Wimbledon 2023: Key storylines for Week 2

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Rain defined the opening days of Wimbledon, but drama has taken over since. We’ve seen high-impact, final-set match tiebreakers — Elina Svitolina over Victoria Azarenka, Holger Rune over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, Lesia Tsurenko over Ana Bogdan. We’ve watched top seed Iga Swiatek face a double match point and prevail. And we’ve seen 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva reach the fourth round, while a couple of mid-20s journeymen (Christopher Eubanks, Roman Safiullin) reach the quarterfinals. We’ve even seen a number of curfew interruptions — 11 p.m.? Really, London?

Most of the top seeds have advanced. Six of the top eight men have reached the quarterfinals, as have five of the top six women. There will be loads of potential matchups in the coming rounds, starting with a rematch of the 2022 ladies’ final (champion Elena Rybakina vs. runner-up Ons Jabeur) and a battle of 20-year-olds — Carlos Alcaraz vs. Rune — in the quarterfinals.

The drama is only beginning. Even if Novak Djokovic still ends up winning the final match of the tournament as usual.

Let’s talk about the key storylines as we enter Week 2.

Djokovic vs. Djokovic

To their credit, most of the Wimbledon men’s title hopefuls beyond Djokovic have played well thus far. While Djokovic entered the tournament as an overwhelming favorite, each of the next four most likely champions at the start of the tournament — Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev, Jannik Sinner and Andrey Rublev, per Tennis Abstract — has mostly looked strong, and all have advanced to the quarterfinals. So has Rune, the No. 6 seed.

The men’s game obviously has a general star-power issue at the moment with Roger Federer’s retirement, Rafael Nadal’s sustained injuries and Andy Murray’s own long comeback attempt. But credit most of the top players for bringing their respective A-games to the All England Club. That doesn’t always happen. We’ll see if Djokovic allows one of them — starting with Rublev on Tuesday — to take three sets from him. That almost never happens.

How has Djokovic played thus far? Since he has won 32 straight matches at Wimbledon, we don’t really have anyone to compare him to other than himself. And through four rounds, he isn’t quite clearing the bar he typically sets.

Djokovic’s percentage of points won, first four rounds at Wimbledon:
2018: 59.6%
2019: 58.0%
2021: 59.5%
2022: 57.3%
2023: 54.9%

He’s typically winning 58.5% of his points at this point; he’s more than three percentage points lower this year. That might not seem like much, but in tennis it’s a pretty massive difference. And he has played only one opponent ranked higher than 68th in the ATP rankings so far, too.

This regression has come despite his serve being as effective as ever.

Djokovic’s percentage of service points won, first four rounds:
2018: 83% first serve, 59% second serve
2019: 81% first serve, 57% second serve
2021: 88% first serve, 61% second serve
2022: 82% first serve, 60% second serve
2023: 86% first serve, 62% second serve

Only in 2021 was Djokovic’s service game as effective as it’s been in 2023. But opponents’ serves have never been more effective.

Djokovic’s percentage of return points won, first four rounds:
2018: 38% first serve, 62% second serve
2019: 37% first serve, 56% second serve
2021: 35% first serve, 54% second serve
2022: 34% first serve, 62% second serve
2023: 25% first serve, 52% second serve

Granted, he just played Hubert Hurkacz, one of the biggest servers in the game. But Hurkacz won only 68% of his first-serve points when the two played at Wimbledon in 2019, yet he won 81% of first serves on Sunday and Monday. And even if you take out the Hurkacz match, Djokovic is still winning only 28% of first-serve return points, far lower than in other years. To make matters worse, he’s also winning only 33% of his break-point opportunities. It was 42% over the first four years of this winning streak.

Ineffectiveness in the return department has meant long sets: Five of Djokovic’s first 11 sets in this tournament went to tiebreakers. Granted, he won all five because that’s what he does — he’s 31-4 in tiebreakers this year — and his aura of invincibility continues to kick in at just the right time. He won the last five points of an 8-6 tiebreaker in the first set against Hurkacz, then won five of the last six in another 8-6 win in the second. But if you’re leaning on clutch play and tiebreakers instead of outright domination, it takes only a couple of glitches to end a winning streak. Even if you’re Novak Djokovic.

The Big Three looking the part

Despite a couple of significant 2022 retirements — Ashleigh Barty after the Australian Open, Serena Williams after the US Open — the women’s field has not lacked for star power, and three players in particular have seized control of the sport.

Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina have combined to win the past five Slams: Rybakina won Wimbledon last summer, Swiatek has won the last two French Opens and beat Sabalenka on her way to the US Open title last fall, and Sabalenka beat Rybakina in the 2023 Australian Open final. And they went a combined 12-0 over the first week at Wimbledon. Swiatek advanced to her first Wimbledon quarterfinal Sunday, but barely: She faced two match points before taking down Belinda Bencic 6-7, 7-6, 6-3.

Plenty of others are capable of making title runs. Ons Jabeur has reached two Slam finals in this span and might have played her best match of 2023 in a fourth-round demolition of two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. Jessica Pegula has been in the top five for nearly a year and is a constant quarterfinal presence. And goodness, is it hard to pick against Svitolina with the gutsy play she has shown over the past two Slams since her return from maternity leave. Still, any title discussion begins with The Big Three, and they’ve dropped just three sets in their first 12 combined matches.

Who has looked the best of the three so far? To the stats!

Percentage of points won: Rybakina 60%, Swiatek 58%, Sabalenka 57%
Percentage of service points won: Rybakina 73%, Swiatek 67%, Sabalenka 66%
Percentage of return points won: Swiatek 49%, Sabalenka 49%, Rybakina 47%
Average opponent rank: Swiatek 40.3 (four matches), Sabalenka 46.3, Rybakina 56.3

Swiatek has faced the toughest opponents thus far: first-round opponent Lin Zhu was the highest-ranked unseeded player, and she faced two seeds in No. 30 Petra Martic and No. 14 Bencic. Her return game dominated early in the week (she won 57% of return points in the first three rounds), and while Bencic neutralized her in that regard, Swiatek’s serve was good enough to carry her through, especially in tight moments late in the second set. She’ll face an increasingly offense-minded Svitolina for a spot in the semis.

Rybakina entered the tournament still trying to shake the effects of a virus that forced her to withdraw from the French Open. She dropped her first set of the tournament, against Shelby Rogers, but she has won 63% of her points (and a whopping 75% on her serve) since. She’s the hardest player to break serve against, but her return game has been the least effective so far, too. And while her draw has been the easiest through four rounds — especially with Beatriz Haddad Maia having to retire due to injury in the first set of their fourth-round battle — she’s got the hardest quarterfinal matchup by far, against Jabeur.

The most surprising of the numbers above: Sabalenka is winning the fewest points on her serve. Entering the tournament, only Caroline Garcia had held serve in a higher percentage of games in 2023. But Sabalenka came out terribly flat in her second-round match against Varvara Gracheva, dropping a 6-2 first set before finally gaining control. And while she handled Anna Blinkova 6-2, 6-3 in the third round, she was broken twice along the way. She took a nice step forward against Ekaterina Alexandrova in the fourth round (72% of service points won), and she’ll be an obvious favorite over Madison Keys in the quarterfinals. But she might not be able to beat Rybakina or Swiatek without a great serving performance.

A very tall Cinderella story

Eventually the story of a tournament is written by the champion. With rare exceptions — say, an aging Jimmy Connors’ semifinal run at the 1991 US Open — we remember the champions above all else. But any tournament is more fun if you take in the entire journey, not just the destination. And Christopher Eubanks’ journey has been the major Wimbledon story thus far.

The 27-year-old former Georgia Tech player had never finished a year ranked higher than 123rd and had tried his hand at television commentary, perhaps with a glance toward a post-retirement TV career. But that will have to wait. He jumped into the top 100 following a quarterfinal run in Miami, then moved into the top 50 after winning his first ATP title in Mallorca, Spain, right before Wimbledon.

Eubanks is 6-foot-7 with a huge serve, and it’s translating well on grass. He’s into his first career Slam quarterfinal after upsets of No. 12 Cameron Norrie in the second round and No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas on Monday. He will face another lanky power hitter, Medvedev — who ended his Miami run in straight sets — in the quarters.

Eubanks isn’t the only player treading new ground. Five other players reached a Slam fourth round for the first time, and four of them, like Eubanks, were well into their respective careers when they got there.

Ekaterina Alexandrova (28 years old): She has ranked as high as 16th in the world and has reached the third round of a Slam six times without ever getting past it. Like Eubanks, she has found a new gear on grass. She won in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, last month and entered Wimbledon having won 16 of her past 18 on grass. She reached the fourth round before falling to Sabalenka.

Alexander Bublik (26): He had played in 18 Slams and reached the third round in three. He won in Halle to jump to a career-high 26th in the ATP rankings, cracked the Wimbledon round of 16, and gave Rublev everything he could handle in a five-set loss.

Daniel Elahi Galan (27): He had played in eight Slams and upset Tsitsipas at last year’s US Open, and he rode a first-round upset of Yoshihito Nishioka to a fourth-round appearance (and a loss to Sinner).

Roman Safiullin (25): Like 2021 Australian Open semifinalist Aslan Karatsev, Safiullin is a former junior champion who has taken a while to find himself at the ATP level. He had lost four of six career Slam matches before Wimbledon, but he upset No. 20 Roberto Bautista Agut in a first-round five-setter, and he not only reached his first Slam fourth round, he has already advanced to the quarters after beating a hobbled Denis Shapovalov in four sets. (Next opponent: Sinner.)

Mirra Andreeva (16): Andreeva lost to Keys on Monday, watching a big lead disappear and suffering a couple of temper-related conduct violations along the way. But even with the loss she is 27-4 on tour over the past three months, 27-2 against players outside the WTA top 10.

Before failing to hold on to a 6-3, 4-1 lead against Keys and losing, she had dominated No. 10 Barbora Krejcikova for a set and a half before Krejcikova retired due to injury, and she beat No. 22 Anastasia Potapova 6-2, 7-5 in Sunday’s third-round matchup; it was her third straight-sets win over a top-30 player in the past three months. (The total would be four if you include Krejcikova.)

Andreeva has made it to the third and fourth rounds of her first two career Slams. She had to work her way through qualification at both tournaments. She might not have to ever do that again. She’s a star in the making.

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