Qualifying begins: 26 June
The Draw: 30 June
Pre-event Press Conferences: 1 & 2 July
Order of Play: 2 July
Championships begin: 3 July
COME BACK FOR LIVE SCORES & LIVE BLOG FROM 26 JUNE
Some things were just never meant to be and, it seems, Kei Nishikori and success at Wimbledon are just not meant to happen.
For 10 years the Japanese has been coming to the All England Club and trying his hardest; and for 10 years, he has gone home disappointed. This year it was Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut who stopped him in his tracks in the third round 6-4, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-3. The No.9 seed was out, the No.18 seed was through. But it had not been easy.
This match had been scheduled as first up on No.3 Court for a reason: two gentlemen who do not regard grass as their surface of choice, and who usually ply their trade on slightly slower courts, were never going to sprint through this third round encounter. We knew it was going to be a long one when even the local squirrels were spotted arriving with sandwiches and a tent.
In today’s world of large and muscular stars, Nishikori is an oddity (in the nicest possible way, of course). Standing only 5ft 10in, he literally has to look up to those ranked above him in the world pecking order.
But while he is short of leg, he is fleet of foot and it is his lightning fast speed that has kept him in the world’s top 10 for the past three years. He may not have a
crushing shot to bruise the opposition but there is not a spot on the court you can land the ball that he will not get to.
At every other Grand Slam event, Nishikori has got to the quarter-final stage at the very least, and in 2014 he reached the final at the US Open. But here in SW19, he has stumbled time and again. His best result was the fourth round last summer and, for a world No.9, he does not think that is anywhere near good enough.
Coming back this time, Nishikori promised that he was going to try to be more aggressive; perhaps he would serve and volley if the opportunity presented itself. It was a grand plan to work to but a little difficult to execute when his taller, Spanish rival was keeping him running five feet behind the baseline.
Still, Nishikori stuck to his guns and there was a bit of chip-and-charging here, there was a bit of serve-and-volleying there. And then he dumped a forehand into the net on break point and the first set had gone to Bautista Agut.
This would have pleased one of the more illustrious spectators. Sergio Garcia, the Masters champion, and his fiancée Angela Akins were there, suitably suited and booted as befits Royal Box guests. They were obviously trying to pack in as much tennis watching as they could (and they must be keen if they were forgoing the excellent lunch that goes with that exclusive invite) but they were cutting it fine.
Protocol dictates that the Royal Box guests must be in their seats for the start of play at 1pm – and at that precise moment, Bautista Agut was running himself ragged to hang on to his serve as Nishikori was sprinting this way and that in pursuit of the break. Bautista Agut clung on for 4-3 and Garcia, with his Green Jacket neatly folded over his arm, beat a hasty retreat to make it to Centre Court on time.
Half an hour later, Bautista Agut closed out the second set in the tie-break. On Centre Court, a Spanish golf champion smiled.
We had been on court for 10 minutes shy of two hours, Bautista Agut seemed to be in the driving seat but, in truth, there were just a handful of points in it. The odd unforced error, the occasional big serve – that was all that was separating the two men. The scoreline looked one-sided but the match was actually pretty evenly balanced.
The squirrels ordered out for more sandwiches.
By now, Nishikori had all but abandoned his optimistic plan of attacking at all costs – with Bautista Agut leathering his ground strokes, it was far too dangerous a tactic; a chap was fed up with rushing forward only to see the Spaniard’s passing shot whistling by in the opposite direction. There were the odd forays to the net but only when he had Bautista Agut pinned so far back, he was almost in Southfields.
In between points, Nishikori looked done for and thoroughly fed up. This was supposed to be a fast surface; he had tried to be aggressive and yet, in this particular match, there was no such thing as a free point. But he kept plugging away and, finally, after two hours and 37 minutes, he broke the Bautista Agut serve. He was 5-3 up and serving for the third set. Four minutes later he got it and the crowd leapt to its feet.
The squirrels ordered out for pizza.
Having got the hang of breaking the Bautista Agut serve, Nishikori did it again at the start of the fourth set. But then Bautista Agut did likewise. And then the Spaniard broke again. This time it was decisive: after three hours and 21 minutes, Bautista Agut had his victory.
The squirrels went home to start a diet.