WIMBLEDON, England — How weird that the British lost two big, booming, second-round matches late Wednesday on Centre Court. How telling that the whole thing felt weird.
“I could have had a good run here,” Murray, the 2013 and 2016 champion, said after he lost, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, to the 36 aces of 6-foot-10 ace-walloper John Isner, No. 24 in the world, a 37-year-old American statuesque in both height and mobility.
"I’ve been asked this question in every press conference,” Raducanu said after she lost, 6-3, 6-3, to 55th-ranked Caroline Garcia of France, nine months after Raducanu delivered a stunning win at the U.S. Open. She said: “There’s no pressure. Like, why is there any pressure? I’m still 19. Like, it’s a joke. I literally won a Slam.”
They spoke at a Wimbledon in which the sporting entity that goes by “Great Britain” sent 10 players into the second round — six male, four female — the most since 1984, when the 10 winners included Virginia Wade, Jo Durie, Anne Hobbs and eventual TV star Sue Barker. They spoke after a sporting nation representing a set of nations in one country has transformed itself to the point that its relationship with losing, once adorable and lampooned, has gone kaput.
It washed away merrily in a decade-long deluge of Murray and Lewis Hamilton and the 2019 Cricket World Cup and the 2018 World Cup semifinals and the Euro 2020 final and Raducanu at the 2021 U.S. Open and 196 medals in the past three Summer Olympics and enough stuff to busy a Queen trying to give out all the new titles.
There’s also Wales.
Wales is in the 2022 men’s World Cup.
So when Murray lost the closing match in great clamor, when he saw a late love-30 break chance get blasted to smithereens with a 134-mph ace, a 133-mph ace and a 136-mph service winner, it just rang differently all around from when, say, a generation ago, Tim Henman used to lose gamely in the late rounds as the lone hope out there. And when Raducanu lost just before Murray, well, she did win that U.S. Open as an afterthought even amid her own nationality.
“One person sees one person does well, then another believes that they can do well, too,” said Harriet Dart, a player ranked 94th who romped through her first-round match.
“For me,” said Liam Broady, the 132nd-ranked player who nudged through the first round in five sets, “the most exciting thing now is that we have, like, this plethora of talent coming through. All these young guys are driving each other on.”
He spoke of Paul Jubb, 22 and ranked 219th, who helped coax Court No. 3 into roars audible around the grounds Tuesday during his thin 3-6, 6-1, 7-5, 6-7 (7-3), 7-5 loss to famed and infamous Australian Nick Kyrgios. “Normally,” Broady said, “you’d see someone going up against a Kyrgios like myself in Australia. You think a bit of a lamb to slaughter [and it was a straight-set loss five months ago]. Whereas Paul went out there and probably comes off the court feeling like he could have won it. We’ve got another seven, eight Brits that sort of age that are coming through. It’s an exciting time.”
Now they seem to play with hope above fear all around the grounds, and rather than feeling the brunt of whatever national pressure is left over after soccer hogs most of it, they share that brunt. They’re perfectly capable of dragging out a 24-year-old guy with a giant smile, Alastair Gray, who has zoomed from No. 523 to No. 288 in the rankings, have him win a first-round match and say, “We’re all spurring each other on,” and, “Yeah, maybe it hasn’t been like that in the past,” and, “We’re all just going out and playing very free, which is dangerous.”
Check back a generation to Wimbledon 2002, when Henman roamed the grassy earth, the outdoor video viewing area got the name “Henman Hill” and the British had two men in the top 100 and five in the top 200, zero women in the top 100 and two in the top 200. (Henman was No. 5.) Now those numbers are four and seven on the men’s side, two and six on the women’s side (including both No. 11 players of the moment, Raducanu and Cameron Norrie). They have Murray at No. 52 after he ventured to No. 3 before his physiological ordeal of recent years, and he’s saying, “I really want to try and improve my ranking to a level where I’m getting seeded in Slams.”
Being seeded would help avoid a seeded mainstay in his 54th major tournament as is Isner, even as Isner stood 0-8 against Murray coming in. It would help avoid losing to the near-the-lines services of an Isner, who would say: “I don’t have too many weapons at my disposal to do anything different. I have one big weapon, right? I need that to be working.” Maybe it would be a later round before an on-court interviewer would ask Isner how he managed to keep his head when the fans around him were losing theirs, to which Isner replied, as follows:
The remaining crowd laughed. Nobody minds a little drollness around here.
“Yeah,” Murray said, “it’s one of those matches that, had I got through, who knows what would have happened?” He said, “It definitely, definitely hurts,” and it carried the plaintive sound of a great champion trying to get back there.
It’s not even really all that alarming, at least to the rational, that Raducanu has gone out in the second round in each of this year’s Grand Slams or that there’s a hypothesis afoot that players have figured out more about her now that there’s plenty of videotape.
“My coach did,” Garcia said. “I didn’t.”
Then: “Big secrets. I will not tell you.”
“I just didn’t have enough ball speed today,” Raducanu said.
Those in the crowd did have enough mustard, though, another case of a tenor different from yore — less desperate, surer they can implore their players to victory. They tried like mad Wednesday, but it didn’t quite work, so they cheered off Raducanu to her quick wave around 5:30 p.m., and they cheered off Murray as he waved and turned and turned and waved around 9:30 p.m. Then they made off, perhaps for drinks, still better than they used to have.