Shock Williams defeat cannot hide the sense of missed opportunity

Robson’s Wimbledon crumble could be costly.

Those using the words “Andy Murray” and “destiny” in the same sentence, take note.

For a fleeting moment on Monday afternoon, there was a very real prospect of Britain could be left celebrating the presence of a Wimbledon quarter-finalist in both the men and women’s draws for the first time since 1973.

Instead, and has been the case since Tim Henman faded from prominence in 2005, Andy Murray is once again the sole British representative on the grass at SW19.

 Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Yet, as has been the case throughout the first eight days of the tournament, Murray’s on-court successes were not the story yesterday- not by a long chalk.

Monday belonged to Sabine Lisicki as the 23-year-old made a mockery of those already crowning racquet-handed powerhouse Serena Williams with a sixth Wimbledon crown, as she tore into the defending champion with fearless groundstrokes and nerveless service.

It was perhaps the best grass court spectacle since the 2005 Wimbledon final between the other Williams sister, Venus, and fellow American Lindsay Davenport.

Williams had seemed nailed on to complete a three set triumph after romping through the second set to level the match and then twice holding seemingly decisive breaks in the decider- winning nine consecutive service games in the process.

Lisicki, however, discovered an incredible ability to keep clinging to her decorated opponent’s coattails long enough for Williams’ custom-made white jacket to unravel in spectacular fashion.

The German’s desire and willingness to exchange heavy handed blows with the five-time champion exposed the attitude of those first week challengers who were happy to smile, wave and take a concussive beating on Centre Court.

The sporadic indignation over equal pay for both draws at Grand Slam tournaments, which only heightened through the first week at SW19, will have ebbed away significantly after Lisicki’s courageous display of hitting.

That said, the problem with early shocks- and Wimbledon 2013 has hardly been short of those- is that the latter stages of the tournament can lose significance and crowd interest.

Murray’s continued presence in the tournament ensures that the men’s draw will remain a focal point, but the women’s bracket has an air of mystery as we head into the quarter-finals today.

The loss of Williams at this stage will be greeted with a mixed response. Her defeat- a first in 35 matches- leaves no champion amongst the remaining women in the draw.

An opportunity awaits for someone to make a big name for themselves as each of the eight believe themselves capable of plotting a course deep into the second week.

One of those intrepid explorers could, and perhaps should, have been Britain’s Laura Robson. Robson threw away a chance to serve for the opening set of her meeting with Kaia Kanepi, before also surrendering a lead in the resulting tie-break.

Robson’s defeat- a straight sets loss at the hands of a lower ranked opponent- will surely rankle with the 19-year-old. Not for the first time, she had given herself a major chance on the biggest stage, and fluffed her lines.

The somewhat confused “Didn’t she do well?” attitude of the British media is a little strange. Regardless of her age, and 19 is not as young in the women’s game as it is in the men’s, opportunities of this sort do not come around very often and, having come through a difficult early draw, Robson should have made the quarter-finals.   

The odds were that Robson, even in the event of victory, would be taking her musket on court to face the Williams’ heavy cannon, but that ever-twisting yarn on Centre Court still had several turns to take as Kanepi jigged by the baseline.  By the time the Briton had finished her media responsibilities an hour later, the scale of her missed opportunity was clear to all.

If not simply because Lisiki is tangibly more beatable than Serena, another key theme of this year’s premier grass court tournament has been that the giant killers have all suffered significant hangovers in the aftermath of their great victories.

 Robson against Lisiki in front of a baying Centre Court would have been a tantalising addition to today’s menu and a welcome distraction from Murray’s quarter-final with Fernando Verdasco on Wednesday.

As it is, the British press will sit down to a breakfast of Murray’s championship eggs. We’d better hope they hatch.

Want to find out more about the Data behind the Championships? Find out more here: wimbledoninsights.com

You can follow Cameron on Twitter here.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.