If there is such a thing as a tipping point the scales yesterday may have fallen towards a raft of virtually unknown players and away from familiar faces as Wimbledon was denuded of its last big name yesterday in Maria Sharapova.
Even the 27-year-old Russian, who has won five Grand Slam events, the most recent in Paris last month at the French Open, conceded that a new era of change is sweeping through the sport, many of the faces almost invisible to anyone but the hard core fan – Eugenie Bouchard, Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep, Lucie Safarova.
Sharapova fell in three sets to Kerber and while the draw has lost some glamour, there are others quickly rising to meet that demand too.
Both Williams sisters, out of the singles and doubles events, are now in their 30s and while Sharapova is in her prime years, Germany’s Kerber met the Russian’s fire with her own unbreakable will in the quality match of the competition so far.
What will make Sharapova blink is that Kerber took her on at her own game of baseline grunt, made the bigger shots, was tactically astute in attacking the fifth seed’s backhand on serve and made less mistakes.
In a wayward performance Sharapova made 43 unforced errors to 11 from Kerber.
At stress points, where Kerber was expected to break mentally – and one of those was when Sharapova came back from a set down to level at 1-1 – the German met every Russian scream with her own wail and sonic boom.
Although the roof was open, Centre Court became a loud violent arena, the two players thundering balls mostly from the worn baseline, Sharapova dramatically saving seven match points in the third set before succumbing, a return that was again too long dropping just out for 7-6 (4) 4-6 6-4.
The match point sequence at the end of the match was a microcosm of the game, Sharapova managing to exert pressure from behind while struggling with her own game, her pluck and fiery competitive spirit always challenging Kerber to win the point.
Much to Kerber’s amusement after the match it was put to her that she was, much like the German football team, a player who never loses a shootout.
But Wimbledon needed something titanic, something large and orchestral in the women’s event and yesterday it finally got it. Sharapova was the hot favourite as soon as Serena Williams fell to Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, a crowd favourite here now as she’s named after the daughter of Fergie and Prince Andrew.
The queen bee tag has been short-lived with Sharapova’s numbers for her Wimbledon visits troubling. She won her only title 10 years ago and has made the quarter-finals just once in her last eight visits to the All England Club.
Despite reaching the last 16 without dropping a set, after yesterday’s loss she was ready to believe that the landscape was changing, or, if not believe it at least consider it might be.
“Yes and no,” she said. “The Grand Slam champions so far are myself and Li Na who have both won Grand Slams, yet you see a younger generation that’s driving through, playing exceptionally against top players. So you definitely see that shift.”
She was also careful to include herself in the future, even pointed about doing so. Her crisp, no-nonsense answers rightfully put her centre stage, where she intends to stay. As French Open champion there’s no quibble there but grass is another world.
“I always consider myself one of the favourites because I’ve won Grand Slams before. Been number one in the world,” she said. “It’s absolutely normal for people to have high expectations of me doing well in Grand Slam stages. I certainly do. Today could have gone either way and it didn’t go my way.”
Kerber, who had a 4-1 losing record against Sharapova but had beaten her on the clay in Paris in 2012, did not lack clarity in what she had to do. Against Sharapova’s respected fight and sharply focussed competitive spirit, so she went into conflict well-armed.
“You need to play really 100 per cent and you need to be ready for every single point, because she is playing until the last point, like we see today,” said the 26-year-old German.
“She is a great player. She’s confident. So before I went on court I was just telling myself, just go out there, enjoy it, and play like you are at practice. . and believe you can beat her.”
The top half of the draw sets Kerber against the punchy Canadian Bouchard and Romania's Simona Halep, the Roland Garros beaten finalist against Sabine Lisicki, who recovered from a mid game neck injury to beat Yaroslava Shvedova.
Kerber can now take up what has become over the last week or so an ill-fated tag. When Serena Willliams was beaten by Alize Cornet, the French woman fell in her next match. Sharapova then tumbled yesterday with Kerber now facing a 20-year-old from Montreal, who last year was voted WTA Newcomer of the Year in her breakthrough season. Bouchard has won just one title in Nuremburg this year.
Under normal circumstances Kerber would see it as an appetising quarter- final. But not this week as a new generation rolls in. Safarova beat Ekaterina Marakova 6-3, 6-1 to make the semifinals, while Petra Kvitova went through 6-1, 7-5 against Barbora Strycova.