Log the date and remember the name of Sergiy Stakhovsky. Shocks in tennis do not come any more earth-shattering than this.
Somehow the impossible came true and Roger Federer’s Centre Court house came tumbling down.Not since he won the first of his seven Wimbledon titles in 2003 had the Swiss lost in the first week of Wimbledon. Heck, he hadn’t even lost before the quarter-finals. He did so last night and the manner of it was a Wimbledon throwback to the lost age of serve and volley.
Stakhovsky didn’t just rewrite the history books, he ripped up the modern manual of how to play grass-court tennis. Demonically charging to the net at every opportunity, the world No 116 punched away volleys for three hours, even when Federer flayed shots in anger straight at him.At 4-3 ahead in the decisive fourth set, the Ukrainian displayed stunning reactions to duck out of the way of a backhand which carried a message of spite. The ball flew long, but Federer’s steamy glare across the net lingered.
The 17-times Grand Slam champion rarely demonstrates such antipathy. For once, he wasn’t in charge on the court which is so often his serene domain. Disbelief enveloped the old arena, sweeping away even former champions John McEnroe and Boris Becker in the BBC commentary box.‘You won’t believe what I just witnessed’ said McEnroe. ‘I’ve got goosebumps, I know Boris does, because that was just old school. You hear people say you can’t do this any more, you can’t serve and volley, the courts are too slow.’
Stakhovsky was cheered on to the triumph that will define his journeyman career by Anfisa, his wife of 21 months.For much of his married life, he has changed tennis from the inside of an ATP Player Council meeting room. The most dramatic change they have influenced during that time has been the increase in prizemoney at Grand Slams for first- and second-round losers. That was supposed to help players like the 27-year-old himself.
The deepest irony is that it is Federer who will be the beneficiary, even if the £38,000 cheque is no more than loose change to him.‘I’m in the Council because I think I can change things,’ said Stakhovsky. ‘On the court, I’m outside the top 100 because there are 100 guys better than me. That’s it.‘The revival of serve and volley is not up to me. It’s about the tournaments and the surface. There is hardly a surface left on which you can serve and volley successfully.’On court, Stakhovsky created a stir at the recent French Open. Having had a point awarded against him in his first-round loss to Richard Gasquet, he marched to his tennis bag, grabbed his phone and took a photo of the mark left on the red clay. When he later tweeted the photo, he earned himself a fine of 1,500 euros.
Stakhovsky advances to a third-round meeting tomorrow with Jurgen Melzer. The only certainty is that he will not match the magnificence of his performance.It is usually Federer who takes the breath away from the Centre Court crowd, ripping the heart out of his opponents in the process with the majesty of his play. True enough, even while wearing the white-soled tennis shoes by decree of the All England Club after transgressing in the first round, there were moments of brilliance which drew a standing ovation.
Crucially, they did not deflect Stakhovsky from his quest. Even when he conceded a first-set tiebreak, the Ukrainian continued to rush the net at every opportunity. His approach shots were penetratingly deep, his movement sharp and his volleys crisply punched away.In the second-set tiebreak it was Federer who blinked, shanking a forehand so badly that the ball ballooned over the baseline to give Stakhovsky set point. The firmest of volleys converted it.A roar went up but, in truth, the Centre Court crowd believed it was merely a blip on the usual procession. The Swiss would simply raise his level and skate away to victory.
Not so. At 5-5 and after 34 games without a service break, it was Stakhovsky who lifted his play and Federer who wobbled, pushing a forehand inexplicably long. That third set was secured with a superbly angled volley, the fourth set saved with a deliciously controlled volley which plopped on to the Centre Court turf and died.Even in the tiebreak, no one truly believed in the miracle that was unfolding — except Stakhovsky.
That was until, at match point down, Federer pushed a backhand wide, ending an era which will surely never be replicated. Stakhovsky tipped an imaginary hat to the enraptured Centre Court crowd, Federer simply scratched his head. Unsure of the right etiquette, the Swiss departed. Stakhovsky halted his celebrations and joined in the applause, suddenly aware of what he had done.He will almost certainly never win Wimbledon but Stakhovsky, too, will now never be forgotten.