On the opening days of the 2016 Championships, it is impossible not to wonder what early round upsets at Wimbledon might occur this week. Could a British wildcard beat Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray? Could Serena Williams lose to a Swiss qualifier? Or could Roger Federer fall victim to an abnormally rusty pre-Wimbledon grass court campaign? There have been many enthralling early round surprises during my years of watching Wimbledon since 1986. This week I am going to reflect on the shocking Wimbledon upsets in recent history.
This matchup was always going to have some drama or at the very least intrigue. There was the intense competitive nature of Jelena Dokic, who had been touted as a rising star in Australia since a young age. There was the circus nature of her father Damir, who had already gained a reputation for strange antics (such as aggressive complaints of tournament’s price of fish) and would sadly go on to reveal a far more violent side. There was Martina’s return to the court, for the first time since her 3rd set French Open final meltdown to Steffi Graf two weeks prior. There was the noticeable absence of Martina’s mother and coach, who was always by her side but who had been shooed away in what appeared to be a young lady’s attempt at independence. Finally, there was the sheer magnitude of the number one player in the world being comprehensively wiped out by a 129th ranked qualifier in the first round. I remember specifically the glee on my mother’s face (and I suspect every mother’s face in the world) watching Martina struggle after kicking her Mum off the court. Add up all those factors that match has to top my list.
I know what some people will say: “you can not put this upset so high because Sampras was over the hill by 2002.” Well maybe there is some bias from me there. I spent my whole impressionable childhood watching Pete dominate Wimbledon year after year. Sure he had lost in the round of 16 in 2001 the year before, but that was to Roger Federer, and everyone knew he was something special. Yes Pete was having an awful year, but this was Wimbledon. This was possibly his last shot at a big run. There was no way he was going out early and there sure as heck was no way he was going out in the 2nd round to a lucky loser ranked 145th in the world. What was so remarkable about this upset was that there was no apparent explanation. Bastl did not have a big game. Unlike some other players who have caused shock upsets, he had no obvious troubling characteristics. He was not an unknown player who would continue on to a hugely successful career. Instead, he was mostly a challenger level player, who would never make the top 70 his whole career and yet somehow he beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon! Many wrote Sampras off after that match. If he could lose to Bastl at Wimbledon, then what was the point of him playing the hard court season? Thankfully for us all, Pete rebounded 2 months later for one of the most incredible US Open runs we have ever seen.
I was too young to remember watching this match live, however Wimbledon archive footage and a partial obsession with Boris Becker’s Wimbledon career, results in a high placing on this list. In the mid to late 1980s Boris Becker dominated Wimbledon. From 1985-1991 Boris won three titles and featured in the final every year, except 1987! Peter Doohan finished his career with a 51-83 record and could only kindly be called a journeyman. He had been easily dismissed by Boris the previous week at Queens, and at a ranking of 70 was expected to be cannon fodder as Boom Boom marched towards a three-peat. For whatever reason, on that day in 1987, Australian Peter Doohan had the match of his life and paved the way for fellow countryman Pat Cash to take Becker’s place holding the trophy.
It was one thing for Rafa to lose early at Wimbledon. He was defeated by Steve Darcis in round one for a second straight early exit at The Championships. For defending champion Federer, an early round exit at Wimbledon was simply unthinkable. In fact, an early round exit at any grand slam was practically a seismic event. Roger had reached the quarterfinals or better at 36 straight grand slams. That’s nine years! It seemed high improbable that the streak would end in round 2 at Wimbledon. The only reason that this upset is not number one on the list, is out of deep respect for the talents of Stakhovsky. The man from the Ukraine, with some of the best net play on tour, as well as a big serve and a temperament for winning big matches, is a dangerous opponent for anyone. On that day in 2012 he was superb and clutch, winning two tight tie-breaks and forever inking his name on the pages of Wimbledon’s history.
On paper this match looked like one of the biggest upsets in Wimbledon history. In the decade from 1987-1996, Steffi won 21 Grand Slam titles including 7 out of 10 at Wimbledon. No defending ladies champion had ever lost in the first round at Wimbledon and Steffi entered the 1994 event as the 3 time defending champion. She had not lost before the quarterfinals of a major championships since 1985 (when she was 15). With Monica Seles’ devastating absence from the sport still lingering, Steffi was rolling through draws seemingly unchallenged. Despite history, this match was always going to be close. Lori McNeil had given Steffi trouble before. Their first four WTA matches all went the three set distance, and their most recent encounter before Wimbledon had been won by the American. Grass was her best surface and suited her serve and volley game. On a day with lingering showers and several rain delays, McNeil would force her way forward and time and time again force the number one ranked player to beat her with her unfavored backhand passing shot. The tactic would pay dividends and fuel an eventual run to the semi-finals.
It always looked to me as if Rafa could be overpowered on grass, only nobody ever seemed to be able to do it. From 2006-2011 he had made the final in every appearance (he missed 2009 with injury). He sometimes had to dig deep in the early rounds, in particular in 5 setters against Robin Soderling, Robby Kendrick and Mikhail Youzhny. However, I had become so accustomed to him getting through, that in 2012 it did not seem possible he could lose to anybody not named Novak or Roger. It certainly was not conceivable that he could lose to a guy who had lost FIRST ROUND OF WIMBLEDON QUALIFYING 5 YEARS IN A ROW! After watching that match, perhaps more shocking than the upset were Rosol’s prior results because he played like a man possessed. In the 5th set he pulled off amazing winner after amazing winner, including the most calm serving for the match display you will ever see. Lukas was typically Czech in his matter of fact post match assessment: “I played unbelievable. Rafa played a good match but I was better.” he said. Nobody, least of all Rafa would disagree.
In the nineties, Venus Williams won 5 Wimbledon titles and had another 3 runner-up appearances. Somehow, and despite all her gifts and success, on June 23rd 2004 it appeared that she had failed to master the simplest of tennis tasks – count the score. In one of the most bizarre situations, I can clearly remember my mother screaming at the television as the umpire, linesman and players all missed a point at 2-1 in the tiebreak and got the score completely wrong. Despite technically winning the tiebreak, Venus would somehow lose the set and the match. When questioned about the umpire’s mistake, tournament referee Allan Mills deflected some blame onto Venus: “What I cannot understand is the players’ reaction. It is the players’ responsibility once they are on court to know the score.”
In this shock defeat, Hewitt became only the 2nd defending champion to ever lose the first match of his title defense. It all looked good for the Australian as he cruised through the first set 6-1. However, Karlovic soon discovered his best form. Ivo’s booming serve would eventually carry him not just to victory that day, but onto a very sound career. In hindsight, this upset does not seem completely surprising given the success that Ivo has had and the difficulty that his serve has provided for even the best of opponents. In 2003, however, he was a completely unknown qualifier. The victory over Hewitt was momentous, not just for the upset but for the manner in which Karlovic played. For some tennis aficionados, watching David get pummeled by Goliath completely reshaped their view of the way that tennis might be played in the future.
In 2009 when she was just 16 years old, Michelle Larcher de Brito broke into the world top 100 and many thought she would be a future star of the game. However, it was not to be. 7 years on, Michelle has not ended any season in her career ranked inside the top 100. What she does have, is the undoubted talent and ability to pull off major upsets. She also has a unique ability to make sounds on the tennis court that can be heard by neighboring suburbs. In 2013, on the ‘graveyard’ court number two at Wimbledon, those two talents met against Maria Sharapova in a perfect crescendo. After 2 hours of incredible ball striking and effort there was if not the biggest, then certainly the loudest, upset on this top ten list.
This upset really does not belong on this list but it made the cut because frankly any excuse to put Dustin Brown (a.k.a Dreddy) into a list is worth it. As a qualifier ranked 102, and going against the two time champion and 3 time finalist, one could be forgiven for calling me nuts that I didn’t view this as really that big of an upset. Brown had proven in 2014, by defeating Hewitt on his way to the third round of Wimbledon, that he was a difficult opponent for someone willing to give him time to attack. In Rafa he got just that, and repeated his victory from Halle two weeks prior in a highly entertaining 4 set match.