.
Federer broke to 15, twice broke to love, before offering up a glimmer of a chance to Mannarino in the sixth game: a first break-back point. Federer slammed the door shut with an ace, a forehand winner, and big serve to draw the error. The set was done, 6-0, in 16 minutes, 25 points to five.
Now, though, the Frenchman showed just what he could do. He fought off two immediate break points to hold serve. He did the same in the third game, saved another in the fifth, mixing up his spins, throwing in drops, outpacing Federer on serve, and penetrating the Swiss defences more often.
Even so, he could not work a break chance of his own, despite some athletic touch at the net to hold firm at 5-4. And come the key game, Federer drew a couple of errors and the break, 6-5. A love hold by the Swiss, and the No1 seed and defending champion had the set, 7-5, after 67 minutes.
The third set had a similar feel, with Mannarino looking confident that he was really into this contest—and he was. There some sleek rallies of backhand slice, with tactical changes of pace and direction, and Mannarino won his share. So as soon as Federer’s first serve went off the boil, he faced trouble.
The Swiss faced two break points, saved them with a couple of kick serves, only to face a third. Cue an ace, and then another, and the hold. And not for the first time, the let-down on the French side exposed him to an immediate strike from Federer, who broke and served it out as he had started: A drop winner, and serve and volley winner, and two more big serves, 6-4.
It took Federer’s run of sets at Wimbledon to 32, took his tally of quarter-finals here to 16, and extended his record tally of Major quarter-finals to 53.
He next plays 32-year-old Kevin Anderson, who downed Gael Monfils in a four-set thriller of over three and a half hours to reach his first quarter-final at Wimbledon. So that made two 30-somethings into the quarters: Three more, and they would equal the record of five.
John Isner, in the second quarter, soon played his ‘veteran’ part in a match of fine margins between two men separated by 14 years. The 33-year-old Isner took the fast-rising Tstisipas to two tie-breaks in their only previous meeting, in Shanghai last year when the young Greek was ranked 131. Now seeded at a Major for the first time, No31, Tsitsipas had already broken new ground at this level.
Perhaps surprisingly, Isner, playing his 41st Major, had never got beyond the fourth-round here before, and only once made the quarters at a Major, at his home US Open. And he had already taken a hard route to get here, with a tough five-setter, played over two days, in the second round.
But he swept to the first set over Tsitsipas in 28 minutes. Then the teenager showed just how far his mental and physical development has come, digging in to take the next two sets to highly-competitive tie-breaks. Unfortunately, Isner’s serving was too strong—he made 22 aces and just one double fault in the 2hrs 6mins contest.
The winner will next play Milos Raonic, a former finalist here, who beat the unexpected figure of the 103-ranked Mackenzie McDonald in four sets and two and a half hours.
Raonic has yet to face a seed in the draw, so Isner will be an interesting test of his form. But the Canadian is not the only man to have avoided the seeds so far.
In the bottom half, Juan Martin del Potro, whose fine season has taken him back to his highest ranking of No4 after years of repeated injuries and surgery. The big man from Argentina peaked after his precocious Major title run at the US Open in 2009, and made it back to the top four after a resurgent 2013 season during which he won four titles and reached the semis at Wimbledon for the first and only time.
He played one of those veterans, Simon, a player who was in the top 10 almost a decade ago, and won his first title from two finals this year for the first time in three years.
He came through to the last 16 in a section where David Goffin and Jack Sock lost their openers, but he has never been a player to be underestimated. He has run players into the ground his entire career, and del Potro would need to make sure he took control of the match early to avoid that fate. Their previous matches, 4-3 to del Potro, had almost all gone to the limit.
The winner would then face Nadal, who faced the big and big-hitting, Jiri Vesely, unseeded and ranked just 93, though he had been considerably higher. And while Nadal had yet to face any seeds, Vesely had cleared the way of No14 Diego Schwartzman and No19 Fabio Fognini—both clay experts. Could he make any dent in the ultimate clay king, Nadal?
The answer was a brisk no. The two-time former champion reached his first Wimbledon quarter-final since he was runner-up in 2011, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
That left only one more quarter, headed by the three-time former champion Djokovic. He would play big Khachanov for a chance to take on No24 seed Kei Nishikori, who took three and a half hours to put out one of the stars of this year’s Wimbledon, Ernests Gulbis.
The Latvian 29-year-old had been producing the kind of tennis that made him such a hot prospect when he broke the top 10 and made the semis of Roland Garros more than four years ago.
Gulbis’s wayward form had taken him so far down the ranks this year that he had to come through three rounds of qualifying, and then he played three five-setters back to back, putting out No4 seed Alexander Zverev in the process. He also took the first set against Nishikori, but the Japanese man edged two tie-breaks and, with his knee taped after an awkward fall, Gulbis’s resistance was broken, 4-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(10), 6-1.
So if Djokovic did come through, there would indeed by five over-30s in the quarter-finals, and all three of them former Wimbledon champions.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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