Friday, August 10, 2012

Super “Golden” Saturday for 30-somethings

Women's Singles Medalists (L-R): Victoria Azarenka (Bronze), Serena Williams (Gold), and Maria Sharapova (Silver)

Men's Doubles Medalists (L-R): Benneteau/Gasquet (Bronze), Bryan Brothers (Gold), Llodra/Tsonga (Silver
On Saturday, August 4, 30-year-old Serena Williams captured the gold medal in Women’s Singles with a dominating win over Maria Sharapova, 6-0, 6-1. Later, the 34-year-old Bryan brothers prevailed in a closely contested match (7-5, 6-4) to win gold in Men’s Doubles over the French team of Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. On Sunday, August 5, Venus and Serena Williams added another gold medal in Women’s doubles by defeating the Czech Republic team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka.

According to Steven Tignor, the Williams sisters and Bryan brothers have kept American tennis relevant. In the past few years, U.S. sportswriters have registered concerns about who would be the ‘next’ great American tennis stars. At the 2009 U.S. Open, 17-year old Melanie Oudin raised hopes by advancing to the quarterfinals. While some thought she could become the next “American sweetheart,” her results and ranking have dropped considerably (she was #109 on the WTA Tour as of August 10, 2012). In the men’s game, several promising players (including Mardy Fish and John Isner) have risen to top 10 rankings, but neither has broken through to capture a Grand Slam. Thus, it was left to the 30-somethings to anchor the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.

With Olympic tennis scheduled to play at Wimbledon in 2012, tickets to tennis were a hot item. Although the Olympics were last held in London in 1948, those were the ‘austerity’ games and did not feature tennis. Not since 1908 was Olympic tennis played at the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon. Recognizing that this would be an auspicious event, the world’s best players planned their schedules accordingly so they could be there. So did I! Although I was unable to obtain them through normal channels, I was able to land tickets through ebay for three days: Monday, July 30 & Tuesday, 31 (2nd round matches) as well as Saturday, August 4 (gold medal finals in Women’s Singles and Men’s Doubles). Below, I provide highlights and a few pictures from some of the matches I got to see.

On Monday, July 30, I saw Venus Williams’ first round singles against Italy’s Sara Errani (above). The match was played on Court 2, which has been referred to as the ‘graveyard court’ because of many upsets that occurred on it. Unlike Centre Court and Court 1, Court 2 did not have assigned seats, so fans were able to move closer to the action. Conditions could not have been better for tennis (playing or viewing) with temperatures in the low 70s, blue skies and a light breeze. Could this be the same Wimbledon that so frequently featured rain delays?

Fans greeted Venus warmly when she entered the court, no doubt a tribute to her being the holder of five Wimbledon titles, but perhaps also in recognition that this could be her last appearance as an Olympian (since then, Venus has said she believes she and Serena could win a fourth Olympic Doubles gold at Rio in 2016). In the past year, Venus announced that she had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s, an autoimmune disease that leaves those who have it feeling tired and drained. Venus had battled through the disease but her results had been inconsistent. So it was difficult to know what to expect from her play. Nonetheless, it was clear from the beginning that the elder Williams was in top form. In the first game, she hit three aces and a service winner to take a 1-0 lead. Behind a strong serve, Venus also hit multiple baseline shots for winners. Overall, rallies did not last long enough for Errani to gain a foothold in the match and Venus prevailed 6-3, 6-2 to move on to the next round. 

On Tuesday, July 31, Venus (above left) played her second round singles on Centre court, where she faced the Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak (above right). Williams picked up where she left off against Errani, taking the first set 6-1. I had not seen Venus play like this in a long time. Admittedly Wozniak was more erratic than Errani, but Venus' service game and groundstrokes were quite sharp. The second set was a bit closer, but Venus closed it out 6-3 to advance to the third round. In the third round, Venus lost to Germany's Angelique Kerber despite having leads in both sets

In the match that followed Venus Williams' win over Aleksandra Wozniak, Serbia's Novak Djokovic (above) and American Andy Roddick (lower) were slated to play. In what could have been an exciting match-up at another point of their careers, this one did not live up to expectations. Sadly, I have to agree with Greg Couch, who says "it's getting hard to watch Roddick play tennis" these days. Even though men's matches were shorter by virtue of playing best of three, this match took only 54 minutes. The British crowd wasn't entirely disappointed since that brought them closer to the "feature matches" of the day: first up would be Scotland's Andy Murray vs. Finland's Jarkko Nieminen, to be followed by the Women's Singles match-up of England's Laura Robson vs. Russian Maria Sharapova.

When Andy Murray was introduced on Centre Court (above), it was clear who would be the fan favorite. The majority of fans were decked out with anything ranging from tiny British flags to full-size flags that they waved whenever Andy won a point. Like the earlier match between Djokovic and Roddick, Murray dominated throughout, owing largely to erratic play of Neiminen. In the end, Murray prevailed to win 6-2, 6-4, setting up a third round match against the Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis.

The last scheduled match on Centre court featured another British favorite, 18-year old Laura Robson, facing the No. 3 seeded woman, Maria Sharapova. Although I had vaguely heard of Robson, I had never seen her play. I was in for a pleasant surprise as she gave Sharapova a more competitive match than she may have wanted. And the crowd was clearly behind Robson. In fact, at one point, I asked my friend from England if the British crowd was more excited about Robson than they were for Andy Murray - I really got that impression. And her play did not disappoint! Even though Robson had only gotten into the Olympic draw as a last-minute substitute, her play proved worthy of the setting as she extended Sharapova to a tie-breaker in the first set. In fact, Robson came close to taking the first set before Sharapova took a 3-0 lead in the second set. Even then, Robson fought back to 3-4 before losing the second set 6-3.

If the tennis on centre court was not enough, there was one more match to see before leaving the historic Wimbledon. A doubles match that had been scheduled much earlier had to be moved back after a long afternoon of rain. However, by the time Sharapova and Robson had finished, the rain had stopped and play was resuming on the outer courts. As a result, we got to see the Williams sisters play the tough German duo of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki. Originally scheduled to play on court 2, they had been moved to a much smaller court (#12) where seating was scarce and fans had to bunch around the court to catch a glimpse of play. While the Williams sisters dominated play in the first set, winning it 6-2, the second was much closer as it went to 7-5. The win earned the Williams sisters a spot in the Women's doubles quarterfinals.

Thus, ended a perfect day of Olympic tennis - for which I was grateful to be there!

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