This is technically an ATP review of Wimbledon, posted one day after my WTA review of The Championships at the All England Club. To be sure, this piece will primarily focus on the past fortnight in men’s tennis. However, if we’re being honest, the theme of resilience pervaded both singles tournaments at SW19 this year.
Stop and consider how much — and how often — players worked to overcome towering obstacles. In some cases, these were injuries or interruptions. In other cases, the hurdles were mental blocks, the familiar demons of so many performers in a solo-athlete sport.
This tournament produced seven players who made their first Wimbledon quarterfinal: Camila Giorgi, Julia Goerges, Kiki Bertens, Daria Kasatkina, John Isner, Kevin Anderson, and Kei Nishikori. Of those seven players, Giorgi and Goerges made their first major quarterfinal of any kind. Isner made just his second major quarterfinal, his previous showing coming seven years earlier at the U.S. Open.
Several additional players made the second week of Wimbledon (the fourth round) for the first time. Karolina Pliskova did so for the women, among many others, and Gael Monfils finally broke through on the men’s side, in addition to several other peers.
This was the tournament of the comeback, the fortnight in which players who had undergone profound hardships in varying contexts took big steps forward. Monfils and Pliskova were the comparatively modest examples of this dynamic.
At the top, the two singles champions could not have made more emphatic statements about their ability to take a roundhouse punch, get off the canvas, dust themselves off, and become number one, lifting a trophy on the most famous court in tennis.
Angelique Kerber and Novak Djokovic both went through a tennis version of hell in 2017. The reasons for the hell were different, but the misery was profound in both instances. No great champion — barring an extremely rare exception — goes through a career without some form of interruption or adversity. Even the very best in a profession get knocked down at times. When that moment occurs, and they must process the pain of injury, or the anxiety of doubt, or the sting of a narrow loss that shouldn’t have happened, they absorb the frustration every other human being goes through. More precisely as tennis players, they confront the negative vibes an 89th-ranked player confronts after letting a round-of-64 match slip through his fingers.
All tennis players go through these moments of biting, searing disappointment… but only the great ones use those moments as fuel to get back to the top of the sport. Many good players use those occasions to go on a quarterfinal or semifinal run, but the elites know how to squeeze every last drop of education, awareness, and improvement from past hardships at the biggest tournaments. Kerber and Djokovic, given fresh life by coaches new (Wim Fissette) or old (Marian Vajda), didn’t climb three-fourths of the way up the mountain. They scaled the peak, as champions do. Djokovic in particular — since this is mostly an ATP review — wrote his name in the great book of tennis history alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal by completing his own comeback from injury. All three men can now say they were kicked to the curb by a physical derailment and lifted a major trophy in response.
This was the Wimbledon of the bounce-back.
One can very reasonably say, without hyperbole, that the eight singles semifinalists — four men and four women — all authored stories of considerable resilience at this Wimbledon.
Jelena Ostapenko served terribly in her first-round Roland Garros loss. Playing poorly is never good, but Wimbledon demands the ability to serve at a reasonably high level. One can’t advance deep into this event without having a moderately productive serve. Ostapenko — who reminded us that she, too, is a champion — transformed her serve in the short period of time between Paris and SW19, making the semifinals and changing the course of her season.
That was a profound turnaround, and yet of the eight singles semifinalists, it was the least substantial one in a larger context.
Kerber’s and Djokovic’s ascendancies have already been noted and discussed, en route to stirring and memorable championships at the All England Club. Then consider Serena Williams, doing what she did near her 37th birthday, as a mom, with very little 2018 match play, after a literal near-death experience in the process of childbirth. No embellishment there, just straight truth.
Julia Goerges made her first Wimbledon semifinal at age 29. She had never gotten past the fourth round of any major before. She tightened up so many times at the biggest tournaments in tennis. Finally, her moment came. Finally, she freed herself up and played with the right balance of clarity and relaxation.
John Isner, age 33, made his first major semifinal of any kind. We all knew that Isner’s lack of mobility, a consistent backhand, and a credible return of serve, plus a taller strike zone for his groundstrokes, prevented him from being CONSISTENTLY good at Wimbledon. To be very clear here, it’s not a surprise that Isner OFTEN failed at Wimbledon. Isner’s margin for error in five-set matches is plainly much lower than in three-set matches. The surprising aspect of Isner’s career at Wimbledon — and at the majors in general — is not that he failed to make the second week most of the time. It’s that he failed to make the second week with relentless and numbing regularity. A player with Isner’s serve — one would think — would surely make a major quarterfinal once every eight or nine majors, every two years or so. Yet, entering this Wimbledon, Isner had just one major quarterfinal to his credit, in 2011. The paucity of good results at majors was a profound source of disappointment. Isner could have let that reality drag him down once again. (To be honest, the rain very probably saved him against Ruben Bemelmans in round two — but credit to him: He used that delay well.) Instead, Isner made history and came within two points of a Wimbledon final.
Isner has gone where more talented players such as Nicolas Almagro and Philipp Kohlschreiber have not yet gone (and probably never will go): to a major semifinal.
Rafael Nadal — remember him? — has been written off by many tennis analysts at Wimbledon, but the point many missed was that if Nadal got the right draw — NO BIG SERVERS — in the first week, Nadal could make a deep run again. He did, coming within an eyelash of another Wimbledon title. As Milos Raonic might have told Juan Martin del Potro, “Rafa technically didn’t reach the final, but hypothetically, the Djokovic match WAS the final,” as anyone and everyone could see on Sunday.
Nadal might still win Wimbledon. We were reminded what a problem solver and competitor he is at this tournament. Djokovic made the biggest and strongest statement of all, but Nadal’s feats are not to be forgotten… or taken for granted. None of the Big 3 should be written off — they keep reminding us of that.
I close with the man who didn’t win Wimbledon, but who won a lot of new fans and captured new hearts at this tournament.
Kevin Anderson, much like Julia Goerges at all four majors — and much like Karolina Pliskova at Wimbledon in particular — kept bumping his head into a relatively low and specific ceiling at important tournaments. For the longest time, Anderson had trouble getting past the fourth round at majors. Like John Isner, Anderson arrived at age 30 with a surprisingly barren resume at the majors, relative to his talents. Many people in and around professional tennis — in the coaches’ boxes, in the locker rooms, on the practice courts — will tell you that hitting the ball well is not the primary task of tennis players. They can all do that at a relatively high level. Managing Timothy Gallwey’s “Inner Game of Tennis” — the game between the ears — is almost always the foremost challenge (and gateway) on the road to greatness. Sorting out the mind unlocks achievement, and with Anderson, it has been no different.
What is special about Anderson’s rise — and what will be special about this Wimbledon 30 years from now — is that Kando did something extremely rare in the Open Era of tennis: He made his first two major finals after turning 30. Andres Gimeno, born in 1937, made the 1969 Australian Open final and the 1972 French Open final. Not many other names, if any, can be found on the list of players who made their first two major finals after hitting the big 3-Oh.
What Anderson also owns is the satisfaction of knowing that he has now made more major finals than these big names: Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, David Ferrer, and David Nalbandian. Does this mean Anderson has had a better career than some of these guys (Delpo and Berdych in particular)? No. However, it does mean that Anderson has changed the way he will be remembered. You always get remembered differently in tennis when you cross the river from “once” to “twice” in any meaningful achievement. More precisely, Anderson — unlike his U.S. Open, in which Sam Querrey was his quarterfinal opponent — had to beat Roger Federer in these Wimbledon quarterfinals, from two sets down, to make the final. He had to win a 6:36 semifinal against (arguably) the most imposing server in men’s tennis to make his first Wimbledon final. He competed as well as his body would allow him to in the final. Everyone could see he gave it all he had.
Anderson — a socially conscious, gentle, and generous man whose initial reaction after Friday’s semifinal was to comfort Isner more than celebrate his own victory — is a terrific ambassador for tennis. He will carry this heightened “ambassadorship” to the U.S. Open and should then do the same at the Laver Cup in Chicago, where the University of Illinois man will receive a hero’s welcome. He reached the ATP top five (just in time, too, given the hardship of defending his U.S. Open points from last year) and became a bigger tennis star at just the right time. He deserves these blessings on the merits of his play; it sure helps when the person is someone everyone in tennis can easily cheer for.
From Djokovic to Kerber, from Isner to Goerges, from Serena to Rafa, from Ostapenko to Kando, this was the Wimbledon of resilience. This tournament was a banquet table of inspiration, a buffet laden with stories marking the indomitable nature of the human spirit.