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Wimbledon’s ban and the coronavirus have opened the door for new faces

Australia's Nick Kyrgios caused a bit of a stir by wearing a red hat at Wimbledon. (Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)
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WIMBLEDON, England — After the war and the coronavirus took the brackets from hard as hell to a little less hard as hell; after Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players removed five of the top 44 male players, including Nos. 1 and 8, and 11 of the top 87 female players, including No. 6; and after covid-19 took away men ranked Nos. 11 and 17 and 19, including the 2021 Wimbledon finalist, Wimbledon has found its way to the quarterfinals and a few questions.

Who’s here?

Who benefited from the gutting but weathered the gruel?

Wait, is that Nick Kyrgios? It apparently is. The chaotic Australian long had been one of sports’ occasional examples of noise over merit, a classic case of the lure of commotion, a firework — dazzling, then fizzling. He had gone seven years and 22 major tournaments without seeing a quarterfinal, and he seemed to crave victimhood as much as victory.

Well, here he is, after his Centre Court slog Monday with another person this Wimbledon has flattered, Brandon Nakashima, the San Diegan and former junior sensation and big strapping lad who stopped off at the University of Virginia for a cup of espresso and who looked more 30 than his 20 against Kyrgios.

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Kyrgios won the battle of adroit serves and staccato points, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), 3-6, 6-2, but Nakashima wound up saying, “This tournament is just another step for my game, for my confidence out there,” and Kyrgios wound up saying, “I just felt so many areas of his game were impressive to me.”

Yet Kyrgios won, and he won after playing quietly unlike against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the talk of the tournament from Saturday night, almost as if he wore some purple-and-green muzzle even if he did violate Wimbledon rules with his red cap. He won with occasional underhand serves and between-legs shots, and partly by using a “rope-a-dope” (his term) at the end of the fourth set, chucking away a service game to mar Nakashima’s rhythm.

“It worked,” Kyrgios said, but he also noticed something about himself at 27.

“That’s probably the first time in my career where I wasn’t playing well [for a spell of a match], regardless of playing Centre Court Wimbledon, fully packed crowd, I was able to just say [to myself], ‘Wow, look how far I’ve come,’ ” he said. “I was bouncing the ball before I served. I really just smiled to myself. I was like, ‘We’re here; we’re competing at Wimbledon, putting in a good performance mentally.’ ” He said: “It was a really good mental performance today. I think I’m enjoying the battle a bit more.”

And he said, “Look, there was a time where I was having to be forced out of a pub at 4 a.m. to play [Rafael] Nadal second round. … I’ve come a long way — that’s for sure.”

And: “I’m just thinking about my habits every day.”

People long have wondered what might happen if that happened, given his monumental serve, his rocketing groundstrokes, his upset of Nadal long ago in 2014 here.

So of course these quarterfinals have thrice-defending champion Novak Djokovic; Nadal; Simona Halep, so masterful in the 2019 final against Serena Williams; Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian with the multifaceted game who has risen to No. 2 in the world. But who’s that?

That’s Cristian Garin, ranked No. 43, and what a big sports year for Chile, given Mito Pereira’s contention at the PGA Championship in Tulsa in May. Garin looked uphill at a two-set deficit and two match points before climbing past Alex de Minaur of Australia, 10-6, in the fifth-set super tiebreaker, just a week and change after he looked at his opening draw and felt “upset,” as he put it.

There on the next bracket line stood Matteo Berrettini, the Italian who made the 2021 final and made Djokovic figure it out to win it.

“Obviously Matteo and Novak for me were the favorites for this tournament,” Garin said. Yet hours before that match, Berrettini withdrew with covid, and six days later, Garin said: “Yeah, I was upset, but I’m here. I’m still playing.”

“That was Berrettini’s little section,” said Kyrgios, who would have played Berrettini in a booming occasion. “When you see Berrettini not there, it’s a sigh of relief for every player in the draw — obviously a finalist of Wimbledon. I think probably arguably [one of the] top three players on grass in the world, Berrettini, for sure.”

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And, wait, are those Americans not named Williams or anything? Those are. That’s 20-year-old Amanda Anisimova, so impressive the last two rounds in beating Coco Gauff and then surging, 6-2, 6-3, past Harmony Tan, who had knocked out Serena Williams. And that’s 24-year-old Taylor Fritz, another of the world’s many San Diegans, the one whose mother, Kathy May, once opened her Wimbledon career in 1974 against Billie Jean King and lost, 6-1, 6-1.

(Well, so would you. She played 16 more Slams after that and reached three quarterfinals.)

Fritz has reached No. 14 while banging around out there looking for breakthroughs like so many, and he arrived at Eastbourne, a tuneup for Wimbledon, with a lovely three-match losing streak: second round at the French Open against Bernabe Zapata Miralles; first round (on grass) at ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, against Tim van Rijthoven; first round at Queen’s Club in London against Jack Draper.

So of course Fritz won Eastbourne and has taken all 12 sets here.

“It’s so interesting,” he said. “because three weeks ago, it was a low point for me. I kept telling myself that I’ll find my tennis. I had to just kind of keep being positive. I was injured, coming back from injury, not playing great.”

So now, “It’s a big jump. It’s so interesting. It’s kind of like how tennis is. One, two good weeks, five or six good matches in a row, can kind of just change everything.”

Now, four months after he beat Nadal to win the big annual gathering at Indian Wells, Calif., then drew question marks on the TV camera lens because he found himself gobsmacked about what to say, he’s into his first major quarterfinal in his 24th major try. “Things like this,” he said, “I’ve kind of worked for my whole life.”

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Further in the quarterfinals coming Tuesday and Wednesday, there’s known talent trying to become more known: 12th-ranked Cameron Norrie, the South Africa-born, New Zealand-raised Briton with Welsh and Scottish parents; 13th-ranked Jannik Sinner of Italy, who has reached the fourth round of all four Slams already at 20. His match with Djokovic figures to be something.

And if you look there in the women’s quarterfinals, among those excellent players known only to geeks — Ajla Tomljanovic, Marie Bouzkova, Tatjana Maria and Jule Niemeier — there’s Elena Rybakina. She’s 23 in age and ranking, she reached the 2021 French Open quarterfinals, and she has lost zero sets here, but back in June 2018 she made what became a crucial move for Wimbledon 2022, back when she ranked 191st.

A player born and raised in Moscow, long before Russia’s globally reviled invasion of Ukraine, she accepted an offer of nationality from Kazakhstan.

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