Jacob Steinberg at Wimbledon
Wimbledon, once such a lush paradise for the Swedes, has been a distant and unreachable land for men from the country of Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg in recent times.
It has been neither a happy nor an unhappy hunting ground; it has simply existed beyond their sphere of influence, forcing them to watch from afar, looking in from the outside, trying and failing to sneak through a gap in the gates. For a nation with such a grand tennis pedigree the slump is hard to take.
When Robin Soderling lost to Lleyton Hewitt in the second round in 2011 few people could have predicted it would be another four years before Sweden had a male player in the first round at Wimbledon. Then again, nor could they have known that in 2015 people would still be waiting for the moment when Soderling was fit and healthy enough to pick up his racket again and remind us why he was once the world No4.
It meant there was a buzz on Court 12 for Ivo Karlovic’s match against Elias Ymer, who was making a tiny slice of Wimbledon history the first Swedish man in the draw since Soderling’s last appearance in SW19. Ymer lost but his commendable performance in a 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 defeat by Karlovic, one of the most awkward opponents on the tour, offered glimpses of a brighter future for Sweden.
There is a vital context to the decline, for Soderling’s story is tinged with a heavy sadness. Sweden did have a top player, someone who had one of the most brutal forehands in the game and he was cut down in his prime by mononucleosis, an energy-sapping viral illness that put the brakes on Soderling’s career. Soderling is only 30. He reached the final of two French Opens and only one other man can say he has a win over Rafael Nadal on the Paris clay. Soderling recently said he is targeting a return in 2016 but it is a forlorn hope that he will be able to regain his old level.
In the 70s and 80s Sweden ruled. Borg won five consecutive Wimbledons, Edberg won it in 1988 and 1990, and the dominance was so stark that there were only two years between 1974 and 1992 when a Swede failed to win a grand slam. Although Mats Wilander was never got past the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, he settled for three Australian Opens, three French Opens and one US Open instead.
Ymer has a long way to go before he matches those astounding achievements but the 19-year-old, who has Ethiopian heritage, is rated highly by many pundits. He is part of Magnus Norman’s academy and it will surely not be long before he wins his first match at a grand slam.
After Ymer took the first set on a tie-break he wilted in the heat in the second set and allowed Karlovic to assume control. Karlovic was too experienced and although the 6ft 11in Croatian was occasionally disturbed by beautiful passing shots from Ymer, he used his giant frame to batter down 42 aces and subdue the youngster.
Those are frightening numbers from Karlovic although not surprising given he broke the record for aces in three-set matches during his recent win over Tomas Berdych in Halle, whizzing 45 missiles past the Czech. The 36-year-old’s opponent in the second round, Alexandr Dolgopolov, will need to work on his return.