Last Wednesday night, Wimbledon – the organisers, the BBC and the sponsors – had a problem: Andy Murray and Emma Raducanu, the two British players with big-match, primetime pedigree, had just been dumped out of the tournament. Serena Williams, the other main story coming into the event, had gone the day before. Roger Federer, another sure-fire ratings banker for the past 20 years, was injured and hadn’t made it to London. The stars were falling out of the sky. Who was going to fill the void?
It turns out we – the spectators – needn’t have worried. Week one at Wimbledon 2022 has instead been dominated by the understudies: British players more used to being in the wings than on centre stage. We have seen career-best performances from Liam Broady, Katie Boulter, Heather Watson and Cameron Norrie. They might not have started the event as household names but their stories were rich and full of poignancy. Success has invariably come after long periods of struggle and self-doubt.
Saturday, though, was a reality check for the Brits, especially Boulter. The 25-year-old from Leicestershire became the latest player to “get a Tanning” from France’s Harmony Tan, Tuesday’s surprise victor against Serena Williams. She was beaten 6-1, 6-1 in less than an hour.
It must have been a draining week for Boulter. After beating last year’s finalist Karolina Pliskova on Thursday, the biggest win of her career, she revealed that her grandmother had died the day before the match. Against Tan, the occasion, and perhaps the expectation, appeared to leave Boulter unglued. “I’ve played some great matches this week, but it’s also been very emotional,” she said. “I think today was one step too far for me. Credit to her, she was playing some tough, tough tennis. But yeah, it was not an easy one for me today.”
Much of the discussion before – and even after – the match centred on its scheduling: 11am on No 2 court rather than a show court in front of 15,000 partisan fans. Tabloid newspapers fumed about “Boulter snubbed” and “bungling blazers”. In the event, it was hard to make a case that it would have been a different story on a different court. And Boulter, to be fair, didn’t try to: “You can look at it on paper,” she said. “You’re supposed to put the best matches on Centre Court and on Court One. It’s a privilege to play on those courts, and I would never expect it.”
Broady, meanwhile, was on Court One but a vocal home crowd couldn’t help him against Australia’s Alex De Minaur, who happens to be Boulter’s boyfriend. Broady, the 28-year-old from Stockport with a ranking of 132, has provided excellent value on and off the court this week, but the match-up against De Minaur, seeded 19, was always going to be a tough one, and despite an epic last hurrah, he lost 6-3, 6-4, 7-5.
Still, it has been an encouraging showing for British tennis this week. No one epitomises the spirit of perseverance more than Heather Watson, the 30-year-old from Guernsey, ranked 121. She has made 43 appearances in grand slams, including 12 visits to Wimbledon, but has never before made it through to the second week in singles. That changed on Friday, when she finally managed it with a composed and, by her standards, relatively low-drama 7-6, 6-2 victory over Kaja Juvan.
Afterwards, Watson, who has battled injuries for much of the past two years, was asked if she thought her ship had sailed. “No chance!” she batted back. “I wouldn’t still be playing if I thought that ship had sailed.” On Sunday, Watson plays Germany’s Jule Niemeier, ranked no 97, in the fourth round on Centre Court, with a realistic shot of continuing the dream and making the quarter-finals.
There is even greater, albeit still cautious, optimism surrounding Cameron Norrie. The 26-year-old could hardly be described as “under the radar” – he’s seeded nine at Wimbledon – but he does keep it low key: “Keep Cam and Norrie On” is his style. This year, though, he has shown unprecedented ease on the grass and has also been gifted a dream of a draw. This is the first time Norrie has – like Watson – reached the fourth round in a grand slam. “It’s nice to tick that box but I’m not satisfied at all,” he said on Friday night after beating Steve Johnson in straight sets. “I want to keep going.”
On Sunday, he faces another American, Tommy Paul, who is making his debut at Wimbledon. Expect his new signature chant of “Norrie, Norrie, Norrie! Oi, oi, oi!” to ring round No 1 Court (and more controversy over scheduling). The path to at least the semi-final is looking good for Britain’s No 1, not that he’s getting carried away. “I’ll take that,” he said of his draw. “It’s a great opportunity, but there’s still a lot of hard work to do.”