Certainly Rafael Nadal was a hugely popular winner in 2008. But there has been a growing wave of support for Lopez with each passing year, for he has been a faithful contributor on these lawns, coming every year since 2006. He fell just short of the title when he made his first final, already into his 30s, in 2014, and there were few who did not raise a glass to mark his victory two years ago.
It was his biggest title in a career that spans more than two decades, and all the more welcome because Lopez has embraced grass tennis his entire career, breaking the usual mould of Spanish tennis with his big, one-handed leftie game dedicated to the old-fashioned serve-and-volley style.
And while the band of young and charismatic stars, ranked around 100 places higher than the Spaniard these days—for Lopez has added new strings to his career bow in the shape of Tournament Director at his home Madrid Masters—each lost in turn, including the youngest of them, No8 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. And it was Lopez who beat him, from a set down, with some superb attacking tennis.
But it is not just the loyalty of Lopez to Queen’s nor his traditional grass game that has made him an ‘honorary Brit’ here this year, but his support of Queen’s favourite son.
Lopez was the man chosen by Andy Murray to join him in his first competitive match since major hip surgery earlier this year. The Briton, a record five-time champion here, was close to contemplating retirement because of the unrelenting pain he had endured for around two years. But after his tear-stained exit from the Australian Open, he had the hip resurfacing operation and was now ready for a test.
There could be few better to choose. Lopez brought not just his formidable leftie grass game but a doubles Major title, too. He smiled his way through repeated press conferences with Murray, and did double-duty on court after rain delays played havoc with the schedule.
And nowhere did the Spaniard’s commitment shine brighter than on a long Saturday. Lopez began with a marathon singles semi-final victory over Auger-Aliassime before the Spaniard completed the doubles quarter-final with Murray that was carried over from Friday night.
After winning that, he waited courtside for their semi-final, and won that after an hour and three-quarters and in fading light.
Come final Sunday, he would take on Gilles Simon in the singles final today, and follow it with the doubles championship match against Joe Salisbury and Rajeev Ram. He admitted:
“If someone had told me this a week ago, I would say you’re crazy. To be here again in the finals in both singles and doubles, it’s tough to believe, no?”
He was, he said, riding on adrenalin during the early stages of his doubles matches, but:
“After one hour, I started to feel a bit more tired, because I played a lot and it’s late, and it’s getting cold, so my body is a little bit sore.”
In Simon, he faced perhaps his worst nightmare, given his tiredness. The wiry Frenchman has one of the most resilient games in his sport, a never-say-die player whose speed and endurance have turned around many a match, and pulled him through long, long battles. He proved it here this week.
The 34-year-old Simon continued his marathon week with a three-set win over Daniil Medvedev in the semis, his fourth three-setter of the week, taking his on-court time to 10 and a half hours.
It meant, then, that these two veterans had been tested and tested and had yet to be found wanting. Now they would play almost to the death.
On the line for Simon was a possible first grass title after winning 16 in his career. He would also become the first Frenchman to win at Queen’s.
For Lopez, he would be the first wild card in 20 years to win the title, and just a few hours after Roger Federer had become the oldest man to win a title since 1977, he would become the second-oldest.
And remarkably, it would be yet another three-setter, two and 50 minutes, though in the early stages, it did not look as though it would be. Lopez broke in the very first game, and worked another chance in the third. A second break for 4-1, and he was making Simon look lethargic with his attacking tennis and determination to charge the net. He served it out, 6-2, and with all the momentum.
But that is to underestimate Simon: He had come back from a set down twice this week already, and now he broke at the start of the second, though Lopez levelled again for 3-3. This long tussle would go to a tie-break, and although again Lopez got the first advantage, with of course a serve and volley winner followed by a remarkable 33-shot rally, Simon won five points in a row to take the set, 7-6(4).
Simon then saved two immediate break points, and another in the fourth game of the third set. But he was almost impenetrable from the baseline, and fired his flat shots to the corners with hypnotic rhythm. Lopez almost got the breakthrough to avoid a tie-break, but Simon saved match break point via a clutch of deuces: it would come to a final shoot-out.
And Lopez, as had been the case against Auger-Aliassime, saved his best for last. From 2-2, he won the next five points, set, and match, 7-6(2).
The Spaniard began the tournament ranked 113, and ends it at 53, but that was as nothing to his joy at lifting this trophy for a second time. He said:
“I thought the best moment of my career was in 2017 when I stood here and held this trophy on this court—but it’s not. It’s right now.”
As for how he won the match, he was in disbelief: “I don’t know!
“I think the whole match was very exciting—except the first set, where he didn’t play really good [both players laughed]. I took the early set, but then he got better and better. It was tough for me to find a way to win points. I was trying to go to the net, be aggressive, but he was coming up with unbelievable passing shots and I was a bit desperate, to be honest.”
So what did he have left, he was asked, for his second final with Murray?
“I’m going to speak to Andy now. I think he’s going to be responsible today! I don’t have so much energy in my body, but my adrenalin levels are so high.”
Simon was a gracious and articulate loser, and smiled through what must have felt like wretched exhaustion:
“I’m tired, of course. It was long today. It was long every day. It was tough for Feli, and he has another final to play in a few minutes!
“It’s tough right now after such an amazing effort to try and stay in this match and come back. But it’s such an honour and pleasure to play here and have the chance to win.”
Then he spoke for the many 30-somethings who keep on keeping on in this sport:
“I don’t know how long I can stay on tour. Feli is still fit and he’s a bit older than me, so I hope I’ll have the chance to come back again.”
He may have cast an eye across Europe to Halle, too, where another 37-year-old had just won a title. Federer and Lopez are now the oldest title winners in more than 40 years. But Lopez was about to try and go one step better—win the doubles title, too.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge