Childs stuns Davydenko and confounds British clichÃ©
Tuesday 24 June 2003
Predictably, some British hopes went west on Wimbledon's opening day, but, most unpredictably, Lee Childs is not yet bound in the same direction. The wild card entrant - who turned 21 earlier this month, and hails from a West Country of cider and cream teas rather than a West Country of moose and mounties, like a certain other Brit also in action yesterday - overcame the No 33 seed, Nikolay Davydenko, in five sweaty sets, 2-6, 7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 6-2.
It was the first five-sets win of his career.
Childs, born in Yeovil, Somerset, and based in nearby Bridgwater, will be heading back down the M5 at least £14,090 richer, less expenses and perhaps the cost of a modest celebratory night out, following his hard-fought victory on court 13. It will be comfortably his biggest pay-cheque. He is ranked 487th in the world; his opponent Davydenko is ranked more than 450 places higher - 35th. So the demise of the men's top seed Lleyton Hewitt, which occurred just a minute or two earlier, and of which Childs was aware because amazement rippled loudly through the court 13 crowd, was not the only seismic shock of the day.
A shock hardly seemed on the cards as the 22-year-old Ukrainian-born Russian captured the first set 6-2. Childs, who was wearing what used to be called designer stubble, reportedly has a pet superstition not to shave during a tournament until he has been knocked out. One therefore wondered, as he struggled to find his line and length in those early exchanges, whether he had his Wilkinson's Sword tucked away in the pocket of his shorts, in readiness for the inevitable. Or even, in homage to another plucky British loser at Wimbledons gone by, his Chris Wilkinson's Sword.
However, as emphatically as he won the opening set, Davydenko looked beatable. In truth, it was not much of a spectacle. Nor was it expected to be. Neither player had ever won on grass before, nor even played much on grass, and both approached the net with the kind of trepidation with which you might expect those other young Brits currently in the headlines, Harry Potter, Hermione Grainger and Ron Weasley, to approach Lord Voldemort's lair. Up in the press seats, the journalistic answers to the Grim Reaper - the man from The Times, the man from the Daily Telegraph, the man from the Hertfordshire Mercury, and your reporter, all dispatched to record the first British exit of the championships - anticipated a speedy return to the media centre.
But, gloriously, and albeit at the expense of my lunch, it was not to be.
Although the second set, like the first, was a comedy of unforced errors, Childs at least began to look Davydenko's equal. And the remaining spectators - those who hadn't stampeded for the exit when he quickly lost the first two games in the second set - began to cheer him on. "C'mon Lee," yelled a man wearing a Yeovil Town football shirt. "C'mon Lee," shouted 20 or 30 others. It wasn't Henmania but it was something. In support of the Russian, meanwhile, there was only a solitary voice, shouting a Russian word that sounded, not inappropriately, like "no idea".
Davydenko was palpably struggling for form, but all credit to the Englishman, who tested him with some increasingly impressive pounding from the baseline. Childs' action is all shoulder: he whips the ball with ferocious top-spin, and sometimes it lands inside the line. Slowly he began to emerge as favourite in rallies of more than six strokes. If he had a problem it was with his first serve, a high percentage of which he missed, but at 4-4 he won his service game to love, and stayed on level terms to force a tie-break, which he won comfortably, 7-2. In so doing, he showed a hitherto concealed deftness of touch, drop-shotting Davydenko from close to the baseline, and doubtless moving the irrepressibly poetic Barry Davies, watching from the BBC commentary box, almost to iambic pentameter.
By now, Davydenko had started to gasp just after his racket made contact with the ball. It was the gasp of a man being stretched far more than he had expected. But in the third set, ominously, the gasp disappeared. He was back on top. Oddly, Childs' self-belief seemed to drain away. He missed more and more first serves. That old Wimbledon cliché - the first-round defeat of plucky Brit in four sets - was back in sight.
The 487th best player in the world, however, had other ideas. In the fourth set he found that briefly elusive self-belief, and even began to offer the crowd a clenched fist, à la Tim. It is hard to imagine a day when Henman Hill will be renamed Childs Hill - not least because there is a nondescript area of north London already called Childs Hill - but for the moment, court 13 was the focus of British patriotism. A man waved his Union Jack flat cap.
The Davydenko gasp returned. And Childs prevailed, winning the fourth-set tie-break 7-5, then hitting his stride beautifully in the deciding set, even deploying the serve-volley once or twice, to complete the disorientation of the doom-mongers in the press seats.
Afterwards, the victor said that the court 13 crowd had played a significant part in his victory. "For me, a crowd like that... I don't get that very often at the moment," he said, with a huge smile, to which he was richly entitled. Next up is the unseeded Spaniard, Rafael Nadal.
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