LONDON — As tumultuous a day as professional tennis has produced in its nearly half-century history ended in the most unforeseeable, unexplainable way of all: A second-round loss by Roger Federer at the All England Club.
The seven-time Wimbledon champion and 17-time Grand Slam champ shuffled off Centre Court with dusk approaching on the fortnight’s first Wednesday, his head bowed, his streak of reaching at least the quarterfinals at a record 36 consecutive major tournaments snapped by a man ranked 116th.
His remarkable 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) defeat against Sergiy Stakhovsky at the All England Club marked Federer’s earliest Grand Slam exit in a decade. He lost in the first round of the French Open on May 26, 2003, back before he owned a single trophy from any of the sport’s most important sites.
“This is a setback, a disappointment, whatever you want to call it,” said Federer, the defending champion. “Got to get over this one. Some haven’t hurt this much, that’s for sure.”
He had plenty of company on a wild, wild Wednesday brimming with surprising results, a slew of injuries — and all manner of sliding and tumbling on the revered grass courts, prompting questions about whether something made them more slippery.
Seven players left because of withdrawals or mid-match retirements, believed to be the most in a single day at a Grand Slam tournament in the 45-year Open era. Among that group: second-seeded Victoria Azarenka; sixth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; 18th-seeded John Isner, who will forever be remembered for winning a 70-68 fifth set in the longest match ever; and Steve Darcis, the man who stunned 12-time major champion Rafael Nadal on Monday.
“Very black day,” summed up 10th-seeded Marin Cilic, who said a bad left knee forced him to pull out of his match.
Federer was one of seven players who have been ranked No. 1 to depart the tournament in a span of about 8½ hours. The others: Maria Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon champion, who lost 6-3, 6-4 to 131st-ranked Michelle Larcher de Brito of Portugal; Caroline Wozniacki; Ana Ivanovic; Jelena Jankovic; Azarenka; and Lleyton Hewitt, who won Wimbledon in 2002.
All told, five players who have combined to win 26 Grand Slam titles headed home, along with another three who have been the runner-up at a major tournament.
“Today has been bizarre,” said 17th-seeded Sloane Stephens of the U.S., who stuck around by winning her match 8-6 in the third set. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Look at it this way: Three days into the two-week tournament — merely halfway through the second round — a total of five of the 10 highest-seeded women are gone, as are four of the top 10 men.
The beneficiaries might very well be folks such as defending champion Serena Williams, who most figured might only be challenged in a potential final against Sharapova or Azarenka, and Andy Murray, whose path to Britain’s first men’s title in 77 years no longer can be blocked by Federer, Nadal or Tsonga.
How, then, to decipher it all?
Let fly with far-flung conspiracy theories.
One hypothesis making the rounds: The grass is different because there is a new head groundsman at the All England Club, Neil Stubley (keep in mind, though, that he’s been helping prepare the courts here since 1995, albeit with a less distinguished title).
Another popular idea was that the recent weather — it’s been in the 60s and humid, but without a drop of rain so far — is affecting traction.
“I don’t know if it’s the court or the weather. I can’t figure it out,” said two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka, who said she bruised a bone in her right leg when she slipped on the turf in her victory Monday and couldn’t face Flavia Pennetta on Wednesday. “It would be great if the club or somebody who takes care of the court just would examine or try to find an issue so that wouldn’t happen.”
Tsonga, a finalist at the 2008 Australian Open and semifinalist the past two years at Wimbledon, fell Wednesday and had his leg treated by a trainer, then quit while trailing two sets to one against Ernests Gulbis of Latvia.
Sharapova managed to finish her match, at least, despite losing her footing a few times, but told the chair umpire the conditions were dangerous.
“After I buckled my knee three times, that’s obviously my first reaction. And because I’ve just never fallen that many times in a match before,” said the four-time major champion, noting that she thought she might have strained a muscle in her left hip.
“I just noticed a few more players falling a bit more than usual,” Sharapova added.