20 June, 2011
Wimbledon Day One (3 Thoughts)
Rafael Nadal looked more comfortable opening his title defense today at Wimbledon than he did throughout the whole of Roland Garros as he knocked off American Michael "Iron Mike" Russell 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. Why? Well, yes, the Djokovic losses likely dented his psyche, but here's a theory, maybe playing on clay feels less natural now to Nadal than it did years ago.
It is well documented that a young Nadal had to be more aggressive, serve bigger and play closer to the baseline in order to translate his clay success to grass and hardcourts. Well, only five of the 18 tournaments Nadal played in the last year have been on clay and that has been the case over the last four or five years. In order to expand his realm beyond the clay, Nadal has had to become a more instinctual "fast court" player. This gives him a clear, concise strategy on faster surfaces, but the additional options could leave him muddled on the clay. We all know having too many options is a tennis player's worst enemy, maybe it's why Nadal had to settle for just winning Roland Garros instead of his usual cakewalk.
Venus Williams simultaneously looked great throttling Akgul Ammanmuradova of Uzbekistan 6-3, 6-1, and err, not so great in her toga romper. In the more important facet, Williams looked strong and ready to play quality tennis after a six month absence. Williams is preternaturally proficient on grass and can shake off the rust like none other. I still wouldn't pick her to win the tournament, but I don't think Venus will embarrass the family name either. Very nice performance for the elder Williams sister.
It was also a big win for 19 year old Jersey girl Christina McHale. Knocking off 28th seed Ekaterina Makarova in the first round is impressive, being the youngest player ranked in the top 100 is very impressive, but rebounding from her French Open collapse is another level entirely. After dumping a 5-0 third set lead to Sara Errani in Paris, she won an equally dramatic and lengthy match at Wimbledon, 2-6, 6-1, 8-6 over Makarova. It's a big win, but let's not roll out the Melanie Oudin level hype. Closing out a match like this is a applause-worthy stepping stone to better results, not an indication that McHale is poised to be a world-beater.