Two days in the Wimbledon sun, two heroic failures, two British players with a lot more credit in the bank than they arrived with.
The Londoner James Ward’s third-round exit in five sets at the hands of Vasek Pospisil, hard on the heels of Heather Watson’s defeat by Serena Williams, will hurt all the more because, at one stage, he looked as though he was on the verge of striking deeper into uncharted territory. But well into the fifth set, his Canadian opponent steeled himself and, full of vim having worked his way back into the match from 2-1 down, broke Ward’s resistance with unerring accuracy and relentless serving, to prevail 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 8-6.
Ward had been subject to intense pressure before in Davis Cup ties but never anything quite like this. Pospisil was serving impeccably, winning 19 straight points, and playing his best tennis of the match. It proved to be the difference, for all the full-throated backing of a crowd willing Ward into the second week, when he broke Ward’s serve – and his resistance – in the 13th game of a titanic fifth set.
The 28-year-old’s beloved Arsenal have a habit of putting their fans through the wringer and Ward cut a forlorn figure immediately afterwards, lamenting with “mixed emotions” that he didn’t play to the best of his undoubted ability.
Yet once the disappointment fades this run to the third round, which lifts him into the top 100 for the first time, may feel like a turning point. It certainly definitively elevates him from the first-round British cannon fodder he is sometimes erroneously lumped in with.
Pospisil, who had won his previous two five-set matches from 2-1 down, was nerveless in the fourth and fifth sets. Winning almost every point on his first serve, clubbing the ball past Ward, he had come out pumped up for the denouement.
Ward was clinging on but always found a response during that fifth set. Early on, a net cord that would have given him two break points span back on to his side of the net. Such are the fine margins between success and failure.
During the first set it appeared that Ward’s Wimbledon journey – which had begun with him jumping on the Tube from Euston to Southfields – would conclude quickly in the sunshine on No1 Court. Pospisil looked what he was – a player ranked 55 places above Ward and with the experience of having won the doubles here last year.
However, Ward is made of sterner stuff than most of his peers. Just as he rallied to beat Jiri Vesely in four sets in the second round, so it appeared here. And as he did so, the initially lukewarm atmosphere began to bubble.
By the time he raced to meet a Pospisil drop shot and send the ball back past him with a perfect half-volleyed backhand, it felt more like a Davis Cup tie – the competition in which Ward has played some of his best tennis.
Bidding to win three matches in a row at this level for only the second time in his career, at the age of 28, he began to pull out big shots and serves under pressure, and the pendulum imperceptibly swung.
Ward roared out of the blocks in the second set, as if determined to show he was not beaten, breaking his opponent’s serve and securing a 3-0 lead that acted as a means to work his way back into the match. The crucial break came in the second game as Ward began to find his range, Pospisil sending the ball long from a deep Ward backhand.
Not that the match remained anything other than tight. The two players not only resembled one another from a distance on court – all rangy limbs and staccato bursts of movement – but in playing style. Both relied on solid serves and powerful forehands but Pospisil’s greater weaponry eventually told.
An epic rally at 30-30 in the third game of the third set gave Ward a single break point, which he took with a smart backhand to Pospisil’s feet. Amid an increasingly raucous atmosphere, he clenched his fist and raced to his chair for the changeover.
“Come on Wardy”. “Come on Ward”. “Come on James”. “Come on Jimmy”. Even, on one occasion, “Come on Mr Ward”. They weren’t quite sure what to call him, but they knew who they were backing.
Ward, softly spoken off the court but refusing to be overawed on it, looked far from the satellite circuit player he has been for much of his 11-year professional career. By the time he was broken for the second time in the third set, Pospisil was shooting despairing glances at his box.
But then the pendulum swung again and Pospisil was able to break Ward in the fourth game of the fourth set, the British player casually sending two regulation forehands into the net.
Ward, playing at his sixth Wimbledon, let Pospisil wrest back the initiative and he closed out the fourth set before dashing into a climactic fifth, where it always felt as if he held the upper hand.
At one point during that fourth set, the Canadian could be seen furiously consulting a notebook during a change of ends. Whatever it said, it worked.
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