Alfie Hewett has been banging the drum for British wheelchair tennis with almost the same frequency as he wins grand slam titles. The winner of 20 singles and doubles crowns believes his sport deserves its moment in the sun and on Friday, finally, he showed a rapt Court One crowd what it was all about.
The 24-year-old beat Gustavo Fernández 2-6, 7-6 (3), 7-5 in the men’s semi-final in just over three hours to make his first Wimbledon singles final. He came back after staring defeat in the face, two breaks down at 5-1 in the second set. What is more, he did it with the kind of play that is distinct to his form of the sport; every sinew constantly strained, every stroke conjured on the scramble and from compromised angles. That it was also a match marked – by both players – with moments of supreme skill only underlined Hewett’s argument that wheelchair tennis can please a crowd if given a chance.
On Thursday, Hewett had edged out Gordon Reid, his close friend and doubles partner, in a match that was standing room only on Court 14. This, Hewett had grumbled, was not a venue big enough for the occasion. His semi-final with Fernández had been set for No 3 Court, only for the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal to prompt a change of plan. “I was asleep at 9.30 last night and kept getting calls from the referee,” Hewett said. “I thought I could ignore but it was actually a court change. I couldn’t get much sleep after that.”
Opening on No 1 Court, there was a sleepy feel as the match began, among the crowd and Hewett both. Fernández, a burly Argentinian who won here in 2019, was straight into the zone, however. His powerful serve asked Hewett constant questions, his returns appeared a form of bullying at times.
Hewett slunk out of the first set quietly and appeared to be dropping like a stone in the second. But a growing crowd stuck with Hewett while growing in belief as the match became an even contest. After eight breaks of serve, a second set tie-break was decided by Hewett’s greater cunning, his disguised forehand claiming two crucial points as he came through 7-3.
It was in the third set that the match truly caught fire. At 3-4 and going with serve, Hewett stayed in rallies by scooping shots and hitting winners from the back wall of the court. He broke serve and let out a huge roar matched by the crowd. After a tense hold of serve, with nine deuces and mass holding of breath, he broke Fernández again and spread his arms in silent celebration as the crowd gave an uproarious ovation.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this before so thank you everyone”, an exhausted Hewett said afterwards, with the final set for Sunday. “We’ve been desperate to showcase our sport in front of a bigger crowd, and I think we showed a pretty good level today.”
Mertens and Zhang reach doubles final
Elise Mertens can cement her status as the women’s doubles No 1 when she and Zhang Shuai of China bid for their first grand slam title together at Wimbledon on Saturday. Mertens and Zhang, the No 1 seeds, beat the all-American pairing of Danielle Collins and Desiree Krawczyk 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 on Friday to reach the final and give Mertens the chance to win it for a second straight year.
Mertens and Zhang will take on the No 2 seeds and last year’s beaten finalists, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, who were too good for the fourth seeds, Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia and Lyudmyla Kichenok of Ukraine, winning 6-2, 6-2.
Sandwiched between the men’s semi-final between Novak Djokovic and Cameron Norrie, the two women’s semi-finals were enjoyed by the Centre Court crowd, having been elevated to the main stage after Rafael Nadal withdrew before his semi-final against Nick Kyrgios because of injury.
For Mertens it will be a chance to win her fourth doubles grand slam title, having partnered Aryna Sabalenka to beat Krejcikova and Siniakova in the Wimbledon final in 2021. For Zhang, it will be an opportunity to win her third grand slam doubles title, having won the Australian Open in 2019 and the US Open last year.
One of the quirks of the grand slams is that the junior singles finals get to be played on No 1 Court, often in front of a more than healthy crowd. The girls’ final will be between Luca Udverdy of Hungary and the American Liv Hovde, while Mili Poljicak of Croatia and Michael Zheng of the United States contest the boys’ final.
Rose Marie Nijkamp of the Netherlands and Lucija Ciric Bagaric of Croatia will play Canada’s Kayla Cross and Victoria Mboko for the girls’ doubles title, while the boys’ doubles final will be between Americans Sebastian Gorzny and Alex Michelsen and France’s Gabriel Debru and Paul Inchauspe.