Officially, Alexander Zverev’s dreams of a first grand slam title ended after three hours and 20 minutes of gloriously unpredictable tennis with a sorrowful shake of Ernests Gulbis’s hand. Deep down, however, the No 4 seed knew the game was up long before his 7-6 (2), 4-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-0 defeat after the effects of a stomach bug ripped all the energy from his body.
“It felt like somebody just unplugged me in the middle of the fourth set,” said Zverev, who had not eaten for over 24 hours. “There was no going back for me.”
From that stage, Zverev was unable to win another game. And Gulbis, whose talent has often been masked by a playboy lifestyle and too many injuries, took ruthless advantage.
“No doubt about it – he’s playing well,” Zverev said. “Getting through the qualifiers gave him a lot of confidence. And I actually thought I didn’t play that bad – I just started to feel very tired.”
Even in a tournament that has featured a bloodbath of seeds, this was a particularly savage shock. No one has managed more wins on the ATP Tour this year than Zverev. Gulbis had won only one Tour match in 2018 before Wimbledon and has been working his way back up the rankings on the Challenger Tour.
“I saw that he was getting tired in the fifth set,” said the Latvian, smiling. “I was feeling physically really good. I started to play smarter. I tried to move him more. I realised that he was getting tired, yes, so …” Cue another smile.
The difference, reckoned Gulbis, came down to experience, because of the fact he is eight years older than the 21-year-old Zverev.
“I think he’s a future grand slam winner,” Gulbis said. “Probably my experience and fitness kicked in. But he’s going to find his way. Everybody does. He has a good team around him, people who know how to work, who know what to give him, these extra things. I think he’s going to be able to do it.”
Next up for Gulbis will be the 24th seed, Kei Nishikori, who benefited from an indifferent performance from the 15th seed, Nick Kyrgios, as he won 6-1, 7-6 (3), 6-4 in only 97 minutes just before evening fell on No 1 Court.
“I was talking to Nick beforehand and I said there is no way we will finish the match,” Nishikori said, “but I played one of the best matches of my life.”
Juan Martín del Potro outpowered Benoît Paire 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3. Del Petro is seeded fifth, is 6ft 6in and yet somehow has slipped into the second week of Wimbledon almost by stealth. Few are talking about the Argentinian as a potential winner next Sunday but he is still yet to drop a set.
“I don’t know how far I will go in the tournament but I’m confident,” Del Potro said. “I know my game, it’s adapting well for this surface and I won in three sets, which is good for my body.”
Crucially for his hopes there are no issues with the career-threatening wrist injury that kept him out during most of 2014 and 2015. “I’m not having any pain so I am able to hit the two-handed backhand more often, which is good for my whole game,” he said. It showed in the stats, with Del Potro hitting 32 winners to 16 unforced errors.
The match was sealed after two hours and 24 minutes with an ace, a loud cry of “Vamos!” and a kiss blown to the skies.
Next he plays another Frenchman, Gilles Simon, who beat the Australian Matthew Ebden in four sets,
“I had my chances to win here a few years ago when I lost against Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals,” he said, ruefully. “So I’m going match by match, see what could happen. But I always say the same: Roger and Rafa Nadal are the favourites, although there are many players who can be important in the last matches too.”
And highest of all on that list? Surely Del Potro himself.