- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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WIMBLEDON, England -- If there was a question that hung over the first week of the Championships at Wimbledon, it would be: "How exactly did austere Wimbledon turn into a bizarre combination of Wacky Wednesday and March Madness?"
In the era of the Big Three, first-week predictability is the Grand Slam's dominant characteristic. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have won 32 of the past 36 Slams. Federer's quarterfinal streak dates to Wimbledon 2004. Nadal entered the tournament having made the final here every year since 2005, except for 2009, when he was injured. The business end of the tournament isn't supposed to start for another week, thus this was supposed to be the time when fans get a glimpse of their favorites easing into events, sending the patsies home -- until one of them flattened Nadal and another nearly coldcocked Federer, too.
Djokovic or Federer still may win the title, but it was an extraordinary, volatile first week in which upsets reigned, and even a "golden set" -- Yaroslava Shvedova recorded 24 consecutive points in the first set against Sara Errani to win 6-0 -- was achieved for only the second time in the Open era. The sidelines housed the bizarre -- where the usually gentlemanly Nadal showed a rare lack of decorum by chest-bumping his unknown conqueror Lukas Rosol during a changeover -- as did the interview room, where Gilles Simon and his silent majority of ATP players turned Wimbledon into the Battle of the Sexes.
Even Rufus, the hawk used to keep pigeons away from Wimbledon courts, was reported stolen. This, also, is not a misprint.
For the men, the cool, comforting grass courts more resembled a bracket-busted East Regional, filled with booby traps and upset alerts. Seeds No. 2 (and yes, that would be Nadal), No. 6 (2010 finalist Tomas Berdych), No. 8 (Janko Tipsarevic), No. 11 (the spiraling John Isner), No. 12 (Nicolas Almagro), No. 13 (Gilles "The Messenger" Simon), No. 14 (Feliciano Lopez) and No. 15 (Juan Monaco) all went down, while two Men from Nowhere, No. 100 Rosol (doing his best George Mason impersonation blowing Nadal off the court) and American Brian Baker outlasted them all.
Most remarkable was the play of Rosol and Julien Benneteau, the man who pushed Federer to the brink before his body and will gave way. Rosol was Buster Douglas, the 1985 Villanova men's basketball team and George Bastl all rolled together. Rosol had one match of his life in him, and he used it on Centre Court. Watching the match, Federer said he was laughing with disbelief at the shots Rosol was making. And then Benneteau, for two sets, did the same to Federer.
Had eight of the top 15 players in the world sunk in early-round quicksand in the wide-open women's game, it would have been somewhat understandable. And indeed, the Nos. 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13 women (Samantha Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki, Marion Bartoli, Errani, Li Na, Vera Zvonareva and Dominika Cibulkova) all packed for home after the first week, but for the same to happen to the men underscored the oddities of this tournament.
The bloodletting, did, however, create its own rousing drama for the upcoming week, for not only was Nadal beaten, but so, too, was the hard-hitting prodigy Milos Raonic of Canada.
It is Raonic who happens to be the fashionable player these days, soon to crack the top 10 and maybe even challenge the big three. The departures of Raonic and Nadal, however, set the stage for the local hero, Andy Murray, to make his play for his first major. Murray has appeared in three Slam finals, and the narrative may suggest that without Nadal, making the final is Murray's destiny. But a mistake would be to expect Murray to be there next Sunday.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hasn't yet been challenged by a top player, but he is playing inspired, focused tennis and should not be overlooked.
The equal pay controversy offered insight into the divide that exists between the men and women on tour. Although the fans may enjoy coming to Grand Slam events to enjoy both Federer and Serena Williams on the same day, the male players appear increasingly embittered by the International Tennis Federation's decision to equal the prize money at Grand Slam events. From the reaction of the ATP, his fellow players, and to a lesser extent the ITF, it was clear that Simon had not gone rogue but was simply a messenger for an issue that simmers with the men. The fans may benefit, but the male players aren't feeling particularly charitable.
By nightfall Saturday, the universe began to right itself, and the second week, the championship week, began to take shape. Williams, oddly frustrated by the pedestrian service game of Zheng Jie, spent much of the afternoon unable to put a ball in play, yet worked overtime to pull out a three-set win.
Djokovic had lost the first set to Radek Stepanek, which fluttered more than a few hearts, wondering if another upset was near, but he ended speculation by wiping the floor with Stepanek in the next three sets. And Rosol, the man chiefly responsible for shifting the tenor of the entire week, not only went home meekly after beating Nadal by losing in three unremarkable sets to Philipp Kohlschreiber, but risked having his world ranking actually worsen.
As Casey Stengel might have said, "You could look it up."
The hawk thieves, however, are still at large.
Rafa is home, Rufus is missing and Serena is struggling. And that's only a small sample of a bizarre week.