A Grand Slam is not a small stage by any stretch of the imagination. But sometimes when you wander around the outside courts and catch a glimpse of a highly touted youngster trading blows with their opponent while being watched by scattered groups of people only half-interested in the match, you wonder whether a potential superstar of the sport could possibly have humbler beginnings.
The youngster in question on Day 3 of the 2019 Championships was 18-year-old Russian Anastasia Potapova, who was relegated all the way out to Court 16 for her second round match against Petra Martic. You might remember Potapova as the teenage phenom who stunned Angelique Kerber in the Roland Garros first round last month, but that’s not her only claim to fame.
Potapova was one of the most talked about players on the junior circuit, having won the 2016 Wimbledon girls’ title. She also reached the junior World No 1 ranking that year and followed that by making her senior Grand Slam debut in 2017, continuing the recent tradition of talented Russians making a splash at a very early age.
Potapova’s talent is beyond question. You don’t become World No 1 at anything unless you have some special skills that set you apart from the field. But seeing Potapova battle wits with Martic – a Roland Garros quarterfinalist last month herself – on the tiny court at the precipice of the Wimbledon grounds made you marvel at the wildly varying circumstances the pros have to deal with as they climb through the ranks.
While Potapova was playing her match on Court 16, another talented youngster – Felix Auger-Aliassime – was also looking to book a place in the third round. But Auger-Aliassime was in kingly environs by comparison; he was featured on Court 3, where the spectators are asked to maintain pin-drop silence during points and where people aren’t even allowed to move unless there’s a changeover.
What silence or non-movement could Potapova and Martic have hoped for during their points? Forget about the spectators; the umpires themselves were big distractions, as they called out scores and other instructions in the matches held on the adjacent courts. Court 16 is tightly squeezed into the space between Court 15 and Court 17, and if you stand along the length of any court you can watch (and hear) everything from the match on the next court too.
It is to the eternal credit of the players that they manage to maintain their focus and tune out all the distractions while playing on such courts. Potapova on her part seemed to be in her own bubble right from the start; fist-pumping viciously after practically every point she won, the Russian jumped out to a 4-1 lead against a seemingly shaken Martic.
At first glance, Potapova reminds you of Jelena Ostapenko with her crouching groundstrokes and point-ending power. They both bend low while making contact with the ball on every shot (which they punctuate with loud grunts), and that enables them to hit on the rise and generate great pace. They both also move very well for big hitters, across all surfaces.
Potapova needed all of her nimble movement to deal with Martic’s wide array of spins, slices and drop shots, and in the early going she was all over it. Martic just couldn’t find a way through the teenager’s defenses, and couldn’t push back when Potapova went on the offense either. It was one-way traffic until Martic got a foothold by breaking Potapova for 2-4, but with the way the Russian was returning you suspected the set had gone out of her hands by then.
Potapova seemed to hurt her knee midway through the set while tracking down one of Martic’s drop shots, but she quickly shook that off and resumed her full-blown attack. She looked very comfortable on the grass as she wrapped up the set 6-3, and I took that as a cue to amble across to Court 15 – where Leander Paes and Benoit Paire were in the middle of a titanic five-setter against Alexander Bublik and Mikhail Kukushkin.
Potapova ended up losing the second set 6-3, and I imagined that her daredevil shot-making had started getting undone by Martic’s crafty consistency. I didn’t have to imagine for too long; with the match slipping from her grasp Potapova’s grunts got steadily louder until it was impossible to ignore them any further. I ditched the Paes match (something I did grudgingly because I had actually found a seat on that court) and returned to the railing along the length of Court 16, ready to see what hell Potapova was raising in the third set.
It was pretty engrossing hell-raising, that’s for sure. Martic broke early in the third set but was immediately put under a world of pressure, as Potapova furiously tried to claw her way back. She got to break point thrice in the second game of the set, but couldn’t close the deal as her impetuousness got the better of her.
Martic eventually held, and was never threatened on serve after that. On this day, the Croat’s experience was to prove decisive; she got just enough balls back in play, which allowed her opponent to self-combust. Potapova did hit a few more glorious winners here and there, but they weren’t enough – particularly since they were almost invariably alternated with reckless errors.
The teenager can take comfort in the fact that she took it to the bitter end, saving break points on her own serve to ensure the difference was just one break. But considering her track record and the quality of her game, she’ll want more.
While all of this was going on, Auger-Aliassime completed a four-set win over Corentin Moutet to march into the third round, where he could possibly be slotted on Centre Court. You get the feeling Potapova will join him there eventually; she just needs to dial down her aggression long enough for her obvious talent to shine through.
Updated Date: Jul 04, 2019 19:53:35 IST