The shock exit of Novak Djokovic was almost matched, if not eclipsed, in the women's singles yesterday, his compatriot, the top seed and world No 1 Ana Ivanovic, coming within a whisker of second-round defeat at the hands of the experienced Nathalie Dechy.
The 29-year-old Frenchwoman had two match points to win in straight sets what then turned into one of Wimbledon's epic battles. It eventually finished 6-7, 7-6, 10-8.
A swirling wind on Court One contributed to an enthralling if error-strewn encounter, which lasted a backside-numbing three hours and 23 minutes. It wasn't even the longest women's match at these championships – on Monday Julia Georges took three hours 40 minutes to beat Katarina Srebotnik 4-6, 7-6, 16-14, which in turn was five minutes shy of the longest women's singles match ever recorded, the 1995 second-round marathon between Chandra Rubin and Patricia Hy-Boulais – but rarely can a top seed have been made to work so hard to reach the third round. Yet when Ivanovic raced to a 3-0 lead in the first set, having broken her opponent to love, the match seemed likely to be resolved before the end of the One o'clock News. Three hours later, it looked as though it might not be over before Newsnight.
Nick Bollettieri, in these pages yesterday, presciently suggested that Ivanovic might not have it all her own way. "Boy, will she keep the ball in play," he wrote of Dechy, and boy, did she. Ivanovic unleashed plenty of her trademark boomers from the baseline, but the pencil-thin Dechy was redoubtable in defence, and none too shabby in attack. "Playing this level against a top player was something that I didn't do for such a long time," Dechy said afterwards.
She was hugely gracious in the wake of an agonising defeat and was asked whether that is always so. "I had to work on myself," she replied, "because five minutes ago I was crying very hard." This was her 13th consecutive appearance here, and she has an unenviable record of losing to some illustrious players, including Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Jana Novotna, a list to which Ivanovic can now be added, but only just.
When she finally finished things off, the superstitious Serb gave a shriek of joy, before running forward to kiss Dechy on both cheeks, followed by kisses to the crowd, and, most significantly of all, a heartfelt kiss for the top of the net, for at 4-5 and 30-40 in the second set it had come to her rescue in the most dramatic fashion. She had just saved one match point, but then enjoyed some outrageous fortune. An attempted forehand pass clipped the net, jumped into the air and seemed almost to hover, as if deciding which side to drop. There are moments in even the most frenetic of sporting encounters when time seems to stand still. This was one such. But the ball dropped on Dechy's side. Agony for the Frenchwoman, ecstasy for the Serb. Both match points saved.
"It was just amazing," Ivanovic said afterwards, of the net cord. "I was really shocked, yeah, for a few seconds. I just felt so, so lucky. Someone from upstairs made the ball roll over."
Dechy concurred on the subject of divine intervention. "I was like, 'Gee, there's maybe somebody in the sky who helped her on that one'. But it's part of this sport, and it's why this sport is so difficult but so beautiful at the same time." Did she see Ivanovic kissing the net at the end of the match. "Did she kiss the net?" A rueful smile. "The net deserved it."
Had she lost, Ivanovic would have been as much to blame as her opponent and the troublesome wind. In the first set she landed a pitiful 45 per cent of her first serves, which at least rose to 72 per cent in the decider. But she looked shaky throughout, and was lucky that Dechy was also vulnerable on her serve. There were 11 breaks altogether, six for Ivanovic and five for Dechy, which just about matches the rate between middle-aged mums on the wearing carpet across the road in Wimbledon Park.
In the end, however, the greater class of Ivanovic narrowly told. It would be insensitive to say of a young woman who grew up finding time to practise between Nato air raids that she hits her groundstrokes like missiles – she and her fellow Serbs know better than anyone that military metaphors have no place in sport – but they certainly travel with intent. If she can find her range and cut out the unforced errors, of which there were far too many yesterday, she might yet live up to her billing, although she might have to accept that she has used up her allocation of luck.
Elsewhere, the second-round results largely followed the form book. The sixth seed, Serena Williams, and last year's finalist, Marion Bartoli both won in straight sets, the 2006 champion, Amélie Mauresmo, took three to beat Spain's Virginia Ruano Pascual, while Svetlana Kuznetsova, seeded four, enjoyed a relative stroll against Kateryna Bondarenko, winning 6-2, 6-3. Her fellow Russian, the eighth seed Anna Chakvetadze, also had a straightforward win, beating Edina Gallovits of Romania 6-4, 6-2. Of all the leading women it is Ivanovic most in need of a day off today.