After the joy of staring down a big name on the biggest stage and summoning the best version of herself when the moment required nothing less, Katie Boulter arrived for a new day on No 2 Court in one of the most nerve-racking situations a player can navigate: an opportunity.
Never before had either Boulter or Harmony Tan reached the third round of a grand slam and only three ranking spots separated them, No 118 and No 115. They had usurped Karolina Pliskova and Serena Williams in the intense surrounds of Center Court, yet here they stood in a match that would not have looked out of place at a low-level ITF event even though a grand-slam fourth round and £190,000 were on the line.
In the end, though, Boulter never had a chance. Her breakout from her Wimbledon from her came to an end in brutal fashion as So expertly blunted her weapons and exposed her weaknesses from her. With a tremendous performance the Frenchwoman continued her dream of her Wimbledon by dominating Boulter 6-1, 6-1 in 51 minutes to reach the second week of a grand slam tournament for the first time.
Afterwards Boulter described herself as “emotionally drained” after her efforts both at Wimbledon and over the course of the grass-court season having only just returned from injury. She felt off as early as her warm up in the morning. “I sort of went from zero to a hundred quite quickly,” she said. “This week has probably been the tipping point. I’ve played some great matches. It’s also been very emotional. I think today was one step too far for me.”
The All England Club’s decision not to put their encounter on one of the top two courts had sparked criticism from some quarters but, even a roaring crowd of 100,000 would have done little to halt the momentum of Tan, whose level has only grown since her opening round win against Williams.
From the beginning, Tan was sublime. She brandished all of her variety of ella once more, making Boulter uncomfortable by forcing her to move with drop shots, her backhand slice skidding low, and she swept to the net with ease. She refused to allow Boulter the same type of shot two times in a row and the British player sprayed errors and overhit as she searched for rhythm while forced to generate all of the pace on the ball herself.
Unlike against Williams, when practically every other forehand from her was a slice, Tan also imposed herself. She prodded Boulter with her forehand, threading winners and exposing her substandard movement. She flashed passing shots with ease. So even served well, normally an obvious weakness, ending the first set with three aces in the game. The constant pressure, point after point, forced Boulter to take more risks and commit more errors while Tan finished with a near-flawless five unforced errors along with 16 winners.
While Thursday’s win over Karolina Pliskova had been a reflection of Boulter’s talents, the weapons at her disposal, this was a reminder of her limitations. Charged with creating pace on the ball herself, unlike against Pliskova, and problem-solving against a tricky opponent competing at a consistently high level, Boulter looked out of ideas before the first set was finished. Her spirit crushed her, she double-faulted on match point to end a difficult day on court.
The rise of Tan is yet another reminder of the talent that exists beyond the top 100, which so often just needs the right circumstances to thrive. Tan explained that despite coming from a wealthy nation, she did not have much support in her youth. She cited her coach, former player Nathalie Tauziat, as one of the few people who ever believed in her. “When I was young, they told me that I cannot be a really good player with this game, so it was really tough for me. I didn’t have any help, and financially it was really hard,” she said.
Before Wimbledon, Tan played on the grass courts of the WTA 125 event in Gaiba. The first high level Italian event on grass, the courts were created on an old football pitch. there was a slight problem – the ball simply did not bounce. Tan reached the semi-final by serving and volleying, and doing everything to avoid the ball bouncing. The tournament helped to refine her variety of her, and on the pristine courts of Wimbledon she has thrived. “I just return her serve like I can, and play some slice, some dropshots, volleys, and everything worked today,” she said. Then she smiled. “I think she don’t like my game.”
For Boulter, this has still been a wonderful week and grass season. The removal of ranking points at Wimbledon means she will fall eight places in the rankings, but she has imbued herself with the belief that she can battle with and defeat the best players in the world. She managed her emotions admirably despite learning of the death of her grandmother after her first-round match. Now, the simple goal is to put herself in the position to compete on these stages regularly.
“It’s easy to say that I believe, but I’ve done it for the past four weeks off the back of an injury. Going forward, if I can kind of use this momentum, I really feel like I’m going to be in a great place by the end of the year,” she said.