Bill ConnellyESPN staff writer10 minutes of reading
Rain defined Wimbledon’s opening days, but drama has taken over since. We’ve seen tiebreakers with great impact in last-set matches — Elina Svitolina over Victoria Azarenka, Holger Rune over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, Lesia Tsurenko over Ana Bogdan. We have seen top seed Iga Swiatek face a double match point and win. And we’ve seen 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva reach the fourth round, while a pair of mid-20s journeymen (Christopher Eubanks, Roman Safiullin) reach the quarterfinals. We’ve even seen a number of curfew breaks — at 11 p.m.? Really, London?
Most of the top seeds have advanced. Six of the top eight men have reached the quarter-finals, as have five of the top six women. There will be plenty of potential matchups in the coming rounds, starting with a rematch of the 2022 women’s final (champion Elena Rybakina vs. runner-up Ons Jabeur) and a battle between 20-year-olds — Carlos Alcaraz vs. Rune – in the quarter-finals.
The drama begins first. Even if Novak Djokovic still ends up winning the last match of the tournament as usual.
Let’s talk about the major storylines as we head into Week 2.
Djokovic vs. Djokovic
To their credit, most of the Wimbledon men’s title hopefuls other than Djokovic have played well so 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, according to Tennis Abstract — have mostly looked strong, and all advance to the quarter-finals. So has Rune, seed no. 6.
Of course, the men’s game has a general star-power problem at the moment with Roger Federer’s retirement, Rafael Nadal’s sustained injuries and Andy Murray’s own lengthy comeback attempt. But credit to most of the top players for bringing their respective A games to the All England Club. It doesn’t always happen. We’ll see if Djokovic allows one of them – starting with Rublev on Tuesday – to take three sets from him. Almost that never happens.
How has Djokovic played so far? Since he has won 32 matches in a row at Wimbledon, we don’t really have anyone to compare him to other than himself. And through four rounds he doesn’t quite manage the bar he typically sets.
Djokovic’s percentage of points won, first four rounds at Wimbledon:
He typically wins 58.5% of his points at this point; he is 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 only played against one opponent ranked higher than 68th in the ATP rankings so far.
This regression has come despite his serve being as efficient 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 has been in 2023. But of the opponents servers have never been more efficient.
Djokovic’s return point winning percentage, 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 just 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 exclude the Hurkacz match, Djokovic still only wins 28% of first return points, far lower than in other years. To make matters worse, he’s also only winning 33% of his break point opportunities. That was 42% over the first four years of this streak.
Inefficiency in the return department has meant long sets: Five of Djokovic’s first 11 sets in this tournament went to tiebreaks. Granted, he won all five because that’s what he does — he’s 31-4 in tiebreaks 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 victory in the second. But if you lean on clutch plays and tiebreakers instead of outright dominance, it only takes a few mistakes to end a streak. Even if you are Novak Djokovic.
The big three see the role
Despite a pair of notable retirements in 2022 – Ashleigh Barty after the Australian Open, Serena Williams after the US Open – the women’s field has not been short of star power, with three players in particular taking control of the sport.
Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina have combined to win the last five Slams: Rybakina won Wimbledon last summer, Swiatek has won the last two French Opens and beat Sabalenka en route to the US Open title last fall, and Sabalenka beat Rybakina in the final of Australian Open in 2023. And they went 12-0 overall during the first week at Wimbledon. Swiatek advanced to her first Wimbledon quarter-final on Sunday, but just barely: She faced two match points before beating 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 that time and could have played her best match of 2023 in a demolition of two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the fourth round. Jessica Pegula has been in the top five for almost a year and is a constant presence in the quarterfinals. And god, it’s hard to pick against Svitolina with the gutsy play she’s shown over the past two Slams since returning 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 statistics!
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 Rating: Swiatek 40.3 (four games), Sabalenka 46.3, Rybakina 56.3
Swiatek has faced the toughest opponents to date: 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 will face an increasingly offensive Svitolina for a place in the semi-finals.
Rybakina entered the tournament still trying to shake off 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 has won 63% of her points (and a whopping 75% on her serve) since. She is the most difficult player to break serve against, but her return game has also been the least effective so far. And while her draw has been the easiest through four rounds – especially when Beatriz Haddad Maia had to withdraw due to injury in the first set of their fourth-round match – she has by far the toughest quarter-final match against Jabeur.
The most surprising of the numbers above: Sabalenka wins the fewest points on her serve. Coming into the tournament, only Caroline Garcia had held serve in a higher percentage of matches in 2023. But Sabalenka came up horribly flat in her second-round match against Varvara Gracheva, losing a 6-2 first set, before she finally got 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 will be a clear favorite over Madison Keys in the quarter-finals. But she may not be able to beat Rybakina or Swiatek without a big serving performance.
A very tall Cinderella story
In the end, the story of a tournament is written by the champion. With rare exceptions – e.g. an aging Jimmy Connor’s semi-final run at the 1991 US Open – we remember the champions above all else. But any tournament is more fun if you take the whole journey with you, not just the destination. And Christopher Eubanks’ journey has been the biggest Wimbledon story so 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 an eye toward a post-retirement television career. But that will have to wait. He jumped into the top 100 after a quarter-final run in Miami, then moved into the top 50 after winning his first ATP title in Mallorca, Spain, just before Wimbledon.
Eubanks is 6-foot-7 with a huge serve, and it translates well on grass. He is making his first career Slam quarter-final after facing 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 breaking 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 last 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 all 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, riding Yoshihito Nishioka in the first round to a fourth-round appearance (and a loss to Sinner).
Roman Safiullin (25): Like 2021 Australian Open semi-finalist 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 five-setter in the first round and not only reached his first Slam fourth round, he has already advanced to the quarters after beating a limping Denis Shapovalov in four sets. (Next opponent: Sinner.)
Mirra Andreeva (16): Andreeva lost to Keys on Monday, seeing a big lead slip away 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 withdrew 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 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 ever have to do that again. She is a star in the making.