Wimbledon 2018: Jack Draper announces himself on British stage, but Tseng one step too far
Britain's Jack Draper loses to Taiwanese top seed Tseng Chun-hsin in a thrilling boys' singles final at Wimbledon
It was heading deep into the evening on Friday the 13th, men’s semi-final day, and it was indeed proving unlucky for some.
John Isner, beaten at the end of a gripping six and a half hours, should have been offered a stretcher from Centre Court. He ambled, head bowed, as only the 6ft 10in Isner can.
For the winner of that encounter, Kevin Anderson, who had also ‘survived’ four and a quarter hours to beat top seed Roger Federer just two days before, it would be an impossible challenge to find the mental and physical energy to beat Novak Djokovic come the Sunday final.
And of course for Djokovic and his beaten rival Rafael Nadal, who went on to play the second longest semi-final in Wimbledon history, beginning at 8pm, finishing at mid-afternoon on ‘rest-day’ Saturday, it was a far from lucky scenario.
But there was another match and two more players, going through their own marathon, at the other end of the All England Club on Court 3.
The crowd was modest at the start of the semi-final contest between 16-year-old Briton Jack Draper and 18-year-old Colombian, Nicolas Mejia, the No3 seed in the boys’ draw this year. By the time the match reached its extraordinary conclusion, the arena was packed.
To set the scene and the tone, the two young men would take a tie-break set each. They had played just under two hours, but it would take them almost two and a half hours more to determine the victory.
The 6ft 2in Draper is a formidable figure for one so young, and his leftie all-court power had already taken out the No7 and No11 seeds. He was not lacking stamina and fitness, either: both his third round and quarter-final matches had gone to the full three sets.
But the demands of this concluding set would take physical effort to another level, a 156-minute marathon that the Briton finally sealed on his 10th match-point with a smash winner, 19-17. The match had, in total, lasted only 45 minutes less than the Nadal/Djokovic five-setter and had produced more than 100 winners.
It was clear, though, that despite the exhaustion he felt in the aftermath, he was buzzing from the situation, the crowd, and the occasion:
“For one, I can’t feel my legs! Apart from that, yeah, I’m overwhelmed by it all. I was happy with the way I came through it, but no, I’m totally overwhelmed.”
As for passing up nine match points:
“It was torture for me!”
But it is clear his head is screwed on right: He has no illusions about the work entailed in reaching this level on the junior circuit and transitioning to the senior level. He had, he said, already warmed down on the exercise bikes:
“I’ve been in the ice bath. I’ve tried to get some food down me. I’ll definitely be feeling it whatever happens tomorrow. I have to try to prepare as best as possible for Sunday.”
And it would seem no time at, rather like for his senior opposite numbers, before he had to walk onto one the biggest stages, Court 1, on Sunday afternoon, to contest the title.
It was a big ask, and not just because of the duration of Draper’s semi-final match. He had to take on the dominant junior force, world No1 and top seed Chun Hsin Tseng, who had already won the French junior title and made the final in Australia too.
The 16-year-old from Taipei had sailed through all his matches, dropping no more seven games at any stage, and he had played his semi-final even before Draper began.
Draper summed up the scale of the task.
“I know he’s an extremely tough opponent. He’s doing well on the men’s side, as far as I know…He is, of course, No1 junior. He’s a very good prospect. It will be tough to beat him, yeah.”
[As an aside, Tseng has indeed already embarked on the Futures circuit on the senior tour. He also, it so happens, has the same birthday as Federer—but 20 years younger.]
But should Draper win, he would be following in the footsteps of some truly illustrious players who went on to win the senior Wimbledon title, too: Federer, Stefan Edberg, and Bjorn Borg among them. And he would be the first British boys’ champion since Stanley Matthews in 1962.
However, Draper was, not surprisingly, slow off the mark, was broken twice to go 0-4 as the errors poured from his racket. One more break and this looked like an entirely one-sided affair, 6-1.
But the crowd lifted the Briton, and rather like Anderson against Djokovic, the longer the match went on, the more he relaxed and seemed to draw on his energy reserves. The two exchanged breaks for 4-4, and the showman in Draper pulled off a tweener to take it to a tie-break. He called on the crowd for their support and got it, and dominated the final game, 7-6(2). They then entered a closely-contested decider.
The breaks came in quick succession, and Draper faced 2-4, but having fought off another break point to make it 2-5, he turned the tables with his signature aggressive play, and broke to level, 4-4.
But he could not hold on: Tseng clearly had more in reserve, and he moves like lightning, in a style reminiscent of his idol, Kei Nishikori. He needed just one more break to take the set and title, 6-4.
It was a bitter pill for Draper, of course, to have come back so strongly to no avail, and then go through the formalities of the trophy presentation with his mother almost in tears.
He explained afterwards why he had not been able to hit the ground running:
“It was a bit of everything, also the occasion, getting used to having that many people watching you is a tiny bit of pressure on me. I’m a Brit as well. I learned to embrace that the second set, went from there.”
He had had several hours to recover his composure, too, but he and his opponent had to appear again with their trophies at the end of the day’s play on Centre Court—essentially coping with two ceremonies.
But he was later able to reflect:
“It gives me immense confidence. It feels surreal still. I’m still taking it in. Yeah, it’s been an unbelievable week. It’s going to give me a lot of inspiration, motivation. I’m very happy.”
He found it hard to show that, still, but with some reflection, and memories of those matches he did win, he will surely draw great encouragement. And he, like Tseng, is already looking ahead to what follows:
“I’m going to go more into the senior game, for sure. I’m not really sure looking ahead at how many juniors I’m going to play. I’m definitely going to try and transition into the men’s game.”
No need to hurry: At 16, it may be worth looking at the age of the men dominating the senior tour right now. All four semi-finalists here were in their 30s, and Federer became the oldest No1 in February, around 14 years after the first time. Careers are long—for those who schedule things right.