That she played the lowest ranked remaining woman in her half of the draw was also something of a surprise. Briton Harriet Dart was ranked 182, the only woman left in the women’s singles ranked outside the top 100 except for the record-making American, 15-year-old Coco Gauff, who was already into the second week.
Dart had played here only once before, losing her first Major match a year ago. Now, she had strung together two wins in a row for the first time to earn the ultimate accolade and biggest test, Barty—the best player in the world, winner just a month ago of the French Open—in front of a capacity Centre Court crowd.
She admitted after coming through two tough three-setters against considerably higher ranked opposition:
“I’m just learning from all these experiences this year. Everything is still pretty new for me. This is my second Wimbledon. I’m still finding my feet. I’m definitely proving that my tennis is right up there with the level.”
And as she said of the Barty encounter:
“Super exciting. A great opportunity for me. I have nothing to lose… Just another great opportunity to get out there and do the best that I can.”
But Barty has looked every inch a champion for much of the year, made the quarters in Australia and Madrid, and won the hugely prestigious Miami Premier Mandatory before Roland Garros. She took her all-court variety and form onto the grass of Birmingham to win there, too.
And while the teenage Gauff has rightly drawn huge plaudits this week, Barty was similarly precocious. At 15 she won the Wimbledon junior title, and went on to reach the finals of three doubles Majors. But she found the pressure too much, and at the age of 18, gave up tennis in favour of cricket to return to family and home, only coming back to tennis two years later.
Still only 23, Barty is No1, and was now on a 14-match winning streak through Paris, Birmingham and into the third round here—dropping only one set in that stretch.
Indeed there are few women left in the draw younger than the Australian: Along with Dart and Gauff, there are 22-year-olds Belinda Bencic, the No13 seed, and the 68-ranked Karolina Muchova—and Bencic went out to the unseeded Alison Riske after leading by a set and then a break in the third set.
However, the difference in ranking and experience was laid bare for Dart: It took only 53 minutes for the French champion to dismantle the Briton’s game, 6-1, 6-1. She will now take on Riske.
As for the rest of the draw, it suggested that the late 20s is when players reach their prime. Thirteen of the remaining 24 were age 27 to 30, and two more are considerably older—including the seven-time champion Serena Williams, at 37.
And in that group was the second Briton in action on middle Saturday, No19 seed Johanna Konta, now 28 and rediscovering the form that took her to two Major semi-finals in consecutive years and up to a career-high rank of No4.
She arrived at April this year at a ranking of 46 after a couple of lean seasons, but a confidence boosting performance by the GB team in the Fed Cup in London worked wonders. Switching to clay, her least successful surface, she reached the finals in Rabat and Rome, and then the semis of Roland Garros.
Now she was finding her grass feet again at Wimbledon, but faced her biggest challenge thus far if she was to make the second week: a fourth meeting against former US Open champion and No9 seed Sloane Stephens.
All three previous meetings had been this year, all wins for Konta, on clay and hard courts, but she admitted before this fourth meeting:
“The challenges will be different than they were in Paris, Rome or Brisbane. One, we’re playing on a different surface. Two, we’re constantly adapting, trying to find different ways to challenge each other. It’s going to be a tough match. There’s no guarantees… I’m just looking forward to playing that game.”
This match would be rather different, as a confident and powerful Stephens struck from the baseline to force errors and a break for 5-3. The American served it out, 6-3, in little more than half an hour.
Konta was up against it at the start of the second set, too, but saved break point in the third game, only to face three more in a long fifth game. Again, after 10 minutes and six deuces, she held, 3-2.
Come the business end, Konta began to find more pace and penetration from the baseline and worked her first break points. Serving for the set, Stephens let her guard drop and Konta went for the kill, a break, and the set, 6-4.
And it heralded a real momentum shift, as Konta upped her level to play the kind of tennis that had swept Stephens aside at Roland Garros. She broke immediately in the third set, 3-0, and broke again for a 5-1 lead, after coming off the better in a vibrant net exchange. She served out the win, after two hours, 6-1, to set a still bigger challenge, the two-time Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova.
The popular Czech has beaten Konta in three of their four matches, but the British win came on grass. Konta said of the forthcoming match:
“Her favourite surface and her best surface is grass, and here at Wimbledon. I’m going to be coming up against a very, very inspired and very, very tough Petra. She’s also been playing incredibly well in the last couple years. She made the finals of Australia this year. I know since coming back from that terrible thing that happened with her, she’s playing unbelievable tennis. I’m looking forward to playing a great champion. Just looking forward to the match.”
The only remaining British man in singles contention was Dan Evans, playing not the expected Marin Cilic but Joao Sousa, a man ranked just eight places below his own of 61, in a first-time meeting.
And the Briton had been playing the tennis of his life. Ranked 192 at the start of the year, he went on a tear to reach the final in Delray Beach, and once he hit the grass, he could hardly stop winning.
With a new-found dedication to his sport after an enforced year’s absence, he won back-to-back Challengers in Surbiton and Nottingham. He then won a fine opening match here against Federico Delbonis, and then the altogether tougher No18 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili.
Evans had once before made the third round at Wimbledon, but he was aiming to reach the fourth for a first time, and it meant a lot: Just reaching Round 3 reduced him to tears. It surely was lifting his confidence, too, to be practising with Roger Federer not just by invitation during the off season but a couple of times this week on this revered grass.
Sure enough the Briton got off to a flier again, breaking straight away, and serving out the first set, 6-4. He got a quick break in the second, too, but Sousa broke back, and broke again to level, 6-4.
And the Portuguese man, who was also looking for his first Round 4 at Wimbledon, proved himself a resilient opponent, taking the third set 7-5. Evans, though, dug in and finally converted one of his many break chances in the fourth to serve out the set, 6-4.
The match was well over three hours hold and dusk was settling: Time for the new Court 1 roof to play its part. And it was a thriller to the bitter end—and it was a bitter end for the home fans when Evans fluffed a volley into the net on match-point, 6-4.
Elsewhere, Federer and Rafael Nadal reached the fourth round with straight-set victories over French opponents, the former over Lucas Pouille,7-5, 6-2, 7-6(4), and the latter against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.
Federer, who became the first player in history to earn 350 Major singles wins, will next play No17 seed Matteo Berrettini, while Nadal will now play Sousa—the first Portuguese player, man or woman, to reach the fourth round of Wimbledon.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge