Photo by Tim Edwards

Rob Fahey wins the 2018 World Championship seven sets to five:
6-4, 3-6, 5-6, 0-6, 6-5, 6-4, 6-3, 6-1, 5-6, 0-6, 6-3, 6-3

2018 World Championship First Day by James Zug

World Championship

First Day

By James Zug

The 2018 World Championship sponsored by Moore Stephens began at Queen’s Club last night with a bang. The galleries were absolutely jammed. In the dedans was HRH the Earl of Wessex, former World Champion Chris Ronaldson, as well as visitors from all the playing nations. Even two new fans from Vienna sat in the dedans, watching court tennis for their very first time.

Jonathan Howell introduced the players. Andrew Lyons, the marker for his ninth world championship, spun the coin on the East Court. and Rob Fahey, in the unusual position of being the challenger for the first time since 1994, won and elected to serve.

Fahey wore gray sneakers and a watch, with a Grays racquet with a gray grip. Camden Riviere, the defending world champion, wore his now trademark bright raspberry orange sneakers and his Gold Leaf racquet bore a matching raspberry orange grip. He wore a white sweatband on his left wrist. Both men, unusually, wore the same shirt—a shirt made for the world championship with the sponsor’s logo on the back. Both had their shirts untucked.

It was a damp, humid evening in London—rain spitting down outside—when the match began at 6:48pm.

Fahey came out firing in the first set, hitting the ball with enormous venom. He slammed nine balls into the dedans during the set. He looked the more comfortable of the two. The score inched along—1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, etc—as Riviere was unable to put any distance between him and Fahey. Riviere notched his first dedan at the end of a great point in the fifth game. Then at 4-4, Fahey blitzed the set in remarkable fashion. He won seven points in a row and ten of eleven. He finished off the set with a brilliant main-wall force to the dedan.

Riviere bounced back, immediately grabbing the first two games of the second set. Both players, nerves settled, played sloppily in stages. Riviere went up 3-1 and then Fahey clawed back, during two long games, to knot the score at 3-3. Riviere dashed to 4-3 and then a very decisive moment: the eighth game lasted more than fifteen minutes, with eight deuces. Both players had multiple game points and it was Riviere who went through and on to win the game and then quickly the set. He played with more aggression, totting up six dedan forces, twice the number compared with the first set. Even some pigeons, cooing loudly from the roof of the court, seemed to applaud the South Carolinian.

The third set was where the first day was held in the balance. In quick fashion Riviere dashed to a 3-1 lead and it looked like a runaway. But Fahey slowly but steadily hung around, flicking balls off the tambour in the side galleries for chases. Twice he finished off games with a bullet to the grille (he had three for the set). He got back to 3-3. Then Riviere went back up 5-3, his speed and footwork astonishingly brilliant. Fahey hung on for dear life and pushed it to an eleventh and final game. But Riviere pushed ahead early in the game and with the serve was able to escape with the set.

The wind went out in the fourth set. Fahey looked a bit tired after all the effort and magnificent play in the first three sets. Riviere continued to retrieve balls that looked dead to rights, extending points. He played controlled, purposeful, gritty tennis, pulling Fahey around the court, never giving him the room to work for chases on the floor. It was the first time in all of Fahey’s fourteen world championship matches in which he lost the fourth set. After two and a half hours of grueling play, Riviere had a 3-1 lead going into the rest day.

First day: 4-6, 6-3, 6-5, 6-0

2018 World Championship Second Day by James Zug

Second Day of the 2018 World Championship

by James Zug


The punters on Palliser Road were anticipating a Camden Riviere romp on the second day.

On the first day Rob Fahey had come out guns blazing on the first day, abandoning his usual slow start modus operandi far behind. He cannoned balls into openings and moved with great vim and vigor. He grabbed the first set, which he has rarely done in the past decade, and then he almost nipped the next two sets. The effort, though, had exhausted him and he plummeted in the fourth set.

Surely on day two, four days before he turns fifty, the gray-haired Methuselah would not put on a repeat performance and capture anything more than perhaps a single set? Fahey had rested on the rest day; Riviere, still thirty years-old, had come to Queen’s Club and worked mostly on serves and returns.

Thursday was a dry, sun-speckled day in West Kensington, with less moisture in the air. Many of the hundred and thirty people who crowded in the galleries had come from the third-annual tennis history conference organized by Freddy Adam and felt that history could possibly be made this day. The audience also included former world champions Howard Angus, Charlotte Cornwallis and Penny Lumley.

The fifth set—the first of the day—started much the same as the first set on the first day: the Tasmanian was firing on all cylinders while the South Carolina sandlapper was spinning the ball to all corners of the court. Fire and ice.

The score was tight as usual, with only a single game separating the two men. Fahey tried almost every type of serve in the book. After the first day when he hit mostly demi-piques, on the second day he experimented with bobbles, caterpillars, chandelles, giraffes, railroads, underarm twists. Everything but the boomerang. It was an extraordinary show of skill and technique.

Amid a barrage of forces—Fahey totted up seven balls into the dedans and five into the grille (the latter more than he hit in the entire first day)—the challenger shot ahead from a 3-3 deadlock to a 5-3 lead. Riviere slabbed back to 5-5, punctuating his recovery with an emphatic blast to the grille to take the game at 4-5. He had seven grilles in the set, but only two forces to the dedan—a slight sign that he wasn’t as in control of the pace of play as he might have liked. After a full hour of arduous play, Fahey took the eleventh game easily.

The sixth set also took an hour. This time Riviere, his carrot-colored shoelaces a blur on court as much as his matching hair, started out stronger. He established small leads of 2-0 and 3-1. But Fahey roared back. At one point, defending a lob that was soaring towards the grille, Fahey did his trademark move and climbed the wall with one leg to flick a volley cross-court into second gallery. Again, Fahey was hitting targets, with three winning galleries and four grilles, if only two dedans. Riviere improved with six forces to the dedans but just two grilles and one winning gallery. Titanic games concluded the set, with saved game balls and superb, breathtaking rallies. The score was knotted at 4-4 and Fahey barely took the next two games.

He raised his arms, gesticulating to the crowd. Suddenly, the world championship was tied at three-all.

The gallery gave a standing ovation. Then everyone, exhausted from the tension, took a ten-minute break as Andrew Lyons ordered the court to be mopped as it had gotten slightly slippery.

The intermission did not restore Riviere’s confidence. Fahey sprinted to leads: 2-0, 4-1, 5-2. Riviere was not moving well, stiff and tight, with a niggle in his hip. He repeatedly missed volleys. He was not serving as well as he needed to—his demi-piques were too loose, his railroads lacked bite and Fahey was swinging freely on the returns. At one stage, Riviere double-faulted—on a failed drag and railroad. Also, he was not ending points efficiently: he had just two grilles and two forces to the dedans in the third set. Fahey mixed things up, hitting lovely cut volleys and good balls to length while at the same time putting balls away: two winning galleries, five grilles and five dedans. Riviere saved two set points, including a rare chase-off on a boast to hit worse than three, but again the set went to Fahey.

The eighth set was the shortest of the day. At 15-all in the first game, at the end of another magical, epic point, Riviere leapt for a high-blown ball heading to the dedans. He fell hard, twisting his left ankle. Stunned, he lay on the court motionless for a minute. He resumed play and won the game. It was to be the last game he’d win that day. Slightly hobbled, his movement deteriorated. His retrieving was no longer miraculous. Fahey, sensing blood in the water, moved in for the kill, ripping off seven dedans including one final bullet to take the set.

Veteran observers in the gallery felt this was the most extraordinary, unexpected and brilliant day of tennis they had ever seen, surpassing even the famous day three of the 2002 world championship at Hampton Court. The result on the second day reiterated the impressive brilliance of Riviere’s win in 2016 in Newport and the GOAT-status of Fahey.

Only twice in the two-hundred-and two-year history of recorded match play for the world championship has a former champion returned to reclaim his title: Peter Latham in 1907 and Fred Covey in 1922 (after the controversial Jay Gould match of 1914). Both occurred in London. On Saturday, two days before his fiftieth birthday, Fahey has a real chance of following in their footsteps and capturing his lucky thirteenth world championship title.

Second day:

6-5, 6-4, 6-3, 6-1

2018 World Championship Third Day by James Zug

Third Day of the 2018 World Championship

By James Zug

The unthinkable became possible and then at the very end inevitable this week at Queen’s Club.

For the first time nearly a century, an open world singles champion has reclaimed his title. In 1922 Fred Covey, displaced in 1914 by Jay Gould, returned by winning down the road from here at Prince’s Club in Knightsbridge. (We should not forget, though that Penny Fellows Lumley in the women’s world championship achieved this remarkable feat not once but twice, in 1995 and again in 2003.)

Today, Robert Leo Fahey pulled off the miracle. With a vibrant combination of patience and power, the Tasmanian wound back the clock and two days before turning fifty granted himself the most wondrous birthday present.

The weather for the third day was cold and damp, a drizzly dour afternoon. The match began just after two o’clock. Camden Riviere was looking in fine fettle, worries about his left ankle washed away. It had not swollen up after the second day, and in fact he had enjoyed an afternoon’s walk on the rest day (instead of playing tennis) around the Tower of London. He sported long compression socks, running up to his knees. Fahey wore socks barely visible above the neck of his sneakers.

Like the first two days, the third day began with a Fahey blitzkrieg. He flashed to a 4-0 lead. It wasn’t because of rampant forcing like before: he notched only two in the set (but did have three winning galleries). But rather he dictated the play, sending Riviere from side to side with spinning balls to the floor and up and back on boasts. Again and again, Fahey forced Riviere to change direction, twisting and turning.

After the match, Fahey said that those first four games of the ninth set were perhaps the best single stretch of play he has ever had in his thirty-year career.

A true champion, Riviere weathered the storm. At 4-1, Riviere banged his racquet on his right knee while trying to pick up a blistered low ball off the back wall under the dedans. Perhaps it woke him up. Fahey went up 5-2, just a game from grabbing a key sixth set and leaving Riviere with absolutely no margin of error.

Riviere slowly but steadily staunched the bleeding. 5-3. 5-4. 5-5. He smacked a ball into the grille to finish off one game. He stoutly defended the dedans. He hit targets. In the eleventh game, he was up 15-0, then 15-all and he got two chases. 30-15. 30-all and then he grabbed the next two points. Unbelievable.

The tenth set was a wash. Riviere, on a glorious run, took all six games on the trot. Fahey looked a bit out of sorts: the effort, the strain and much like the third set on the first day, nothing to show for it. He queried about a light coming off someone’s watch in the clerestory. He put balls up on the penthouse—two during one particularly regrettable point. The ninth set took fifty minutes; the tenth set just eighteen.

Now, after ten hours of play, everything was back to square one: a tied match, the best of out of three sets to go. Riviere had the momentum, a streak of ten straight games. Fahey was on the back foot.

Fahey took the first game of the eleventh set, and the score inched along, one player going ahead by a game, the other tying it back up. Three of the first four games went to deuce, one to three deuces before resolution.

Almost imperceptibly, the match changed. Fahey, the old storyteller, was able to write yet one more masterpiece. He slowed down the match. He took his time between points. He had Andrew Lyons, the marker, clear balls. He calmed the atmosphere. He stopped fist-pumping and roaring after a winning shot. He continued to handle balls off the tambour with aplomb—once three times in a single point. For the first serve, he served the giraffe almost exclusively; it often faulted. (“Always was terrible at this serve,” he joked to the dedans after a particularly awful giraffe.) But when the high parabolic ball dropped in, it landed like a butterfly with sore feet, pinning Riviere to the back wall and giving him only a boast as a response. And his second serve, the demi-pique, was equally challenging.

Meanwhile, Riviere was not serving well. He had spent weeks at Queen’s this year, practicing his serves. At Newport two years ago, his railroad was a marvel. Here it didn’t work. He stayed with his demi-pique and his sidewall railroad. Neither troubled Fahey and the challenger potted gallery chases almost at will. Riviere had never beaten Fahey at Queen’s in six previous attempts.

Fahey pushed ahead from 3-3. Then the moment the dye was cast. It came late in the set, after Riviere had already saved one set point. Fahey, on the hazard side, slapped a ball toward last gallery. It bounced off the bandeau and flew into the dedans. The coup de Fahey. The galleries recalled a similarly crucial moment on the third day at Hampton Court in 2002, with Tim Chisholm barreling towards the thirteenth set, a set point, a chase of less than two yards and Fahey sublimely striking a similar shot. It was eerie.

The twelfth set was equally miraculous. Fahey dashed to a 3-0 lead, then 4-1, then 5-2. By now he could taste victory. He had just three dedans and one grille in the eleventh set; in the twelfth, he hammered the ball: eight dedans, five grilled and three winning galleries. (He double-faulted once.) Riviere hung on for dear life. He repeatedly won Fahey game balls. At 2-5, he saved a championship ball. But the following game, Fahey pushed him back to the brink. On second championship point, Fahey feathered a backhand into the winning gallery. He fell to the floor. Then he stood, raised his arms and dropped his racquet. Twenty-four years after becoming world champion, he was world champion again.

He raised the world championship trophy. “I used to think that I owned this trophy,” he said. “Now I know I’m just borrowing it.”

 

Third day:
5-6, 0-6, 6-3, 6-3

 

Rob Fahey wins the 2018 World Championship seven sets to five:
6-4, 3-6, 5-6, 0-6, 6-5, 6-4, 6-3, 6-1, 5-6, 0-6, 6-3, 6-3

Closing Thoughts by James Zug

Challenge Week at Queen’s Club was extraordinary. The tennis was amazing. All three days were incredibly tense and exciting, with beautiful play, courageous comebacks and wonderful sportsmanship. More than one observer said that it was the most engrossing display of tennis they had ever witnessed.

Camden Riviere played marvelously and was unfortunate to lose such a close match. On a court that didn’t suit him, Cam performed at the highest level and showed the heart of a champion.

Rob Fahey cemented his standing as the greatest player of all-time by reclaiming the world championship title two days before his fiftieth birthday. Not only has he now captured the title an unprecedented thirteen times but his reign as world champion will collectively last at least twenty-four years, incredibly closing in on Pierre Etchebaster’s previously unapproachable record of twenty-six years as world champion.

The galleries were packed with Americans: family and friends from South Carolina and Georgia and from nearly every club in the U.S. We were joined by many dozens of tennis people from around the world, including a large cohort from The Netherlands. It was a magnificent demonstration of the global tennis community. There were familiar faces like Alistair Curley, who has attended every world championship challenge match since 1981, and many people brand new to the game. During the first day, I sat next to two fans from Vienna who had literally never seen tennis before.

During the week, Queen’s hosted many formal meetings and informal conversations on the terrace or in the main bar/restaurant, four cocktail parties and a black-tie champions dinner. Some of us played in the pro-am or the handicap doubles. Craig Corrance & Ben Ronaldson won the pro-am, topping HRH the Earl of Wessex and Jonners Howell in the final, while Gavin Hughes & Andrew Dowie won the Handicap Doubles final over Robert Falkner and Steve De Voe. Many of us attended the third-annual tennis history conference there, where we heard about the history of courts in London and Venice and the discovery of at least two courts in Dutch Brazil in the 1640s—the first known tennis courts in South America.

Challenge Week is the ultimate gathering of the tribe. As an Australia said, “our sport is small but strong; our players are not many but great in spirit.”