karol-beckThe first day of the 2009 Wimbledon Championships witnessed a number of matches in which dangerous players flirted with disaster. For Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, a dance with danger turned out to be deadly.

Lopez, who reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon last year (before losing to Marat Safin) and has typically performed well on the lawns of suburban London, tumbled out of SW19 on Monday afternoon. The 21st-seeded lefty fell to lucky loser Karol Beck of Slovakia, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 4-6, 10-8. The shocking result put smiles on the faces of other ATP pros (more on that in a bit) while adding to the disappointing nature of a largely unfulfilled career.

Lopez is a man blessed with a booming serve, springy legs, and a generally explosive game that should flourish on faster surfaces. It’s hard enough to return a truly lethal serve from anyone, but Lopez’s left-handed delivery should make this top-30 player extremely hard to beat. Yet, a penchant for mind-numbing inconsistency, particularly from the backhand wing, has prevented the 27-year-old from playing deep into the second week at major tournaments. Aside of two Wimbledon quarterfinal showings-last year and also in 2005-Lopez has never advanced past the fourth round in any slam event. No man with his assemblage of serves, volleys, and rocket-fast forehands should find himself so regularly outclassed in the Grand Slam spotlight.

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What makes this defeat particularly galling for the No. 21 seed (ranked 27th, but seeded higher because of Wimbledon’s weighted seeding system) is that it came against an opponent who, one week ago, wasn’t in the field of 128.

Beck cracked the main draw at Wimbledon only because Marcos Baghdatis pulled out of the tournament just before it started. Moreover, Beck had not competed in a slam event since the 2005 U.S. Open. The 27-year-old Slovakian was hit with a two-year suspension in the fall of ’05 for taking a banned substance (clenbuterol). Without the match toughness that reinforces a foundation of fitness, Beck and his rusty game weren’t good enough to reclaim a spot in a Grand Slam singles draw. If Baghdatis-a former Wimbledon semifinalist-hadn’t been bitten by the injury bug, Beck would have likely spent this week on the challenger circuit. Instead, the journeyman was able to face down Feliciano and slay the huge-serving Spaniard, who will leave the All-England Club with a pit in his sickened stomach.

Beyond the personal setback this represents for Lopez’s career, this result will gladden other competitors in the bottom quarter of the men’s draw (led by Roger Federer, who also advanced in Monday’s opening-round action). The man slated to potentially play Lopez in the third round was Sweden’s Robin Soderling, the 13th seed who made headlines a few weeks ago by storming to the French Open final against Federer. Soderling-who fought past Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller in four sets on Monday-would have had a terrible time against Lopez’s fireballs. Now that the 21st seed is out of the way, Soderling’s chances of a fourth-round rematch with Fed have increased considerably. On clay or even hardcourts, Lopez’s somewhat suspect backhand make him a target, but on grass, the Spaniard is usually the one who shoots to kill. Due to Beck’s unexpectedly quick upset of Lopez, everyone else in that subsection of the men’s draw will sleep a little more hopefully tonight.

And so, the circle is completed as The Championships begin anew: Marcos Baghdatis’s loss was Karol Beck’s salvation, Feliciano Lopez’s humiliation, and Robin Soderling’s gain. Not a bad set of plot twists for a tournament that still has 13 days left to run.


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