WIMBLEDON— If you had a Centre Court ticket today at the All England Club, the program looked thoroughly enticing and the audience seemed certain to be richly entertained by the cavalcade of stars walking out onto the most famous tennis court in the world. Germany's Angelique Kerber opened the proceedings in the fabled arena, and the 2016 finalist put on a good show in taking her first round match over qualifier Irina Falconi of the United States. Falconi made Kerber work rather hard before the top seeded woman advanced 6-4, 6-4. Ranked No. 247 in the world, the American acquitted herself well despite her unfamiliarity with the surroundings. Kerber was tested in both sets but she got the job done by bearing down harder when it counted and exploiting her experience as a player who knows how to handle the big occasions.
That set the stage for Novak Djokovic to open his 2017 campaign against the ever daunting Martin Klizan, a left-hander ranked No. 47 in the world who has an explosive arsenal of shots and a willingness to blast away unrelentingly from the backcourt and thus disrupt the rhythm of his adversaries. To be sure, Djokovic had dropped only one set in three previous matches against the Slovakian, but he knew full well that there was an element of danger in the air with Klizan standing imposingly on the other side of the net. The Serbian surely believed he was going to win, but he realized that Klizan could make matters uncomfortable by stepping assertively inside the court and going for winners relatively early in points.
And yet, the big left-hander had his left calf taped heavily and it was apparent from the outside that his mobility was severely impaired. Competing essentially on one leg against a man who has won Wimbledon three times is not the way Klizan wanted to proceed. It forced him to go for shots that were never in the cards, to take risks that were seldom going to bring rewards, to go for broke in a manner bordering on recklessness. Djokovic understood that Klizan could not adequately change directions. Whenever the Serbian hit behind his opponent, the point was over.
It did, however, take a while for Djokovic to establish his superiority, perhaps because he was somewhat distracted, maybe because he was getting his bearings on the lush Centre Court as he commenced his campaign for a fourth title. The first set was locked at 3-3 when Djokovic made his move. He opened and closed the seventh game with aces, did not miss a first serve in that game, and held at love. Serving in the eighth game, Klizan erased three break points against him but he could not escape on the fourth. A trademark Djokovic return directed down the middle with good depth drew an error from Klizan. Djokovic held in the following game at 15, releasing an ace out wide in the last point. Set to the No. 2 seed 6-3.
Klizan was clearly a significantly compromised figure on the court. He lost his serve in the opening game of the second set tamely, and then Djokovic surged to 2-0 with a hold at 15, serving a pair of aces in that game. Klizan fell behind 0-30 in the third game as Djokovic connected with a forehand winner behind Klizan. The left-hander promptly surrendered, realizing he was far too restricted to be competitive against a fellow who has garnered 12 majors. Djokovic was victorious 6-3, 2-0, with a 0-30 lead in the third game when Klizan retired.
As if that was not enough bad news for the Centre Court crowd, there was more to follow. Roger Federer commenced his quest to capture an eighth title at the world's premier tournament, facing the brilliant and unorthodox Alexandr Dolgopolov, the 28-year-old Ukrainian who has slipped to No. 84 in the world at the moment after rising to a career high of No. 13 back in January of 2012. Dolgopolov is one of the sport's most spontaneous shotmakers, taking the ball early with frequency, producing outright winners often against the odds, unsettling opponents with unconventional thinking and a knack for making shots few would even attempt.
But he wandered into difficulty in the first game of the contest after leading 30-0 on his serve, making a pair of unprovoked mistakes off the forehand before double faulting. At 30-40, he saved a break point with a 126 MPH first serve eliciting a backhand return error from Federer. But the 35-year-old Swiss persisted, coming through with an inside out forehand winner to garner a second break point. This one he converted by chipping a short backhand return nice and low off a 127 MPH first serve, drawing a netted backhand from a discombobulated Dolgopolov.
Federer had the immediate break, which he did not waste. Although he was down 15-30 in successive service games, Federer did not falter, moving to 3-1. Dolgopolov saved a break point in the fifth game but Federer moved to 4-2 with back to back aces. The Swiss had two more break points in the seventh game before Dolgopolov held on forcefully for 3-4, but Federer made his way to 5-3 at 30 and sealed the set in 27 minutes with another service break in the ninth game.
The trainer was on court to examine Dogopolov after the set. Dolgopolov was having trouble getting up properly to hit his serve. Federer held in the first game of the second set and broke in the second on a double fault from his adversary. He then held at 15 for 3-0. With the score locked at 30-30 in the fourth game, Dolgopolov abruptly retired. The scoreline was remarkably similar to that of Djokovic-Klizan. Federer came away with a 6-3, 3-0 victory on the Dolgopolov retirement. Sadly for Federer, he made history on this day but it went largely unnoticed. He moved into first place in the Open Era among the men with 85 Wimbledon match victories, breaking a tie with Jimmy Connors. He also served ten aces, raising his career total to 10,004. The only other players to hit 10,000 untouchables since records were first kept in 1991 are Goran Ivanisevic and Ivo Karlovic.
What a shame for the fans in Great Britain that their enjoyment in watching two great champions perform on a stage of such worldwide prominence would be diminished by two men having to stop–or choosing to do so—after barely more than a set of tennis. I am sure most of the spectators felt deeply disconcerted by what occurred. They wanted and deserved more than they got. Wisely, the Caroline Wozniacki-Timea Babos first round match was moved onto Centre Court. Wozniacki won that encounter in three sets.
But surely the abbreviated battles involving Djokovic and Federer left a lingering bad taste among the fans. Djokovic was asked about the fact that both losing players elected to retire and still were able to collect their first round prize money. On the ATP World Tour, a new rule was introduced in 2017 to allow a player to retire before a first round match and still receive his prize money, but no such rule exists in Grand Slam tournaments. Klizan and Dolgopolov both received 35,000 British pounds for their first round defeats by participating.
"Maybe it should be addressed," said Djokovic of the dilemma. "I think the new rule that the ATP has reinforced allows players who deserve already, who have made it to the main draw, to get what they deserve, but on the other hand [they should] allow someone else to play if they can. I support that kind of rule. It's really odd that Roger's result and my result more or less were the same. We had a little joke about it in the locker room, saying we should maybe play a practice set on the Centre Court and have the crowd stay. But they had another match."
Federer, too, was thoughtful about what had happened, realizing that the situation was far from ideal. Speaking of Dolgoplov, Federer said, "His explanation to me is that he felt too much pain on his serve, maybe on the jump. That's what he told me.... At that point obviously when you're down a set and a break, it's getting worse and he's in pain. I see the point. If you feel like it's getting worse and you can hurt yourself even further, it's better to stop. The question always is: should they [Klizan and Dolgopolov] have started the match at all? That only the player can answer really, in my opinion. You hope that they would give up their spot for someone else, even though they deserve to be there, but fitness was not allowing them.....On the ATP level we have a different sort of situation, whereas if you can't play, you still get your prize money twice in the year. Maybe the Grand Slams should adopt some of that."
Later, Federer elaborated, "I'm sure best of five has something to do with it. Then, of course, I would only personally pull out if I felt like my injury is going to get worse and I would be taking a chance. Otherwise I'm not pulling out...Miracles happen, and you never know if you hang around. You start drop shotting the guy and he twists his ankle and you move on. You have to look at these things. But best of five doesn't help the case if you're not feeling great physically."
I believe that both Klizan and Dolgopolov walked on court hoping they could play their way through whatever pain they were experiencing, believing that adrenaline might carry them past their difficulties and lead them toward victory. Otherwise, both players would have defaulted, allowing a lucky loser into the draw for a chance to succeed against a top of the line player. But their departures after not nearly enough tennis were unfortunate to say the least. Even if the motives and actions of the players were entirely pure, the fact remains that the fans were fundamentally cheated. I wish there was a simple solution to a problem like this one, but that is not the case.