“This is crazy,” Pam Shriver barked on ESPN. “You just never know.”
Shriver’s sentiment echoed throughout the sacred grounds of the All England Club early Friday afternoon, as the sporting world watched number 10 seed Madison Keys fall to qualifier Evgeniya Rodina, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4. Keys, the 2017 U.S. Open runner-up, became the seventh top-10 seed to exit Wimbledon, as the third round comes to a close. Venus Williams became the eighth top-10 seed to fall later on Friday.
“By far [it’s] the biggest win of Rodina’s life,” Shriver said, still miffed by the result.
Simona Halep (No. 1) and Karolina Pliskova (No. 7) now stand alone to carry the mantle as Manic Monday looms. The biggest day in tennis, it’s normally a scene involving clashes by seeded players and the first good sign of who has the will, determination and game to persevere to the end.
Maybe this Monday won’t be so manic.
Except for Serena Williams (No. 25), the bottom quarter of the draw has no seeded players. There’s nothing wrong with that. It gives the remaining players a crack at glory never realized. Yet it also raises eyebrows and puts the tournament in a fix. Big names draw big crowds and income.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Explaining why top names have scattered could be this simple: The challengers feel less pressure to perform well, so they are relaxed and hit out; they respect themselves and their games enough that they believe an upset is possible; once they bite into that possibility, they run like crazy to the finish line.
Case in point was Alison Van Uytvanck’s dismissal of defending champion and third seed Garbine Muguruza on Thursday. The Belgian redhead has never posted a win beyond the second round at Wimbledon, but dominated in the last two sets to pull off the victory, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1.
“[I] was just there mentally,” Van Uytvanck said, The New York Times reported. “I was in the zone and just hitting every ball. It was going my way.”
The zone was lost in outer space for both Keys and Rodina on Friday. The breaks of serves and streaks of games won and lost made their match a wiggy affair.
“What a hodgepodge of a match this has been,” the ESPN commentator said. “[I] can’t see a clean win.”
Keys rushed out to a 5-2 lead in the first set, only to inexplicably squander the advantage. In the second, she lost four straight games — part of a nine-game losing streak — but her high-powered game resurfaced. Breaks continued and Rodina seemed to fade, her knee heavily bandaged. One medical timeout was granted early in the third when each player could sense a win, but neither could hold on to their serves.
“Right now it sucks,” Keys said in her post-match press conference, and as Bill Simons of Inside Tennis posted on Twitter. She said her mind “went away” when she had the 5-2 lead. She “thought of the draw,” speculating about a matchup against Serena in the fourth round on Monday. Keys was “distracted” and then “got nervous, and played not to lose.”
With her mind elsewhere, all the elements of Keys’ game couldn’t be put back together again.
“Rodina made Madison play,” Rennae Stubbs said on ESPN after the match. “She, to this day, doesn’t play the score. You have to make your opponent beat you.”
In the middle of the third after a rather lengthy rally, Keys ran in and dumped a sitter of a volley in the net. As she walked back to the baseline she looked to the skies, as if for some spiritual intervention.
“Let the surface help you,” Stubbs said. “Madison doesn’t do that. Sometimes you just have to poke it over the net.”
Poking and feathering shots isn’t a big part of Madison Keys’ court book. She is all-out or nothing at all. That strategy is fine when firing on all cylinders, but players must have a backup plan.
Rodina, though, made the best of an uncomfortable situation. This was her sixth match of the tournament, having come through three rounds of qualification. She is ranked number 120 in the world and is a mother of a three-year-old. Rodina shares responsibilities with her husband and coach, Denis, who looked as nervous as an expectant dad watching from the stands.
“She is one of six moms in the draw,” Stubbs added. “Shows you the depth of the women’s game.”
The match was played on Court 3, which had been called the “Graveyard of Champions,” or Court 2 before recent renovations. The list of players is long who saw their hopes dashed on that infamous court. Most notably, though, it was the court where seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras played his last match in 2002. He lost to George Bastl of Switzerland in five sets in the second round.
“I plan to be back,” he said at the time, according to The Times. Andre Agassi also lost that day in his second-round match against Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand. The headline of The Times’ article read, “TENNIS; Day of Upsets: Sampras Exits, As Does Agassi.”
It’s crazy to think, but this Wimbledon now seems like a flashback to that year. I guess the wheel of tennis never stops revolving.