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First Week Reflections

by Steve Flink

As I write in the press room on the last day of the first week at Wimbledon, it is, of course, raining. It has been one of those weeks when the weather has seldom been far away from the thoughts of the players or the press. What a shame when so many fans dream of watching their favorite players out there in the sunshine, but wake up to the reality of rain falling too often on their parade.

Be that as it may, more tennis was played over the week than I thought was possible. And it was a time for a number of formidable players to step up to the occasion and sparkle, to define themselves as emerging personalities, to remind everyone that the game keeps evolving with every passing day. Let me tell you about a few of the competitors who impressed me.

I had never seen much of Lucie Safarova before this tournament, but I will definitely be watching her more in the future. This 20-year-old from the Czech Republic was No. 25 in the world heading into Wimbledon, but I can't imagine her saying in that territory much longer. She should make it to the top ten within a year. Safarova is a crafty left-hander with a dazzling topspin forehand which she hits exceedingly well on the run. She exploits that shot to the hilt, making it the cornerstone of her game, daring her opponents to find a way to avoid that stellar wing.

In the third round, she took on the most prolific winner on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour this season. Jelena Jankovic had already recorded 50 match victories in 2007 when she walked on court with Safarova, the most match victories any woman had achieved at this point in the season since Chris Evert in 1974. Jankovic has reached the semifinals in two of her previous three Grand Slam events. She has a superb backhand down the line, unerring ball control, and a match playing ability few players can match.

But Safarova was not unduly respectful of Jankovic. She took control of the match from the middle of the opening set until late in the second. No matter how many times Jankovic would open up the court, Safarova would shift gears and take the initiative away from the No. 3 seed. Safarova nearly pulled off the upset of the tournament, winning the first set and taking a 5-4 lead in the second set. Jankovic had to serve to save the match in that tenth game, but she played with the steely resolve of a champion to hold on, and eventually came away with a 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory. In the end, Jankovic had too much savvy to lose, but Safarova won my admiration with her spirited performance. I eagerly await the chance to see her play at the U.S. Open, because she must be watched carefully in New York.

Among the men, the standout performer of the first week was the unwavering Janko Tipsarevic. The Serbian, who gave Andy Roddick a scare in the opening round a year ago, captured three consecutive five set matches to reach the round of 16. The last of those triumphs was against Australian Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez, the No. 5 seed at Wimbledon. It was the best match played this year so far in the tournament, a bruising battle featuring some excellent attacking play and top of the line counter-attacking.

I felt certain Gonzalez would prevail in the end, believing his big match experience would carry him through. But Tipsarevic stood up to Gonzalez convincingly, holding his nerve in the tense portions of a stirring Centre Court clash. Both players also displayed good variety off the ground, rolling short angled forehands crosscourt at unimaginable angles to finish off backcourt exchanges. It was a first class piece of business on both sides of the net.

Tipsarevic rallied gamely to close out the account. He trailed 2-5, 0-30 in the fifth set, surged back to 5-5, but then went down match point when he served at 5-6. Gonzalez then netted a routine sliced backhand to let Tipsarevic off the hook. Tipsarevic closed it out commandingly 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6. Tipsarevic capped a productive week with that win over Gonzalez. He was ranked No. 64 in the world at the start of Wimbledon, but the 23-year-old comported himself like a man of much higher stature during his skirmish with Gonzalez.

A cluster of top flight players distinguished themselves across the first week at the All England Club. Roger Federer refused to concede a set, lifting his Wimbledon winning streak to 31 consecutive matches. Roddick was looking more like his old self on the grass. Justine Henin did not concede a set in her three matches. Maria Sharapova seemed back near the zenith of her game.

And yet, the first half of the fortnight was not really about those big name competitors. They will make their presence known in the latter stages of the tournament. The opening act of this week's play at Wimbledon was clearly stolen by the likes of Safarova and Tipsarevic, who lit up the theater and gave everyone a reason to applaud unabashedly.

They even made us forget about the rain.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com.

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