Yesterday’s Wimbledon final was the best that I have seen in about five years, minus the stirring spectacle we had last year of an entire nation behind one man attempting to capture a title. The fact that Andy Murray easily dispatched Novak Djoković was beside the point; a British man (a Scot, but still) had won Wimbledon at last. One can only hope that the wait for the next American U.S. Open winner won’t be nearly as long as the 77 years it took between Fred Perry and Andy Murray. But I digress. A great match it was for those who saw it – scintillating points, back and forth, both players really at the tops of their games.
An interesting dynamic has developed at the top of the tennis world, which took effect when Djoković came into his own in 2011. Roger Federer proved he was the only one of the three capable of consistently beating the Djoker, ending his spectacular run to start the season in the semis at Roland Garros. Rafael Nadal would lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals to him in that period (2011 Wimbledon, 2011 US Open, 2012 Australian Open), and though he has regained the upper hand against Djoković recently, it can be said that he’s only a sure thing against him on clay, at least these days. Andy Murray got wiped out in the Aussie Open final in 2011, and never seriously challenged for the title elsewhere, either. Somehow the old man of the group, the gentlemanly Federer, who never overpowered anyone with blunt force, brought out the very best in Djoković then and on Sunday, as he does whenever they play.
Federer looked much like his old self again. In the Wimbledon final, we saw flashes of his old brilliance: he was moving well, using his flat rather than slice backhand, ripping his forehand, serving live grenades, and rushing the net quite frequently (to mixed effect on his deep slice returns, but he still won two-thirds of those points and had some tremendous volley finishes). He acquitted himself really well against a much younger player and gave himself a great chance to win. He was spry, leaping high to smash overheads and even getting a net cord or two to go his way. He had a preposterous half-volley on a break point after rushing the net that, when it paid off, really made laypeople like myself believe he was going to do it again; that the magic was back.
However, in the fifth set, the serve started to look shaky, and when he dumped an easy overhead into the net for a chance to go up 30-15 on Djoković’s serve, you sensed something was amiss. Djoković held, Federer never threatened his serve again, and all of a sudden, Fed looked like the player he’s been the last three years or so: still really good, but missing shots he normally makes and not moving as well as he used to. He reverted to the new Federer, whether out of exhaustion (he’d been on the court nearly four hours, though he’d spent four fewer hours than Djoković on the court in the tournament leading up to the final) or constant Djoković pressure, we will never know. But there was a definite transition in his game from the beginning of the fourth set, when he got more aggressive, to the fifth, when he started looking meeker, hoping the title would come to him.
I want to give all the credit in the world to Novak for some absolutely superb tennis, reclaiming his Wimbledon crown and the number one ranking, and moving toward being off notice for me. He also showed a lot of tact in recognizing how monumental it is, even at Federer’s age, to beat him at Wimbledon, saying, with tongue only partially in cheek, “Thank you for letting me win.”
As sad as it was to see Federer lose when he really could have had the title, I’ve realized that every time he defies expectations and contends, he adds to the legend. Every time a younger player has to stare in awe at some improbable passing shot or wonder why he just won’t go away, he adds to the legacy. Every time the Wimbledon crowd cheers him on like Andy Murray at set point, every time he beats the odds and keeps Father Time at bay for another season, he adds credibility to the claim that he is the greatest ever. At his age (33 going on 34), making the final and competing day in and day out does him almost as much credit as winning. His performance these past weeks was legendary. (I believe) He is the best there ever was.
This match featured a lot of elements I had been hoping to write about for some time. Tennis is a tricky game, and play can be unforgiving at times. Consider the fourth set. Djoković had served first, giving him a crucial edge that makes a single break of serve appear as a 3-0 score instead of a 2-0 score if it is immediately consolidated (hold-break-hold instead of break-hold). Djoković held a 5-2 edge in that set after three consecutive breaks of serve and a hold. Federer served and held for 5-3. Djoković, with the match on his racket, tightened up and got broken to get it to 5-4, but the importance of the Serb serving first popped up again, as Federer had to hold again to reach the safe haven of five games. It nearly didn’t happen, as Djoković managed to get a championship point on Fed’s serve. The Swiss saved it, held, and then broke Djoković again to serve for the set (which he did, successfully).
Just like that, a fleeting championship opportunity was obscured in the inscrutable future of a fifth and deciding set. Tennis isn’t like timed sports. A match will go on as long as it needs to, and seeing the end is not the same as snatching the trophy. Djoković didn’t see another championship point for over 40 minutes. Those points hide, duck, and are difficult to ferret out, and have to be seized immediately or they go away, possibly for good. Djoković was lucky to get another chance to grab his, and he seized the moment the second time around.
Years from now, when we write the books on the careers of the big four, I feel overwhelmingly confident that none of the other three will have enjoyed nearly as much longevity as Fed. Nobody else will have given such beauty and artistry to the game; nobody else will have kept playing for pleasure or to challenge himself at the highest level either. And whether or not he still holds the record for most Grand Slam titles or whether that number ever edges closer to twenty, you know by the fact that he still sheds a tear when he loses how deeply he cares about this game. He just understands that life isn’t only about winning, and that allows him to separate tennis from everything else in a way that the greatest athletes are rarely ever able to do. For the great Roger Federer, it truly is most about how he played the game.
In other notes, Petra Kvitova totally overpowered Eugenie Bouchard, who, it has to be remembered, was the girls’ champion only two years ago. We can perhaps expect great things from the young guns in both the men’s and women’s sides of tennis going forward (or not, if you believe this), but this match was nothing to write home about. Kvitova was in control from the outset, creating chaos with her serve and forehand, never letting Bouchard get comfortable, and asserting herself as a true grass court champion. With Serena Williams and Li Na struggling, there’s suddenly an opening at the top of the women’s game for someone of Kvitova’s or Maria Sharapova’s talent to step in and claim the number one ranking or the U.S. Open title.
Serious props go out to Jack Sock of the United States and Vasek Pospisil of Canada (who, along with Bouchard and men’s singles semifinalist Milos Raonic, was one of three Canadians to make the late stages of their draws. Great stuff.) for winning the men’s doubles title over the perennial champion Bryan brothers in five taut sets. I saw Sock play doubles with James Blake at the U.S. Open last year; his very strong forehand seems much more suited to the singles game, but serves him extraordinarily well in hitting winners off weak serves in the doubles draw as well. Amazingly, this was their first (and hopefully not last) time playing together, proving that when playing styles complement each other well, anything can happen.
To wrap things up (and thank you for sticking around to the bitter end), young qualifier Noah Rubin won the boys’ singles title, and three of the four semifinalists were Americans. Perhaps there is reason to hope going forward, though it will take years for these youngsters to develop into senior-level ATP champions, especially if the previously referenced article is right about age being more of an asset than ever before, up to a certain point.
I promise that my next piece will include something about the “shot clock” controversy that bubbled to the surface at Wimbledon. For now, enjoy the start of the hard court season and keep it right here for more updates as we gear up for the U.S. Open.