And the luster of the Grand Slam event seemed to dim, having lost a bit of its customary star wattage.
But the unexpected followed: A pair of teenagers emerged in the women’s field over the first week, as welcome and rejuvenating as sunshine after a hard rain.
American Coco Gauff, 17, competing in her second Wimbledon, and British wild card Emma Raducanu, 18, competing in her first, stormed into the fourth round without conceding a set.
On Monday, known as “Manic Monday” because every player still standing competes for a spot in the quarterfinals, the 20th-seeded Gauff will face her toughest opponent yet: former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, the only former Wimbledon champion left in the field. They will meet on Centre Court, where Kerber won the title in 2018.
Raducanu, whose come-from-nowhere romp to the fourth round has enthralled England, will take on Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic on Court No. 1, the second-biggest venue on the grounds.
If tennis fans are stunned, the teens are not — although Raducanu, ranked 338th in the world, surely wouldn’t have predicted a timetable such as this.
Among the qualities they share is that they have envisioned this opportunity for years and worked with unshakable belief.
“My goal is to always win the tournament regardless of my ranking or what people think of me,” said Gauff, who burst onto the global sporting stage at Wimbledon in 2019 by upsetting five-time champion Venus Williams in the first round when she was 15. “That goal, I guess, is more clear right now than it was in 2019. I think just my belief is a lot stronger now, the feeling that I can go far.”
Though Gauff and Raducanu speak of the chance to compete at Wimbledon as a privilege, neither is paralyzed by it. They are flourishing on the sport’s most hallowed stage, feeding off the crowd’s cheers while digging within for the confidence and composure that are not always a hallmark of tennis prodigies.
Both also have a variety of shots and the smarts to change tactics as the moment dictates.
Gauff’s development since she reached Wimbledon’s fourth round in 2019 has been like time-lapse photography of a seedling sprouting a stalk, bud and petals.
After an impressive start to 2021, she is ranked a career-high 23rd in the world and looking less like the future of women’s tennis and more like its present.
Gauff is a more powerful, complete player than she was at 15, with an improved forehand and a serve that is a genuine weapon. Her impressive reach, combined with terrific foot speed, makes it difficult for opponents to find spots on the court she can’t cover, particularly on grass, which plays to her attack-minded instincts.
In her third-round match against Kaja Juvan on Saturday on Centre Court, Gauff bolted to a 3-0 lead in just eight minutes.
But it’s Gauff’s intangibles that excite Hall of Fame inductee Billie Jean King, who won 20 Wimbledon titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
“She loves the big showcase courts, and that’s very important if you’re going to be a great player,” King said of Gauff, speaking to the BBC’s Sue Barker. “She is very serious about being the best. Look in her eyes — at that concentration and focus.”
Unlike Gauff, Raducanu was on no one’s radar at the outset of Wimbledon. It was just her second tournament on the top women’s tour. Her own parents thought she was packing too many tennis outfits for her Wimbledon debut.
But after being granted a wild-card entry into the 128-player draw on the potential she had shown in the eyes of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, Raducanu vowed to prove she was worthy.
Her romp into the fourth round has been a balm for British tennis fans lamenting the ouster of two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, the 34-year-old Scot who gutted out two victories on valor, grit and a metal hip.
Born in Montreal, with a Chinese mother and Romanian father, Raducanu moved to England at age 2. Her parents, Renee and Ian, work in finance. Since their daughter was a child, they prioritized academics while exposing her to a slew of activities, from ballet and tap dance to go-karting and motocross.
Raducanu found her passion in tennis and her heroes in former world No. 1s Halep and Li Na, who are Romanian and Chinese, reflecting her heritage.
“It has definitely helped me, the mentality that both of them bring,” Raducanu said. “They both come from very hard-working countries.”
She credits her mother with instilling discipline and gratitude. The high expectations, she insists, come from inside.
So does the joy she exudes on each winning two-fisted backhand, each successfully retrieved passing shot and each victory. Upon beating Sorana Cirstea, 6-3, 7-5, on Saturday to clinch a spot in the fourth round, she crumpled to her knees on the grass.
Until then, congratulations had poured in from friends, classmates and teachers. After becoming the youngest British woman in the Open era to reach Wimbledon’s round of 16, it is as if she has restored the nation’s sporting pride — although England’s march to the semifinals of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament has been cause for abundant jubilation.
“Wimbledon in raptures as British teenager storms into fourth round,” the Sunday Telegraph declared Sunday.
The Sun Sport was in full swoon, with a banner headline that read: “Canu feel love, Emma.”
The Mail promoted a “Day of Joy souvenir edition,” with side-by-side front-page photos of Raducanu and Harry Kane, captain of England’s soccer team.
Having seized the spotlight, Raducanu does not want to leave. She is having such a blast, reveling even in the strict hotel “bubble” that grates on veteran players, that she wants to keep going, keep pushing herself and keep hearing the crowd’s cheers.
“The way that I’m approaching my matches is each time I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why not?’” Raducanu said. “’Someone has to be in the second week. Why not me?’”