By Kevin Anderson
If wet, in the village hall. Sunday in the Park with George it wasn’t, but Monday in the Park with drenching English weather meant a lengthy wait for players and patrons.
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When the covers finally came off in mid-afternoon, we were spoilt for choice and I opted for the less obvious choice - the meeting of promising Chinese youngster Saisai Zheng and the thinking man’s tennis player Andrea Petkovic.
As the pair knocked up, the sun was now broad and smiling. Cones with a large flake were the confection of choice for a patiently expectant crowd, smattered across the shiny blue seats of Court One, and about half-filling them. Next door on Centre Court two Brits – wild card Tara Moore and then Heather Watson – were on offer, but this match, for those in the know, was the better alternative.
Alternative is exactly the word, for Petkovic does not fit any mould. Read the biographies of most of the young players in modern tennis, and they are a bit monotonous: discovered her talent at age six – early coaching from her Dad (or Mum) – off to California or somewhere else hot, on a scholarship – a junior championship or two – then on to the carousel of tournaments around the globe.
Some of that early career path, in truth, applies to Andrea, but since joining the circus she has resisted joining the crowd. Her favourite writers are Goethe and Oscar Wilde. She is articulate on any topic from German politics to global warming. She is unafraid. She holds the best press conferences in the business and she simply wears her heart on her wristband.
The match itself was a thriller. Zheng was through as a lucky loser but she looked a real winner early on. Tenacious, compact, frighteningly accurate, she often unsettled Petkovic with her relentless stream of spot-on returns. The first set edged it way forward like two cars in parallel lines of queuing traffic, neither ever getting more than a length a head. Zheng clinched it at 7-5.
It was not the happiest day to be a line-judge on Court One. Ten, perhaps a dozen calls were painfully close, some of those looking simply incorrect, and most of them went against the German player.
Andrea’s reactions were quite telling. Called long in the sixth game, her response was an exclamation of “never, never!” and then back with a sigh of resignation to her next serve. Two games later, Saisai was the next to suffer a suspect line-call - and Petkovic was openly and audibly surprised. It isn’t petulance or gamesmanship, it is just honesty. In a sport heavy with conventions, she is daring enough to be unconventional, and frankly it is a breath of fresh air.
The second set saw Petkovic easing ahead but still not quite dominant. For a player of her height and physique, the first serves were not quite the lethal weapon they should have been, and Zheng hung in there with doggedness and plenty of skill. Andrea was still a mix of inspiration and exasperation, but she was producing winners of breathtaking quality, and a quite stunning cross-court volley took her to 5-4 before closing out the match decisively with a break of Saisai’s service.
Typically, Andrea celebrated with a quirky tweet. “Had to cut myself a fringe to cope with today’s stress. #interesting “
No sleight at all on Saisai Zheng, who clearly has a future; but the longer Petkovic stays around, the better. This afternoon (Tuesday) she faces a stiff test in the shape of Sara Errani, but the neutrals should keep hoping.
Tennis has quite a few of the talented but rather uniform, and she puts the personality back. Eastbourne needs Andrea. Tennis needs Petko.