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The Championships… “Gobsmacking”

By Mark Winters

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The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), hosted the 136th version of The Championships, July 3rd through 16th.

The oldest of the majors, the venerated grass court tennis event consistently showcases…Astounding, Amazing, Unanticipated performances during the fortnight.

The Rose Pavilion in the Wimbledon grounds. Photo: Simone Kemler

Looking for a more appropriate descriptive word for the surprises that took place, none is better than the British expression “Gobsmacking” because that was the impression left by the play of Christopher Eubanks, Elina Svitolina and Markéta Vondroušová, along with Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strýcová.

The American, Ukrainian and Czech Republic trio, along with the Taiwan-Czech Republic duo, earned the descriptive praise.

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Because of the magnitude of each Slam there are always players who surpass their pre-tournament form. In some cases, it is a matter of “finding one’s game”. With others, it is “awakening…” to the understanding that they “belong…”

ALWAYS LIKE NEVER BEFORE – this year’s slogan. Photo: Simone Kemler

Eubanks, the 27-year-old who was “0” for four in previous tournament qualifying attempts, was a direct entry this go ’round.

Having grown up in Atlanta, Georgia, his father, Mark was his first coach. A Baptist minister, who loved God and tennis, he gave his son sound stroke fundamentals. Using this foundation, he took advantage of the programs organized at the South Fulton Tennis Centre by Donald Young Sr.

His son, Donald Young Jr. was an extraordinary junior finishing 2005 as the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Boys’ No. 1 – the first African American and at 16 years, five months the youngest player to ever do so. This was after winning the Australian Open Junior Boys’ Singles at 15 … another “youngest” success. 

Charlie Eccleshare’s must-read July 11th feature in The Athletic, “The Christopher Eubanks story – and why Wimbledon has ‘fallen in love”” provides details about Young Jr. being a mentor and having Eubanks travel with him to tour stops at Madrid, Rome, Paris, London, and New York.

On these adventures, Eubanks’ “Everyone’s a friend” approach to life brightened the setting and indicates why he has become one of the game’s most popular players. As Young Jr. told Eccleshare, “…We call him ‘the Mayor’ because he’s the best talker … A likeable guy.”

In his “Thanks to Chris Eubanks, tennis dreamers could imagine the feeling of making a Wimbledon run” July 12th tennis.com story Steve Tignor brought out that joy was the “on-court vibe” at each of Eubanks’ performances… “He made the audience part of his team.”

Christopher Eubanks urging himself on. Photo: Wimbledon

The sinewy 6’7” former Georgia Tech University performer was Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year in 2016 and ’17. He also earned the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Arthur Ashe Jr. Leadership and Sportsmanship Award in his final season. (He joined the pro ranks October 27, 2017, foregoing his final year of eligibility.)

His progress was “slogging” at best, which caused him to “doubt” whether he could make it on the tour. In fact, he gave himself another year to earn a place in the Top 100, telling his agent, “…It’s not that glamorous if you’re ranked around 200.”

Having studied business at Georgia Tech, he began looking for an alternative to playing.

In April 2022, Tennis Channel came through hiring him to be a commentator. Forever candid, he has expressed thanks for the guidance Young offered, and also discussed how the time spent working in television enabled him to better understand the complexity of match playing.

Tennis’ “Everyman” is so open that Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka, and Kim Clijsters are his texting “pals”. Interestingly, prior to the Mallorca Open in late June, he told Clijsters that grass was, “the stupidest surface…” A comment he later regretted after defeating Adrian Mannarino of France, 6-1, 6-4 in the final for his first ATP title.

An exchange between Kim Clijsters and Christopher Eubanks.
Source: Twitter

Ranked No. 43 at the start of The Championships, he put on a spellbinding show… sweeping aside Cameron Norrie, the No. 12 seed of Great Britain in the second round and Stefanos Tsitsipas the No. 5 seed of Greece, in a tantalizing five sets in the fourth round. Daniil Medvedev, the No. 3 seed, ended his enthralling escapade in a captivating 6-4, 1-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-1 quarterfinal contest.

There is no record if it was the “tallest” Grand Slam quarterfinal in history but with both players listed as being 6’7”, it was imposing.

Following the match Medvedev offered, “Happy that I managed to put myself back together. There was a moment in the match I started just losing kind of everything – the focus, the momentum of the match…”

Eubanks stressed how it was “cool” to play a Grand Slam quarterfinal… and was comfortable that he played his game though a bushel of unforced errors effected the outcome.

He added, “It was definitely a fun match to be a part of. I think the fans definitely got their money’s worth of entertainment and good quality tennis. Just got edged out. Daniil is one of the best players in the world, one of the toughest players to beat for a reason. I think he showcased that well. He played exceptionally well in a clutch, fourth-set breaker.”

Christopher Eubanks playing Cameron Norrie. Source: Georgia Tech

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The “Life And Times” of Elina Svitolina has been well documented beginning shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She revealed then that she and her husband, French tennis player Gaël Monfils, were going to have a child. Svitolina also said that during her competitive respite via maternity leave she would focus on her foundation’s war relief fundraising effort.

Their daughter Skaï Monfils was born October 16, 2022. In January, Svitolina began hitting with Monfils to prepare for competitive tennis again. She made her official return to the tour at the Charleston Open in April and would win only one match in her first four tournaments back.

A semifinalist in 2019 at The Championships, Svitolina needed a wild card to merit a place in the singles draw.

She took full advantage of the opportunity, defeating four Grand Slam singles winners – Venus Williams in the first round, Sofia Kenin, another US opponent, in the third round, followed by Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, whom she’d never beaten in their five meetings, then No. 1 seed Iga Świątek of Poland in the quarterfinals. 

Elina Svitolina loving her winner. Photo: WTA

At Roland Garros, she had discussed the scope of “New Mother” responsibilities, stating that her daughter was her foremost concern along with providing, through her tennis, some joy for the Ukrainian people.

Svitolina also noted, “…I have a voice and I have my position in this war…Ukrainians are all united…and this is our position.”

In the interview, after asking, “What do you think those fighting would think if I acted like nothing was happening…?”, she was even more forthcoming saying, “Silence is betrayal…”

“Not shaking hands…” after Ukrainians played Russians or Belarusians overwhelmed tennis story “click topics” throughout the spring. Using her thoughtful candor, Svitolina put the situation in understandable…but overlooked perspective.

She pointed out that the practice began when Ukrainian government officials met with the Russians four days after the February 24, 2022, invasion. At the conclusion of the talks, there were no handshakes…and the practice has become de rigueur in tennis as the year went on.

Matthew Futterman in his July 11th New York Times story “The Force Is With Elina Svitolina Once More,” brought out that she said the war made her mentally stronger leading her to look at things differently. After defeating Świątek, she admitted, “I’m just more calmer…” This after telling the Centre Court crowd in a post-match interview, “I don’t know what is happening right now…”

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Markéta Vondroušová, who is also known as Šimková since marrying tennis playing countryman Stepan Simek on July 16, 2022, should have had “What a Diff’rence a Year Makes!” (a modification of the hit song and album title “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes!” by Dinah Washington) as her tournament theme song.

In 2022, Vondroušová was in London…not for The Championships, but with her left wrist in a cast following a second surgery. She was sightseeing with her younger sister Julia and supporting her best friend Mirjam Björklund of Sweden who was playing The Championships Ladies’ Qualifying for the first time and earned a spot in the main draw.

The 2015 ITF Girls’ No. 1, Vondroušová had her first wrist surgery after being a 2019 Roland Garros finalist to Australian Ashleigh Barty. The next operation took place after losing 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 to Ons Jabeur in the first round of the 2022 Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart.

Before The Championships, ranked No. 42, she admitted telling her team, she would “… ‘Try to win couple of matches’” … She did so securing straight victories in her first three matches.

Countrywoman Marie Bouzkova, the No. 20 seed, provided a 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 fourth round test. In the quarterfinals, Jessica Pegula, the No. 4 seed from the US, was a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 challenge that was overcome.

Markéta Vondroušová winning over Ons Jabeur. Photo: Wimbledon

The result set up the “Hoped For Contest…” between Vondroušová and Svitolina. They first met in the 2018 Qatar Total Open and the Ukrainian was 6-2, 6-4 better in the second round. At the 2019 BNP Paribas Open the result was the same, except Svitolina took three sets to achieve a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 decision in the quarterfinals.

Vondroušová was “back at ’yah’” two years later scoring a 6-3, 6-1 semifinal victory at the Tokyo Olympics and followed up with a 6-3, 6-0 quarterfinal victory at the rescheduled for September Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome.

(Olympic Tennis conclusion…Vondroušová finished with a Silver Medal after dropping a 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 Gold Medal decider to Belinda Bencic of Switzerland. Svitolina recovered from being down 1-4 in the final set to win the Bronze Medal defeating Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4).

This Wimbledon semifinal would showcase Vondroušová’s line catching left-handed twisting serve, her variety of unconventional strokes and reliable point concluding dropshot. Svitolina, on the other hand, would put her faith in strokes so effortlessly produced that they belied power that consistently put opponents at a disadvantage, as well as a savvy mix of shot combinations. 

It was clear that Svitolina came out feeling flat for the semifinal, as the 6-3, 6-3 score in Vondroušová’s favor indicated.

Following the defeat, she thanked the crowd for its support, then in a fashion that has come to define her spoke about Great Britain taking in Ukrainian refugees, saying, “They (the British) support us quite a lot in different kind of ways…Really thankful for all the people (who) support us in different levels.”

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Vondroušová and Jabeur, the Ladies’ finalists, shared a total of three Grand Slam title round defeats. Once the contest began…nerves were apparent as the quality of play didn’t come close to matching the resilience each had evidenced earlier in the tournament.

Even though the Centre Court roof was closed for the first time ever because of the wind, errors were strewn across the match scorecard. In the end, Jabeur, the creative shot-maker who was up 4-2 in the first set and 3-1 in the second, sprayed 31 errant shots around the enclosure…resulting in a 6-4, 6-4 loss.

Ons Jabeur embraces Markéta Vondroušová after the trophy presention.
Photo: Wimbledon

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Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strýcová are twins of a sort… Separated by a mere two inches in height, Hsieh is 5’7” and Strýcová tops the tape measure at 5’5”, both are 37 and were making tour comebacks after extended absences.

Contrary to rumors that she was pregnant, the Taiwanese performer, known for her magical hands and baffling ball placement, took an 18-month leave to recover from injuries that had plagued her since 2019.

She talked about spending the time taking care of her flowers at the Paris home she shares with Frederic Aniere, her coach who is also an IT specialist. Thanks to purchasing a “big” television, the couple remained up to date on women’s play.

Strycova, the gifted Plzeň native, was last seen at the 2021 Australian Open. That October, she and Petr Matejcek, Editor-in-Chief of Esquire Czech Republic, announced the arrival of son Vincent.

During their semi-retirements, Hsieh and Strýcová “texted in touch…” In May when she announced that 2023 would be her final year of competition, Hsieh was eager to be part of the “Strýcová Farewell Tour.”

Hsieh Su-wei
Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strýcová after winning the doubles championship.
Photo: Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

They decided to make their return at the Mutua Madrid Open in late April. The 2019 champions, who were unranked due to their absence from the tour, lost in the quarterfinals.

The Internazionali BNL d’Italia was their next showing, followed by the Rothesay Classic in Birmingham and the Rothesay International in Eastbourne.

Their best result was reaching the quarterfinals at Birmingham… Even though young Vincent, according to their online posts, was serving as “coach”, this wasn’t the best preparation for The Championships…

The goal in London had been to realize the success they enjoyed as the 2019 Ladies’ winners.

Other than a third round 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 tussle with Yang Zhaoxuan and Ekaterina Alexandrova, they played to past form. In the trophy round, they defeated Storm Hunter of Australia and Elise Mertens of Belgium, the No. 3 seeds, 7-5, 6-4.

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Eubanks, basically a tour “Unknown”, charmed spectators and the media with his “This is so weird…” openness. In an interview, he brought out that the opportunity to rely on insight provided by both Gauff and Osaka made him realize, “…I belong at this level…When I’m around them, to hear them talk about their belief, it’s infectious. It does rub off on you.”

Of his nice-guy reputation, Eubanks confessed to Eccleshare that, “…I want to win, but I have to have joy, I have to have fun. I have to joke around in the locker room. I have to do that in order to keep my mind at peace because if I’m like, ‘I got to win, I got to win’, then I don’t play well. I had that for two weeks before Indian Wells (earlier this year when he was desperately pushing for a place in the world’s top 100) when I was in Acapulco and Monterrey. I was just so focused on winning; I ended up playing terribly.

“Joking around in the locker room and kind of just laughing and being myself helps me play my best tennis. So, it’s not a concerted effort to be everybody’s friend. I’m just trying to be myself.”

Christopher Eubanks departs after his quarterfinal. Photo: Simone Kemler

Beside becoming a member of the Last 8 Club, (a privilege granted to all Slam singles quarterfinalists and doubles semifinalists), the match with Medvedev ended with Eubanks having hit 74 winners which gave him a total of 331 for The Championships breaking Andre Agassi’s record on 321 set in 1992. He also topped this year’s ace count with 85.

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Svitolina told Associated Press (AP), “Of course, I want to win. I have this motivation, like huge motivation, to come back to the top. But I think having a child – and (the) war – made me a different person. I look at the things a bit differently.”

The juggling act she performed during her stay at SW19 was remarkable. AP noted that she FaceTimed with her daughter at home in Monte Carlo, where Monfils and both grandmothers were taking care of Skaï, admitting, “She was really distracted with her ice cream, so I was not the priority there. She is still at this age when she doesn’t care if I win (or) if I lose.”

Svitolina admitted that the messages from Ukrainians had been overwhelming, “This really makes my heart melt, seeing this. Just happy I could bring a little happiness to the people of Ukraine.”

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Vondroušová had a 1-4 singles record coming into play at The Championships… She became the first unseeded player to win the Ladies’ Singles, and the first unseeded player since Billie Jean Moffitt, (not King as so many publications have claimed) in 1963 to reach the final where she lost to Margaret Smith of Australia.

Markéta Vondroušová holds the Venus Rosewater Dish. Photo: Wimbledon

As she made her way through the draw (no pun intended), her tattoos earned almost as much attention as her play. We learnt that she had the first one done for her 16th birthday; she is not exactly sure how many she has; and they are all meaningful. (There was no inquiry if her favorite artist was a line drawing icon such as Picasso…) She expressed an appreciation for the work done by three or four women in Prague… and brought up that she had an agreement with her coach Jan Hernych, a former Czech player on the ATP Tour, that if she won, they would both get tattoos.

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Fan favorites are always subjective, but Jabeur, due to her infectious enthusiasm that has resulted in “Minister of Happiness” status in Tunisia, is a contender for the top spot on many lists. The first Arab woman to be a Grand Slam finalist, words do not put her performance and the defeat into perspective. After the final she said, “This is the most painful loss of my career… I am not going to give up, and I am going to come back stronger…It just wasn’t meant to be…” 

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Hsieh and Strýcová, the “twins”, have both earned 32 doubles titles in their careers. As mentioned, this was their second AELTC trophy. But there was more to Hsieh’s numbers. It was her sixth major title – a feat achieved with three different partners. 

She won 2013 and ’14 Roland Garros with Peng Shuai of China…and this year with Wang Xinyu, who is also from China. In 2021, she and Mertens were victorious at SW19. An extraordinary record for a competitor who has been called a “doubles specialist” and doesn’t bludgeon shots.

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In the end Christopher Eubanks, Elina Svitolina and Markéta Vondroušová, as well as Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strýcová, were “Gobsmacking” and so was The Championships.

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