Queen’s 2022: Defending champ Berrettini battles to quarters over Kudla

Paul ends Wawrinka run to face Berrettini, who is up to 17/18 in last grass matches

Matteo Berrettini
Matteo Berrettini (Photo: Getty Images for LTA)

It would be another sell-out at the Queen’s Club in up-market Kensington, and rightly so. The sun had come out to play, heating up the pristine grass of the famous club nicely for some fast-paced tennis, with the mercury close to 30C—with still higher promised.

And for the enthusiastic fans who did not want to miss a point on Centre Court, there is no shade, no relief: They would need hats, water and sunscreen to survive.

Their reward, though, was the popular former world No3 and Major champion Stan Wawrinka, making his return to the Club for the first time in three years. Then came the defending champion and No2 seed Matteo Berrettini.

And after that, the next chapter in one of the stories of the tournament: wild card Ryan Peniston, the last of seven Britons still in the draw. He would take on the 46-ranked Francisco Cerundolo after an outstanding performance over top seed Casper Ruud—in the Briton’s main tour debut.

First, though, Wawrinka, ranked 290 and playing with a protected ranking after missing well over a year between February 2021 and March this year to twice undergo foot surgery.

At 37 years old, the three-time Major champion had made a super-human effort to get back into shape for a return on the clay this spring, but had played only five matches—with just two wins—before the switch to grass, perhaps his least successful surface.

Indeed Queen’s, where he was playing for the eighth time, had seldom been a happy hunting ground for the Swiss. He made the semis back in 2014, but since then had gone 3-5 on London’s slick grass. And this year, for a man with so little match-play in the last year, and such limited success on grass, he had picked up a daunting draw.

He was in the same quarter as that defending champion, Berrettini, with fellow wild card Andy Murray a possible quarter-final alternative. Murray, in the event, pulled out of the draw, but Wawrinka still faced the formidably fast and fit American Frances Tiafoe in his opener.

And Tiafoe, 13 years younger than Wawrinka, and ranked at 27, had taken the Swiss to deciding sets in both previous meetings. This would be no different, a long, high-quality three tie-breaks to Wawrinka in just 10 minutes short of three hours.

It was, in short, a baptism of fire late into the London evening, so could he recover his bullish stamina for a midday start in the blazing sun come Thursday?

He would be in for another tough match against a man ranked 35 and a dozen years his junior. Tommy Paul had also come through a marathon to put out No6 seed Denis Shapovalov for his first ever tour-level grass win.

Paul had experienced lean times through the clay swing, for his big-serving, attacking style is better suited to hard courts, but it was clearly becoming a huge asset on the fast, low-bouncing courts of Queen’s, too.

And in no time, he had ripped apart Wawrinka’s game to break twice for a 4-0 lead. The American was rushing the Swiss in all departments, forcing errors, slotting huge swinging serves, and he held for love to make it 5-0.

Wawrinka finally got on the board, and had the chance to break back, but he could not find his rhythm against the attacking American, who led 6-1, in a scant half hour.

Wawrinka held to open the second set, but was promptly broken in the third game, and although the Swiss held off more break chances in a long seventh game, he could not break: Paul advanced to the quarters, 6-4, in 65 minutes. It had been a grass masterclass, boasting 17 winners for only five errors, and he concluded: “Maybe I’m a grass player after all!”

He would play the winner between Berrettini and another American, Denis Kudla—the lucky substitute for Murray. Kudla had used his luck well, too, beating Lorenzo Sonego in three sets, showing how well ‘played in’ he was on grass after reaching the final at the Surbiton Challenger a fortnight ago—where he beat Murray. What is more, Kudla has beaten Berrettini twice before

The big Italian, however, arrived on court having won 16 of his last 17 grass-court matches. Since winning Queen’s last June, he was runner-up at Wimbledon, and won Stuttgart last week. And he had hit his favourite surface running after missing the whole clay season following hand surgery.

But Berrettini’s climb up the ranks had been inexorable since the tour got underway following the 2020 pandemic, and with a semi-final finish at this year’s Australian Open, he became the first Italian man to reach at least the quarters at all four Majors.

He knew he was in for a test against Kudla, and sure enough, it was the American who worked the first break chances, in the second and sixth games, and he finally got the reward for his pressure with a break to go 5-3: He served it out to love, 6-3.

Berrettini had looked ill at ease throughout, looking at his support team, making errors, and unable to control things as completely on serve as he had against Evans.

He began the second set more effectively, but unable to convert the first break chance. He did, though, stave off two break points to keep it at 3-3, at last finding the lines with his big forehand. He then had two set points to avoid facing a tie-break, but some pin-point length and angle on serve from Kudla snuffed them out.

The Italian, though, at last found his big serving, and edged the set, 7-6(5), and after treatment to his hand, he carried that momentum into the decider, breaking for 3-2. Kudla broke straight back, but both began to look exhausted. It was Berrettini who worked match point with his 22nd ace, only to double fault. At last, after two and three-quarter hours, he did serve it out, 6-4.

With 45 winners and 26 errors, the stats suggested a more dominant performance than it was: Kudla finished with two more points than the Italian, 112 to 110—a heart-breaker for the American.

Berrettini thanked the crowd that had been so vocal in their support, and admitted:

“I wasn’t feeling my game at all… and Denis was playing really well… but I calmed down a little bit. [After my absence], I really needed matches, and now I have matches.”

Yes, he has now won 18 matches from the last 19 played on grass, dating back more than a year. Does he have enough in the tank, and that sore hand, to reach 21 and claim his second Queen’s title?

Peniston, the calmest player in Queen’s, continued to play as he had in taking out top seed Casper Ruud in the first round—in what was the Briton’s main-tour debut. It took him just 20 minutes to pound through the opening set against Cerundolo, 6-0. But the Argentine quickly found his footing, broke early in the second, and levelled the match, 6-4.

As they entered the final set, the stands were still packed and the fans grew ever louder. This was not over, even after Peniston was broken in a long opening game. He had to fight hard to resist another break in the third game, and again in the fifth. Yet he never lost belief, and after a love hold, he got the break back, 4-4, battled past another break point to take the lead, and broke for the match, 6-4, to roars of approval.

Indeed only in the following interviews did he seem uncertain: This was, of course, completely new territory. But he did admit that he was working hard on his mental game: “I was being a bit passive and I told myself to be a bit more aggressive, and it worked… Just concentrated on my little list!”

He will play either former champion Sam Querrey or Filip Krajinovic for a place in the semis.

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