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Wimbledon 2019 • Today Was Another Marathon Day In A Nutshell • July 3 • First Week’s HumpDay

Spectators buy refreshments on day three of the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, in London, Britain, 03 July 2019. EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO COMMERCIAL SALES

By Alix Ramsay

 

As Billie Jean King once said: “Pressure is a privilege – it only comes to those who earn it.” Pressure, then, is one of the prizes to be won in professional sport. Yet to hear so many players speak of their own “pressures”, you would think that it is nothing but a curse.

 

We are still working our way through the second round at Wimbledon but there are so many holes in both the men’s and women’s draws that they resemble half-eaten chunks of Emmental.

 

The Next Gen boys have failed with quite spectacular alacrity: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Sascha Zverev, Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe. The established stars of the women’s tour have also taken an early pelting: Naomi Osaka, Garbine Muguruza, Venus Williams, Madison Keys, Maria Sharapova.

 

Some failed because they were just a bit rubbish on grass (no disgrace there; it is a unique surface) and some failed because they could not deal with the weight of expectation. And then Shazza fell because she picked up a wrist injury and Venus went out because she was beaten by a rising superstar. But we will get to that bit in a minute.

 

If we look at the Big Three – Djoko, The Mighty Fed and Rafa – they, too, had their moments of frailty in the first round. All of them got themselves into early spots of bother but all of them dealt with the situation, accepted the pressure and knuckled down to get the job done. Because that is what champions do. Week in, week out. Because pressure is a privilege – it only comes to those who earn it. And those lads have earned it.

 

Osaka earned her pressure by winning two grand slam titles and claiming the No.1 spot in the rankings. Yet she looks as if she is being crushed by the weight of it. Social media (in itself a curse of modern society) is, in Japan, buzzing with talk of her imminent retirement. According to a couple of highly respected Japanese journalists, this is not mere gossip and rumour. Word has it that she has considered quitting just to get her life back.

Naomi Osaka of Japan returns to Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan in their first round match during the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, in London, Britain, 01 July 2019. EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO COMMERCIAL SALES

That would be a tragic loss for the sport: she is remarkable player and an extremely nice woman. But if she is not built to deal with international celebrity, she will live in a very dark place until she can learn to cope with it.

 

Then there are the others. Zverev grew up as the son of a tennis player and the brother of a tennis player so it was obvious that he would become a tennis player. But while there is no doubt that he is a player of stupendous potential, the 22-year-old world No.5 does not seem to know how to approach a grand slam.

 

He knows he has the talent and the game to reach the second week on a regular basis and yet he has done it only twice. Even with Ivan Lendl in his camp, he cannot crack the code. Even with Fed giving him a pep talk at the Australian Open, he cannot fathom it. He just looks lost every time he limps out in the early rounds. That pressure to succeed floors him every time.

 

The same Lendl watched Andy Murray, then his charge, lose the 2012 Wimbledon final to Fed. Lendl had been around Wimbledon for a lifetime, he had played and lost in finals, but he had never realised quite what it would be like for a Brit to get to the final. When Muzz came off court Lendl told him that never again would he feel pressure like that (it was the first time in 74 years we had had one of our own in the men’s championship match. We were desperate). Muzz won the following year.

 

Weird things happen when the pressure ramps up. Muzz felt his legs turn to lead a couple of hours before that final. He was spooked. What was going on? But Muzz is an inquisitive man. He asked people who knew what was going on and why. They told him that it was just nerves. Realise that and it will pass. And it did.

 

The next time he reached the Wimbledon final, he was ready for the physical manifestations of nerves and he won. He had earned the pressure and treated it as a privilege. It went with the territory.

 

So now to look at the new stars of the sport: Coco Gauff and Felix Auger-Aliassime. Both, in their own countries, are being hyped to the max. And why not? They are both sensational talents. Coco at 15 and Felix at 18 are a class apart from their peers. They understand what they could do, what they have to do and what is waiting for them when they do it.

 

When Gauff beat Venus on Monday, the Wimbledon world went mad. She was a great back page story. But when she came out on Wednesday and ripped Magdalena Rybarikova to shreds 6-3, 6-3, she became so much more. She had beaten a legend to make a name for herself but then done what so many rookies never do: she backed up the big win with another. This was special.

 

Did she feel the pressure? Not so much.

 

“I think it wasn’t so much that my tennis improved, it was more my mindset,” she said. “Because my mindset improved, my tennis definitely changed. I don’t think it was so much how many balls I hit in practice. It was more off court thinking how can I improve myself and improve the way I act on the court.

 

“It’s definitely been a challenge. I think I’ve kind of reached basically almost the best mentality I can get to. You always can improve. But right now I feel like the way I’m acting and the way I kind of feel inside… You can kind of fake it till you make it. But I’m not faking it, at least right now.”

 

Felix felt much the same as he beat Corentin Moutet of France 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. He had never won a match at a grand slam before and yet now he went into his second round as the favourite according to the bookies and the pundits. That was scary. But he got the job done because he, like Gauff, is born of a different breed.

Felix Auger Aliassime from Canada in action against Vasek Pospisil of Canada during their first round match at the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, in London, Britain, 01 July 2019. EPA-EFE/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO COMMERCIAL SALES

“I would say nerves are not a new thing,” Felix said, having admitted to being nervous at the start. “I think at any stage of your life… I can recall being 10 years old and playing the first time away from home and being very nervous. I think since I’m very young, you kind of learn how to deal with this, with this pressure, with the stress.

 

“But at different stages of your career you face different times. Now it’s grand slams. Maybe one day I’ll play finals of these events and I’ll be, for sure, extremely nervous. I think it’s emotions you can’t go against. It comes, and then it all depends on how you deal with it. Today, I was able to deal with it in a good way.”

 

Gauff and Auger-Aliassime are working towards earning their right to cope with real pressure. By the sounds of it, they will realise that it is the privilege Billie Jean spoke of all those years ago. Those who fill the middle ground between the Big Three and these two young stars still have a lot to learn.

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