The road had a bumpy look for the top seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic, too, with a scattering of the brightest and best young stars hoping to make a run. In comparison, Roger Federer’s quarter looked manageable, with relatively few hidden trip-wires.
But eight days later, as they headed into Manic Monday, the day when every surviving player competes on a single day for a quarter-final place, it is as though the telescope has been reversed.
The last 16 comprised just four top-10 players—three of them being Djokovic, Federer and Nadal—the fewest since the latter pair were the only top-10 players to reach the quarters in 2008, and went on to contest one of the most memorable finals ever seen at Wimbledon.
So who would the three have to negotiate to get to the final stages again?
The heavyweights in Nadal’s quarter all made early exits, the likes of former finalist Marin Cilic and Nadal’s last adversary at the French Open, Dominic Thiem. Certainly, Nick Kyrgios proved to be a test, but having survived a five-setter in his opener, perhaps not as much as many anticipated. And not a single other seed, even the in-form Fabio Fognini, made it to the fourth round.
So Nadal was yet to face a seed, and had already faced the highest-ranked player he would meet before the semi-finals: Kyrgios is ranked 43, and none of the men Nadal could face before the semis was ranked higher than 65.
In the Djokovic quarter, the dangerous Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas, seeded No7, and the even newer star, teenage Felix Auger-Aliassime, seeded 19, did not make it to the second week, nor did No16 Gael Monfils. Just one seed, No21 David Goffin, joined Djokovic in this quarter, though whether the Belgian survived would depend on the 35-ranked Fernando Verdasco.
Beyond that, and into the semis, few of the expected threats had held their positions: No6 Alexander Zverev, No4 Kevin Anderson, No15 Karen Khachanov, No22 Stan Wawrinka, all gone.
Of the former champions, the ‘big three’, it was only No2 seed Federer who could face his ‘scheduled’ seeds through to the final. Thus far, he had met Lucas Pouille, in the quarters he could meet No8 seed Kei Nishikori, and then Nadal and Djokovic.
But first, he had to take on one of the biggest improvers of the last six months, No17 seed Matteo Berrettini, who began the year ranked 54, and after six first-round losses through to April, won Budapest, made the final of Munich, and on grass won Stuttgart and made the semis of Halle.
Age just 23, and standing 6ft 5ins tall, the Italian was tied thus far in The Championships with Milos Raonic for the fastest serve—a cool 142mph. Federer had topped out at 127, and was almost 15 years his senior. No wonder the Swiss said, with a rueful smile, about his first meeting with Berrettini:
“I don’t know him very well, so that makes it a bit more tricky… I’m expecting a tough one. I hope he has no energy left after today [smiling]. I’m sure he’ll recover. He’s young. I’m sure we’ll see a tough match.”
But forewarned is forearmed, and Federer had clearly done some homework. He was out of the stall like a racehorse with a love hold, and after a hold by the Italian, Federer raced through the next five games, breaking twice, and serving out the set in just 17 minutes, having dropped just one point on his serve.
The second set was less one-sided—by one game. Berrettini seemed over-excited, rushing his shots, over-hitting and missing the lines, or trying to be too deft at the net. But make no mistake, Federer was playing like a man possessed. Perhaps he had seen a weather forecast, and certainly the grey clouds and a stiff, cool breeze suggested rain may be on the way.
He broke twice again for the set, 6-2. They had been on court 47 minutes, but Berrettini needed a break, and while he was gone, Centre Court warmed things up with half a dozen Mexican waves.
The fans wanted more, and they would get a little more in the third set, though still not half an hour. Federer broke and broke again for 3-0, but then all of a sudden the Italian found some flow, made a drop-shot winner, called on the crowd for support and got it with his first break chance.
Twice more he kept Federer at deuce, but some pin-point serving from the Swiss ensured the hold, 4-0. The Berrettini serve at last started to get some traction, and he held to love with an ace, 2-5, but Federer was not about to let his level slip. A serve-and-volley winner, a drop-volley winner, a big serve, and a final smash finished it off in just 74 minutes, 6-2.
It was obvious as he came off court that the eight-time champion had enjoyed himself:
“I’m very happy, I feel I’m really getting into a good groove now… I’m still getting used to the conditions also, but on this performance, it was a really good match for me.”
As he spoke, he watched the conclusion of Nishikori’s match, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Mikhail Kukushkin, and added:
“It looks like it’s Nishikori next, in four sets, and he can recover quickly from that.”
So the seedings continued to hold in this quarter, but what of the others?
Well there was an equally neat and tidy win for Djokovic, a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, in an hour and three-quarters against the French 21-year-old Ugo Humbert, ranked 66. The world No1 will next play No21 seed Goffin, who did beat Verdasco, 7-6(9), 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.
So far, only the 66-ranked Hubert Hurkacz has managed to win a set against Djokovic, who has now made the quarter-finals in 10 of his last 11 Wimbledons.
Nadal also cruised through the 69-ranked Joao Sousa, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, and has also dropped only one set thus far, to Kyrgios. His next opponent is 65-ranked Sam Querrey, a semi-finalist at Wimbledon in 2017, who beat Tennys Sandgren, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6.
And to conclude the day, in the cloudy gloom at 8.15pm, the next highest seed in the Djokovic half, No15 Milos Raonic, lost out to No26 Guido Pella, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(3), 8-6, after 3hrs 42mins.
It was an emotional moment for the Argentine, his first ever Major quarter-final in 20 appearances. Pella won only his first title in March this year, and on his favoured surface of clay, and had only ever won two matches at Wimbledon until this fortnight.
And to end where we began, that oh-so-tough draw for Nadal? For he is the only man left who will not have to face a seed in pursuit of the semi-finals.
It is, yes, a mug’s game predicting who will survive a Major draw—except for the ever-reliable, ever-present three, and Djokovic, Federer and Nadal have won the last 10 Majors and, in the absence of two-time champion Andy Murray, have won every Wimbledon since 2002.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge