Fritz defeat ends hopes of overdue star-spangled breakthrough | Wimbledon 2022

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The impish grin of Colonel Sanders looking down from the KFC signage amid the upmarket boutiques on high street is proof that not even Wimbledon village has been entirely immune to the creeping Americanization of British culture in recent years. Funny how the trend has been inverted at the All England Club right down the road, where the once-consistent US presence at the business end of the championships – excepting the wholly exceptional reign of the Williams sisters – has been all but a sepia-toned memory over the past two decades.

In the opening stages of Wednesday’s much-talked-about American takeover of Centre Court, it looked to be more of the same. When Taylor Fritz was broken in his opening service game and quickly fell behind Rafael Nadal beneath overcast skies following Amanda Amanisova’s error-strewn capitulation to Simona Halep, it appeared the last remaining US players in either Wimbledon singles draw would be swept aside in drama-free fashion.

That was until Fritz – the American No 1 and one of three men to beat Nadal this year – went on to pitch a hearty fightback against the badly compromised then frighteningly resurgent Spaniard, but his eventual defeat in a fifth-set tiebreaker after more than four hours finally extinguished hopes of a star-spangled breakthrough at a competition where Americans have largely been reduced to a once-unthinkable afterthought role.

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Andy Roddick’s abrupt retirement nearly a decade ago left the United States without an active men’s grand slam champion for the first time in 129 years, since the inception of what then was called the US national championships. And while Venus and Serena Williams have combined for a dozen of their 30 major singles championships at Wimbledon – and 122 WTA titles overall – the hand-wringing over their successor on the women’s side has persisted even despite the one-off successes of Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin.

Centre Court’s centenary celebrations on Middle Sunday offered a stark reminder of how the United States once pumped out Wimbledon champions with a regularity taken for granted, a who’s who that only in the Open era includes Pete Sampras, Lindsay Davenport, Andre Agassi, Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith.

Anisimova’s straightforward defeat in the co-main event left only Fritz, the 24-year-old Californian in the form of his life who was one of four Americans to reach the last-16 in the men’s draw – the most at Wimbledon since 1999 and the most at any grand slam since the 2011 US Open.

Pete Sampras
Pete Sampras was one of the regular US winners at Wimbledon in the Open era. Photograph: Dave Caulkin/AP

Fritz’s progress has been the brightest highlight of a purple patch for US players at these championships, where the American presence on the men’s half of things has not been felt this acutely since the days of Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier and Todd Martin.

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There was the crowd-pleasing Frances Tiafoe, the world No 28, who reached the fourth round and was on the verge of a second career major quarter-final appearance before coming up agonizingly short in a five-set, 4hr 36min slugfest with the Belgian David Goffin. Also Tommy Paul, ranked a career-high 32nd on his Wimbledon debut, who made it to the last-16 before falling to Cameron Norrie.

And lest we forget the sparse “Let’s go Brandon” chants that peppered Centre Court during Brandon Nakashima’s five-set defeat to Nick Kyrgios on the Fourth of July – a coded vulgarity (link) among Trump supporters – which offered a unexpected splash of Maga spice to the proceedings.

“I think we’re sending a message that we have a lot of depth and there’s a lot of strong players that are coming up, constantly improving,” Fritz said after Saturday’s third-round win over Alex Molcan. “I guess we don’t necessarily have all the attention because we don’t have a current Grand Slam champion, a current guy that’s one, two, three in the world, but we’ve got six or seven guys that are in the Top 40 that are all young.

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“Four guys in the round of 16, and we could have more. We have a lot of depth and we have a lot of guys that are constantly getting better.” Battering back his dogged foe with blistering serves and forehands off a bright-orange racquet, Fritz’s first career win against a top-five opponent at a major appeared tantalizingly within reach when Nadal called for a physio for treatment while a set down and it appeared even his box was ready for him to cut his losses.

But the greatest competitor this sport has ever known lived up to the towering myth of his making. He willed the affair to a fifth set, then into a tie-breaker following a nervy trade of broken service games, a heart-stopping stretch peppered by white-knuckle points that brought the Centre Court capacity crowd to their feet while David Beckham gnawed down his fingernails in the Royal Box.

From there Fritz could only watch as a potential date with another first-time grand slam semi-finalist in Friday’s last four – and as clear a path to a first major final as he might ever see – vanished into the evening gray. And what might have been his signature win ended as yet another chapter in the weighty tome of Nadal’s brilliance.

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