‘My arm was non-existent’: Freezing in Centre Court is a cold and lonely place to be

Amanda Anisimova was too late in finding her game against 2019 champion Simona Halep in the Women’s Singles quarter-finals

Everyone knows the symptoms. They understand why it happens and recognise when it is happening. But few know how to stop it happening. Amanda Anisimova felt it happening in her quarter-final match on Centre Court, the court where it happens most. But there was nothing she could do to stop it from happening in only the second Grand Slam quarter-final in which she has played.

It was headlined as a fascinating encounter, encompassing one of the best returners and defenders in the world — Halep -versus one of the most aggressive players on the tour, the 20-year-old American. The problem was that the ferocious backcourt player hit 28 unforced errors to Halep’s six.

Too long, too wide, into the net. Halep, 10 years her senior, could only seize the moment, whizzing through the first set 6-2.

Anisimova kept hitting and hoping that her shots would begin to fall but, as the match went into the second set, the American found herself a set and a service break down and with nothing but blind belief that her normal game might magically resume.

“I think that I was quite stressed in this match,” she explained after losing 6-2, 6-4. “I don’t know. I just felt very stiff and frozen. I got very emotional in the chair because I wasn’t performing very well. I don’t really like playing not to the fullest of my abilities, especially in such a packed stadium. It’s very disappointing for me. So, I was very upset.”

The curious thing is it did come back. A set and 4-1 down and sitting in her chair with a towel over her head at the changeover and failing to stem the emotion of her disappointment, Anisimova stood up and came out swinging after Halep served for 5-2.

But it was all to late for the younger player, who served with new balls and instantly found the pace and direction and accuracy that had been missing. Defending her title for the first time since she won it in 2019, because of Covid and injury, the 30-year-old closed the match in just over an hour to meet Elena Rybakina in the semi-final.

“I don’t know. It just happens, I guess. You can’t be stress-free in every single match. Just today was that way,” said Anisimova. “But I think I have to work on my nerves, for sure. I think my arm was just non-existent today. I just couldn’t feel it. I was just missing such easy returns.”

Rybakina, the 17th seed, beat Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, taking the scenic route 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. The six-footer was born in Russia but later shifted her allegiance to Kazakhstan. In the light of Wimbledon banning all Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s tournament because of the invasion of Ukraine, her decision now seems prescient.

Born in 1999 in Moscow, she originally focused on gymnastics and ice skating. When she was told she was too tall to become a professional in either of those sports, her father suggested she switch to tennis because of his interest in the sport. Rybakina began playing tennis at the age of six.

She acquired Kazakh citizenship and switched federations at 19 years old, joining the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation who offered her financial support to change her nationality, which she chose over other options including college tennis in the United States.

“I mean, it’s tough question,” she said when asked if she felt Russian or Kazak. She is 23 years old now, so the switch occurred four years ago.

“I was born in Russia, but of course I am representing Kazakhstan. It’s already a long journey for me. I was playing Olympics, Fed Cup before. I got so much help and support. I’m feeling just the support of the people, very happy to represent Kazakhstan. Yeah, for me it’s tough question just to say exactly what I feel.”

Shrugging off the nerves, the big serves and thunderous groundstrokes arrived, making Rybakina the first Kazak player, man or woman, to reach a Grand Slam semi-final.

She finished the match with 15 aces, winning 76 per cent of points behind her first serve and averaging 109mph on her first delivery. Thirty-four winners left her racket over three sets, more than double Tomljanovic’s contribution.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times