This was supposed to be the year that the big three finally found their thrones under attack from the exciting band of upstarts surging up the world rankings on the men’s tour. And yet, on the day that the great Novak Djokovic’s title defence began with a crowd-pleasing straight sets victory on Centre Court, two rising stars suffered shock early exits in the very first round of the Gentlemen’s Singles at Wimbledon.
First, 22-year-old Alexander Zverev crashed out after throwing away a one set lead against the Czech qualifier Jiri Vesely, who began his Wimbledon campaign in front of a handful of half-interested punters at Roehampton last Monday. Then, exactly ten minutes later, 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas suffered a similar fate at the hands of World No 89 Thomas Fabbiano. The Italian had not previously won even a set against an opponent ranked in the top 20. Now he has won three.
Both Zverev and Tsitsipas were seeded in the top ten for Wimbledon. Both were expected to enjoy deep runs this fortnight. Now, both will beat a hasty retreat from SW19 and back to their native countries ahead of the American hard court season. Zverev is already considering a short break from the sport. “We’ll see, I have a few months until the US Open.” Tsitsipas remains uncertain. “I don’t know,” was his verdict. “Maybe I don’t deserve one.”
Of the two fallen prodigies, Zverev was the more disconsolate in his post-match press conference, frequently resting his head in his hands and rarely raising his voice above a depressed murmur. His defeat was perhaps the more galling in that, unlike Tsitsipas, he had at least found himself in the driving seat: winning the first set before maddeningly familiar flaws in his game — as well as some inspired hitting from Vesely — ensured a painful 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 defeat.
Last year, Zverev won both the Madrid Open and the ATP Finals in London, beating Djokovic in the final. But 2019 has been something of an annus horribilis for the young German. During the off season, he split with his agent Patricio Apey, who had represented him since 2012. He then split with his girlfriend, the former top-300 junior turned model Olya Sharypova. And, in the Spring, his father and primary coach, Alexander Zverev Snr, was hospitalised by an as yet unspecified illness. Naturally, his form suffered.
Against Vesely he served well enough, sending down an impressive 24 aces. But he just could not find a breakthrough against his steely-faced opponent, winning only one of his seven hard-earned break points. He then slipped at a decisive moment in the fourth set, handing Vesely two match points, only to listlessly net the first. It was the first time he has ever lost in the first round at Wimbledon.
“When I get to the important moments - and I had five or six break points in the fourth set alone - I can't take any of those,” he afterwards lamented. “The last two days, I would say (were) very rough for me personally. I'm not going to get into details, but I'm just saying. And I have to fix that to play well on the court.”
If Zverev’s explanation for his middling form was moodily enigmatic, Tsitsipas’ was straight down to the point. “He played a much better match today and I would not have actually deserved this victory even had I won because I just did not play well,” he said simply, immediately after plonking himself down in a packed main press room.
One year ago, Tsitsipas needed just 91 minutes to breeze past Fabbiano and into the fourth round, losing just seven games in a statement performance. And the momentum of this match had appeared to swing in the young Greek’s favour when he defended two match points in a dramatic fourth-set tie-break. But he quickly squandered three break points in the first service game of the fifth, with Fabbiano rousing himself to complete a memorable 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-7(7), 6-3 victory that sees him reach the second round at Wimbledon for a second successive year.
“Last year was kind of easy, the easiest victory I have had in Wimbledon. I played unbelievable in that match,” Tsitsipas later said. “Somehow, I don't know, I didn't manage to get even close to that level that I played last year. I just saw him a more improved, more solid player than he was last year.”
The shock casualties will have delighted defending champion Djokovic, who now has an even clearer path to the final after beating the German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 on Centre Court. The World No 1 endured a mildly nervy start — double-faulting the opening point and dropping serve in his first game — but quickly reasserted his authority in a thoroughly businessman-like performance.
“The break in the first game wasn't the start that I was looking for,” Djokovic admitted. “But I think I came with the right intensity. I answered back really well. Then from that moment onwards, I played pretty good match, I thought. It was a good quality. I held my serve well.”
Elsewhere, British number one Kyle Edmund — who also lurks in Djokovic’s half of the draw — rattled past the Spaniard Jaume Munar in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. Three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka beat Belgium’s Ruben Bemelmans in three while last year’s runner-up Kevin Anderson coasted past Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Andy Murray’s doubles partner, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
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