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Slipping and Sliding At Wimbledon Tennis 2021 • Nobody Falls better than Novak • Murray Slides And Wins

By Alix Ramsay

Novak Djokovic even falls over better than anyone else – when his dominance stretches to that level of detail, you have to wonder how anyone is going to beat him this year in SW19.

The slickness of the grass on Centre Court, particularly at the Royal Box end, has been the topic of debate for the past three days. With players landing in crumpled heaps at regular intervals, the lushness of the green stuff has already claimed Serena Williams and Adrian Mannarino who both had to pull out of their Centre Court matches after falls on Tuesday.

According to Roger Federer, who was ushered into the second round by Mannarino’s withdrawal, the slipping and the sliding is an occupational hazard in the opening rounds. That said, the rain of the past few days has not helped matters and the court always gets slippier when the roof is shut and the humidity rises.

As the debate went on – the “it’s grass; get over it” brigade against the “the courts are dangerous” rebels – the All England Club issued an official statement.

“The weather conditions on the opening two days have been the wettest we have experienced in almost a decade,” it read, “which has required the roof to be closed on Centre Court and Court One for long periods.

“This is at a time when the grass plant is at its most lush and green, which does result in additional moisture on what is a natural surface.”

It went on to point out that the more matches played on the courts, the harder they become. And once the sap had been stamped out of the grass, this falling over business would become a thing of the past.

That moment has not yet come, though, and as Djokovic made his way past Kevin Anderson in 101 minutes of near perfect tennis, he did spend an inordinate amount of time on his backside. But even then, he did it so well. Where others go down like a sack of potatoes, pulling muscles, twisting joints and doing themselves untold damage, Djokovic rearranges his bits and pieces mid-tumble so that they land with a bump but not with any real threat of injury.

“I seem to be having a really nice connection with the grass,” he said. “I don’t recall falling this much in the first two matches at Wimbledon. But the connection with the crowd and the grass is very nice.”

All in all, he could not have asked for a better day at the office: just six unforced errors (and only one in the second set), not a break point faced and nine aces served. Anderson had pushed him further and harder in the past but he was nowhere near being able to do that again. And even if he had been, Djokovic was in no mood to let him try.

“I’m very pleased,” Djokovic said. “Kevin is a terrific player, very dangerous on fast grass courts. I held my serve comfortably, but it’s never easy to play an opponent that has a lot of quality in his shots, particularly in his serve, with a lot of experience playing on a big stage.

“Making as few unforced errors as possible was one of the tactical goals today. I knew Kevin was going to serve big, I wouldn’t have too many chances to break. So I might as well try to play solid but not too risky, and I did much better than I thought I would. I mean, I believe in myself but it was almost flawless.”

But if Djokovic is bringing a sense of continuity and normality to the goings on in SW19, picking up from where he left off in 2019 as champion, the rest of The Championships are not.

It was billed as Wimbledon with a difference and it has certainly lived up to its prepublicity. But quite how different Wimbledon would be has come as something of a surprise. Wimbledon has gone woke. Who’d a thunk it?

In that most traditional of sporting venues, not much appears to have changed over the decades. True, they have equal prize money and have had since 2007 but the blokes don’t play for the men’s title, they play for the Gentlemen’s singles title. Likewise, the birds play for the Ladies’ Singles title. It is all terribly old fashioned and awfully…well, nice.

This genteel approach even extended to the championship towels (one of which can be yours for a mere £35 a pop plus £4.95 p and p via the Wimbledon website). The “Ladies” were provided with a bright, pretty and colourful affair – pink in the past, orange and turquoise this year – while the “Gentlemen” were given the more sober version in the club’s colours of purple and green. And players of every description, from lucky losers to serial champions, stuffed as many of them into their kit bags as they could manage to sneak out of the grounds under cover of darkness.

This year, though, there are no gender specific towels. In the brave, new, non-binary world of wokedom, Wimbledon has produced the “traditional” towel (the old, blokes’ purple job) and the “seasonal” towel (the bird’s bright number). And every player gets one of each. This, then, requires twice as many kitbags to smuggle twice as much contraband out of the club but players are resourceful creatures.

Studying who uses which towel can be revealing. So far, most of the ‘Ladies’ are plumping for the ‘seasonal’ turquoise and orange number. The ‘Gentlemen’ are a little more adventurous and Matteo Berrettini, all 6ft 5ins and 209lbs of Italian muscle of him, went exclusively for the prettier, seasonal version as he clumped Guido Pella in the first round on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Andy Murray, a staunch feminist and a supporter of equality in all things, uses both towels without favour – one draped over each shoulder.

This embracing of diversity has yet to extend to preferred pronouns, mind you. But that is only because the issue has yet to arise. There are no rules or protocols in place as yet other than the overwhelming wish to make every player feel welcome and comfortable. How do you wish to be addressed and how do you wish to be referred to? Blimey. No one said it was going that much of a different Wimbledon.

But one thing has not changed – the late-night Andy Murray Centre Court drama. For nine minutes shy of four hours the Muzz had the crowd whipped to a frenzy as he took charge of his second round match-up with Oscar Otte, the qualifier who had only ever won five matches at tour level in his life, and then lost it again for more than an hour. At that point, the damage looked to be terminal but after a brief delay while the roof was closed for bad light, the old warrior returned as a new man. Murray fought, he attacked, he urged the crowd to make more and more noise and by 10.30pm he was through 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 to meet Denis Shapovalov on Friday.

“I enjoyed the end – the middle part not so much,” he said with a smile. “But what an atmosphere to play in at the end. The whole crowd was amazing but there were a few guys who were in there getting me fired up. I needed everyone’s help tonight and they did a great job. I played some great shots at the end to finish it but it was a tough match.”

As the crowd stood to cheer, he looked as if all his Christmases had come at once. He was tired all right, but he was back where he belonged. This felt like old times indeed.