Tennis with an Accent head editor Matt Zemek astutely observed in his commentary on Tuesday – about what awaited Federer starting with the Wimbledon quarterfinal round – that Kevin Anderson was a “a solid top-10 player who has made a major final,” and represented the first genuine challenge for the Swiss champion in London this year. He could not have been more accurate.
With Federer being the clear favorite to advance, the more central question revolved around the level of tennis he was going to put on display against the big-serving South African who also possessed commanding weapons in his arsenal that he could employ as follow-up strikes to his serves. Master of neutralizing opponents with one or two powerful weapons, Roger naturally counted on holding his serves and looking for that one crucial break in each set. When you came into the encounter winning 92% of your first-serve points (164 out of 179) throughout your first four rounds, you have the luxury to make such calculations.
Four hours 14 minutes later, Kevin Anderson pulled one of the biggest upsets of the year in a stunning comeback from two sets and a match point down to defeat Federer 2-6 6-7 7-5 6-4 13-11. It was a shocker not because Anderson does not have the weapons to defeat an elite player like Federer. He does. If you have followed his steady and consistent rise to prominence over the last 10 months, starting with his appearance in the final of the US Open, you should not be taken aback by the fact that he is now a bona fide top-10 player at a level where he can challenge the best in our sport.
It was a shocker of an upset that Anderson defeated a legendary champion at the very tournament that played a central role in him becoming one, because he was 0-4 against the legend without even having won a set against him, and also because, the match stuck to the expected scenario for almost three sets before finally beginning to turn around. It’s one thing for the heavy favorite to have a bad day and the underdog to come out firing, thus producing a lop-sided, straight-set win. It’s another for the match to almost come to its terms in the way that was expected, only to stun everyone by turning the script around at the last second and remain in that reverse form all the way to the end.
In fact, Federer played his best tennis of the tournament in the first set, bludgeoning Anderson from the baseline, and returning the South African’s serve with ease to complement his own excellence in serving. Roger lost only one point on his serve – first and second serves combined. Anderson, for his part, remained below 60% on his first serves and with Federer’s returns clicking on all cylinders – not an everyday luxury for Roger, one must admit – he only managed to win three points on his second serve. Furthermore, Federer dominated the baseline rallies, making only three unforced errors in the first set (I do my own count of unforced errors), and winning all but one of the ten points in which rallies exceeded four shots. It was a squeaky-clean set for the Swiss.
In the second set Federer committed few more errors than in the first and that helped Anderson sink his teeth into rallies. Kevin also hit more aces in the second set (seven vs one in the first set), but he still could not get his first serve going (55%). He did, however, change his approach to second serves. He began taking more risks on it. After all, what did he have to lose, considering how little success he had in the first set on points started with his second serves? That adjustment bore fruit for him as he won most of his second-serve points at 62% compared to 25% in the first set. That was the main reason why he was able to take the set to a tiebreaker after an exchange of breaks early in the set. It was not enough though, because Federer, 0-2 down in the tiebreaker, won five points in a row to grab a 5-2 lead and won the tiebreaker 7-5 after winning another rally that ended when he put the heat on Anderson’s forehand and made him miss.
The pre-match favorite was now up two sets to love and the third set began to roll forward not much differently than the first two. The players kept holding serves until Federer led 5-4 and held a match point on Anderson’s serve at ad-out. Anderson approached the net with a solid deep shot to Federer’s backhand and the Swiss framed the backhand passing shot out. It was well bravely by Anderson, taking it to Federer, making him come up with a difficult passing shot. It was not squandered by Roger since Anderson approached well enough to where he would have to produce a stellar passing shot to win the point. Federer fans, if you lament the match point missed, you are not being fair to yourself. What you should look to, if anything at all, is the forehand that Roger missed at 30-40 – break point – when Anderson was serving for the set at 6-5. In that point, Federer had a forehand that he could have used to approach the net, but did not, and missed the next forehand from inside the baseline into the net. Anderson ended up holding serve in that game and winning the third set 7-5. That forehand error at 30-40, you can lament. But remember that had Federer won that point, it would have brought him into a tiebreaker, with no guarantees to win the fourth set.
There was one other bright spot for Anderson in the third set. He recaptured his first-serve prowess by serving at 70% compared to staying well below 60% throughout the first two sets.
And that is how matches turn around in the most unexpected way. The player trying to mount a comeback begins hitting a particular shot better, a point goes this way, another one goes that way, the underdog makes a brave decision, earns the result desired, begins trusting his weapons again, and grows in confidence. As a result, the light at the end of the tunnel shines brighter to his eyes and before you know it, he starts doing everything right to climb out of the hole.
When the player in question happens to be named Kevin Anderson, you better watch out. Because the 32-year-old possesses some substantial firepower, and I do not mean just on his serves. He can nail big shots from both wings during rallies too. Boy, did he get to showcase that “muscle” in the fourth set. Just like Roger dominated all facets of the game in the first set, Anderson dominated them in the fourth. Remember how Roger won 9 out of 10 points in rallies that went over four shots in the first set? Kevin won 7 out of 8 of those in the fourth. Remember how dominating Federer was on his serve in the first set and how Anderson struggled on his (14 out of 28 points won on serves)? In the fourth set, Anderson lost only six points on his serve.
The stark contrast between the first and fourth sets reminded me of the 1981 Wimbledon semifinal match between Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, when the American erased the Swede from the court in the first set 6-0 and went up two sets to love, only to see Borg come back with a vengeance and return the favor of the bagel to him in the fourth set, in the same dominating fashion. Borg also won that match in the fifth, coming back from two sets down.
The last game of the fourth set, when Anderson held serve to win it 6-4, should tell you everything you need to know. Anderson hit 3 winners and two aces in that game, in response to four winners by Federer who had a break point at ad-out to get back to 5-5 after hitting his fourth winner of the game. Anderson responded with a backhand winner, blasted an ace at deuce, and pocketed the fourth set after nailing yet another forehand winner. That game was representative of his level in the fourth set during which he could do nothing wrong despite playing a high-risk brand of tennis. Federer did not play a bad set at all folks (as that last game will tell you). He made only 4 unforced errors in the set and served at 70%. Anderson did one better at 2 unforced errors and serving at 86%.
Again, you can rue the 30-40 return at 5-6 in the third set if you insist on finding fault to Federer. Or you can look at what Anderson accomplished through the 60 minutes that eclipsed from 5-4 in the third set to the end of the fourth set and appreciate how he managed to top Federer’s already high level of play in the early going.
After four spectacular sets, the fifth one did not disappoint either, although the shot-making quality understandably dropped just a bit for both players as we entered the extended period after 5-5. Both players found themselves a number of times two points away from losing their serves, at 0-30, 15-30, 30-30, or deuce, but produced one clutch serve after another to repeatedly get out of trouble.
The most notable one took place at 6-5 for Federer when he led 0-30 and had a look at Anderson’s second serve. Granted, Kevin came up with a crisp second serve that clocked at 111 mph, but it was a makeable return. Federer’s backhand slice return sailed in the net. Anderson came back to hold, and it looked like something extraordinary needed to happen for a break to occur. It did in the 11-11, much to Federer’s detriment.
He committed his first – and only – double fault of the match at 30-30 and followed that up with a forehand unforced error. That two-point sequence signaled the end of the road for Federer, as Anderson, who has not lost his serve since the fifth game of the second set and faced only two break points since that forehand missed by Federer – noted above – at 6-5, 30-40, in the third set.
Anderson finished the match with 28 aces (three double faults) and 37 winners. He committed 30 unforced errors but half of them came in the first two sets. If you remind yourself that the fifth set was longer by itself than the first two combined, you can get an idea of how much Anderson raised his level as the match progressed. Federer, for his part, put up impressive numbers too. He finished with 16 aces (one double fault) and 45 winners, while he committed 29 unforced errors. Then, there were some high-octane rallies, showcasing the footwork of both athletes. It was an excellent tennis match, the best of the tournament so far, in my opinion.
Kevin Anderson next faces John Isner for a spot in the finals. He is two wins away from establishing himself as a legitimate force behind the elites of men’s tennis, perhaps along the same lines as Marin Cilic. It would also mean that he defeated Roger Federer and either Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal on his way to his first Major title. He would then become only the fifth player to accomplish that feat.
Anderson is on the cusp of a special achievement and he is ready for it.
When asked about the impact of this win on his ongoing run at Wimbledon, Anderson’s response hinted at where his central focus remains: “it’s definitely a win that means a lot to me today. It’s tough in the sense that I’ve got to get ready for my next match. I can’t dwell on it too long. Obviously a lot of emotions going on. You try to calm down as quickly as possible. Already started my recovery process.”
Header Image -Source: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe
WIMBLEDON ATP REVIEW: RESILIENCE FROM DJOKOVIC AND OTHERS
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.
Source: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe
WIMBLEDON WTA REVIEW: THE BLURRED LINE OF BALANCE
The WTA of 2018, like the WTA of 2017, is nothing if not balanced.
In 2017, the WTA produced only one repeat major finalist over the course of the season: Venus Williams, a finalist in Australia, returned to a major final at Wimbledon. The other six slots occupied by major finalists belonged to one-time participants in 2017: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys.
We are done with three of the four majors in 2018, and so far, the same dynamic applies: Only one player has repeated as a major finalist. Simona Halep made the finals in Australia and Roland Garros. The other four slots were occupied by four different players: Caroline Wozniacki, Stephens, Serena, and Angelique Kerber. Serena might become the season’s second repeat major finalist at the U.S. Open. Kerber will face a much tougher road in New York with players such as Elina Svitolina and Wozniacki — who don’t know how to handle Wimbledon — being back in their element on hardcourts.
So there you have it: A woman nearly 37 years old might be the only player who can prevent the WTA from having seven different major finalists (in eight possible major final slots) for two straight years. If neither Serena nor Kerber make the final at the U.S. Open, the days of 2016 — when those two players occupied six of the WTA’s eight major final slots, three apiece — will be long gone.
It is true that Serena is back on tour, which makes her the force to be reckoned with more than any other in the sport. It is also true that after making the Wimbledon final — greatly exceeding expectations, very much including her own — the idea of Serena doing more incredible things not just next year, but at age 40 (should she want to play that long), is hardly ludicrous. Maybe Serena will end the year 2021 (when she turns 40) still imposing, still the toughest out in women’s tennis, still the player at the epicenter of the drama. She’s Serena Williams — as she reminded us this Wimbledon, of course she is capable of pulling that off.
But what if she doesn’t? Then what?
That’s the question on my mind — and on the minds of a lot of people who follow women’s tennis — after Wimbledon.
Here’s the two-sided reality of the WTA’s world of balance: On one hand, lots of seeded players have a shot to win majors. Halep and Wozniacki were highly ranked when making major finals this year, but Stephens, Kerber and Serena were seeded 10th or lower en route to major finals this year. Halep and Kerber have been the two most consistent players on tour this year, but after them, the notion of consistency has eluded many of the WTA’s top players.
This brings up the other side of the WTA’s existence: While lots of seeded players have a chance to win majors, few can be trusted. Wimbledon underscored this reality.
Of the top 10 seeds at Wimbledon in 2018, only three had previously made a Wimbledon final: Muguruza, Venus, and Petra Kvitova. Muguruza — who seems to do well at either Roland Garros OR Wimbledon in a given year, but never at BOTH in the SAME year — remained true to her history by crashing out of the Big Dubya in week one after making a semifinal run in Paris. Muguruza remains erratic and enigmatic at the majors, and her Stan Wawrinka-like tendency of showing up once every few majors is still intact. “Trust” is not something she merits on a relentlessly consistent basis; “trust” is better applied to the notion that she will raise her game in France or at the All England Club each year, but not at both places, and certainly not in Melbourne or New York, where she has yet to flourish.
Venus is 38 and going through a tough season. Kvitova needs comfortable playing conditions to be at her best, and the warm-to-hot weather at Wimbledon did not line up in her favor. All in all, none of the top 10 WTA seeds at Wimbledon entered the tournament meriting complete trust. Past performance at Wimbledon or on grass was unconvincing for most; for the three women who had previously reached a Wimbledon final, the circumstances attached to 2018 did not offer much reason for encouragement.
Sure enough, none of the top 10 seeds performed at levels which justified any particular degree of trust. Reasonable people will disagree, but for me, Madison Keys’ third-round loss to Evgeniya Rodina was the most disappointing result of any top-10 WTA seed at Wimbledon. Not at least being able to test her game against Serena in the fourth round represented a wasted trip to the All England Club. Keys should be so successful on grass, and yet Wimbledon is the one major where she hasn’t yet reached the semifinals.
What we have on the WTA Tour is a picture of health. Balance, depth, unpredictability, quality tennis — they’re all evident, and they all emerged at Wimbledon. Yet, alongside the compelling tennis lies the accompanying reality that the top-10 seeds weren’t part of the fun. Interesting matches were played and a number of proven players stepped up, Kerber most of all, but the absence of any top-10 seeds from the quarterfinals was impossible to ignore.
This is why the question raised above — what if Serena doesn’t remain a top-tier force akin to 2016? — hangs over the WTA Tour. Will each major tournament be a “wheel of destiny”? I hasten to say: This is not a bad scenario. The WTA’s unpredictability last year and this one has coincided with highly entertaining tennis — so what if there’s a different final matchup each time? If the journey is pleasing, the destination is easy to accept.
This question about Serena’s staying power is not meant to suggest that the WTA has a “good future or a bad future” ahead of it. No — that’s not the intent behind that query. The purpose of the question is to determine if we’re going to continue to witness constant variety in finalists and champions, or if a few players will become regulars and replace Serena at the year’s biggest tournaments.
Sloane Stephens, in her last four majors, has gone from champion to first rounder to finalist to first-rounder. That’s Muguruza’s music, played to a higher volume level on your radio dial. Jelena Ostapenko lost in round one in Paris and then made the Wimbledon semifinals. Madison Keys thrived in Paris and stubbed her toe at SW19. Svitolina made the quarters in Australia but then failed to get out of the first week in France and at Wimbledon. 2018 Australian Open semifinalist Elise Mertens and 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist Julia Goerges are not portraits of rock-solid consistency at majors, either.
This is a volatile tour right now — again, that’s not a bad thing, but when evaluating players, I am looking at the WTA and waiting for the next player who will subdue most of the tour at majors. Halep and Kerber are exemplars of a positive consistency… but are conspicuously isolated in that regard (and even Halep lost early at Wimbledon, but after winning Roland Garros, she gets a pass). Where is the next especially great career coming from? Muguruza and Stephens, at their best, look like 10-major-winning players, but they don’t yet exhibit 10-major-winning tendencies. Ostapenko needs to beef up her serve, but when she is crushing return winners, she is a matchup nightmare for much of the tour.
The bottom line after Wimbledon: Women’s tennis, collectively, is in great shape. So much good tennis was played at Wimbledon, producing a blockbuster final between two players who are proven champions and offered a delicious contrast in styles. The uncertainty attached to WTA tennis is not a negative, but for the top players on tour other than Serena, the task of creating a career which will be spoken of in reverential tones seems more remote and unrealistic than ever. The 2018 U.S. Open might begin to change that dynamic, but we won’t truly know if the sands are shifting until next spring at Roland Garros.
CELEBRATE 50 YEARS OF OPEN TENNIS: TREAT DOUBLES WITH RESPECT
This year is supposed to be a celebration for tennis. It’s the 50-year anniversary of the Open Era for the game. In 1968 professionals were invited to join the amateurs to play at the biggest tournaments, the grandest being Wimbledon.
That year also marked a divergence. The quintessential doubles teams that featured Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Margaret Court, and further back, Bill Tilden, Suzanne Lenglen and Don Budge, faded. In their place stepped marketing. A proud American invention, it reshaped tennis by selling demographics, psychographics, and the benefits of individual accomplishments. Gone was the notion that doubles teams could make a living at tennis.
“For years before the Open Era, U.S. doubles championships at Longwood Cricket Club in Massachusetts was an entirely separate tournament from singles, which was held in Forest Hills, New York,” Douglas Perry of Oregon Live wrote.
Those, too, folded.
In came the promise of a return on investment that, according to marketing, required targeting individual performances and, as a result, elevating celebrity. This pair of business priorities replaced on-court teams.
Sponsorships and broadcasting contracts steered the game. Tournament committees were tied to bottom-line results. Court assignments became centerpieces of daily discussions. Placement on Centre Court became a singles garden because each player now had a backstory, millions of followers on Facebook and Instagram, plus the longevity of titles and promises of more. Tennis, perceived as an elitist sport from its beginning, had swallowed the poison pill. The nature of the game changed.
Racquets became space-age weapons used in battles. Polyester strings let players swing out, as fast as they could, the thwacking sound when a ball hit the stringbed a bullet to the chest of viewers. This was a fight.
The term “doubles specialist” became fashionable, even if it sounded somewhat derogatory. Were these men and women less athletic? Not really, but they could not compete individually given the intensity of the game and its 24-7 drumbeat of fitness requirements, on-court practices, sponsorship pressures and media demands.
Here’s where tennis took another tumble: It did not teach advertisers, broadcast executives and the public, the would-be fans, the far more complex and entertaining nature of doubles, despite knowing that more “club players” favored it. The cry, “Why don’t they show more doubles on TV?”, went unanswered because no one of import heard it or wanted to hear it and address it.
Doubles didn’t have enough stars, the marketers said. They were unknown entities, not salable. It was bad for TV. No close-ups. No backstories. No storyline. And yes, no celebrities. Teams were flung together, for the most part, on tournament registration deadlines.
In an attempt to revive doubles, the ATP in 2006 introduced no-ad scoring for the first two sets and a super tiebreak, first to 10 by two, for the third set.
“The ATP said the changes were designed to help tournament officials and broadcasters with their scheduling because the duration of matches it easier to predict,” ESPN reported.
Truncated doubles matches were nowhere in sight when the Bryan brothers made their Grand Slam debut at the 1995 U.S. Open. The identical twins, Bob and Mike, are now the most widely recognized doubles team. They’ve won 16 men’s doubles Grand Slams and Saturday, at Wimbledon, Mike won his 17th, a record he now shares with John Newcombe. That 17th title was won with Jack Sock. It was Mike’s first major without Bob, who hasn’t played since Madrid due to a hip injury. Earlier in the week Mike reclaimed the number one ranking at 40 as well, becoming the oldest doubles player to do so and expanding his legendary notoriety.
These two fought the idea and reality that shortening doubles matches would open the door for top names such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to climb on board, although they entered tournaments occasionally for giggles. Playing doubles and singles would increase the chances of injury, from their perspectives. But the cameras were sharply focused on Federer and Stan Wawrinka at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when they won Gold: two famous singles players.
Venus and Serena Williams were and are the exception to marketing dictates. Singles Grand Slam champions. Doubles Grand Slam champions, in women’s and mixed. Olympic gold medalists in singles and doubles. They are always a top priority for tournaments, broadcasters and advertisers, much more so than the Bryan brothers. The Bryans could probably walk through LAX without being stopped for a selfie. Can’t say that for the Williams sisters.
The Williams sisters transcended tennis and sport, reaching the heights of international celebrity, just as Federer has done. But Serena and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, attended the wedding of friend Meghan Markle to Prince Harry. Federer wasn’t there.
Ten years after the ATP and the WTA bit the apple of promise with no-ad scoring, their failure is palpable. Doubles did not gain more TV time; it was not seen as a money winner.
“It’s nonsense, I think,” Jamie Murray said, as reported in Tennis. “They’re not putting matches on center court or on TV, so just put us on the outside courts and let us play normal scoring.”
Sunday at Wimbledon, ESPN broadcast Jamie Murray and Victoria Azarenka against American Nicole Melichar and teammate Alexander Peya in the mixed doubles final. ESPN broadcast the match almost in its entirety, which Murray and Azarenka lost, 7-6(1), 6-3. The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” also showed the men’s and women’s doubles finals on Saturday.
Brad Gilbert, Jason Goodall, Pam Shriver and Rennae Stubbs went a long way to teach viewers about the magic and mystery of doubles. They were fountains of knowledge, presenting reasons behind team movements, tactics and opportunities grabbed and lost. They filled in players’ backstories, recognizing each person’s contributions to the match and tennis. They educated viewers. They should meet with tournament directors, broadcasters and media, and sell them a package deal of ideas that would boost bottom lines and expand viewership of tennis. They should advocate for doubles, which would be a grand way to celebrate 50 years of Open tennis.
If something’s not done soon, the Bryan brothers and Williams sisters will retire. Then who will carry the torch for doubles?
“There’s no need for me to keep going out there if he [Bob] is gonna be on the shelf for a long period of time,” Mike said, ESPN reported. “I figured out that why I love this game is playing with him.”
One last comment on Wimbledon’s court scheduling.
Jana Novotna died last fall from cancer. She coached Barbora Krejcikova, a fellow native of the Czech Republic, up until her death. How fitting it was that all four players in Saturday’s women’s doubles final were born in the Czech Republic.
Krejcikova partnered with Katerina Siniakova, while the opposing team was the aforementioned Melichar — born in Brno, Novotna’s birthplace — and 43-year-old Kveta Peschke. What a rich tribute — and story — this could have been if placed on Centre Court, but this championship match was put on Court 1 Saturday. Krejcikova and Siniakova won, after which Krejcikova dedicated her Wimbledon title to Novotna in one of the more powerful moments of the whole fortnight.
Let’s not delay the point. These women lost out because 20 years ago, in 1998, Novotna won her one Wimbledon singles crown on Centre Court. That cathartic moment came five years after a televised and painful loss in 1993 to Steffi Graf, when Jana cried on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent. The image is deeply ingrained in our minds. Had the women’s doubles final been assigned Centre Court, instead of the men’s doubles, Wimbledon could have promoted the moment forged by Krejcikova and Siniakova on Saturday, marketing to its continual pursuit of tradition and greatness.
A saving grace for Wimbledon? Melichar and Alexander Peya won the 2018 mixed doubles title, defeating Murray and Azarenka… on Centre Court.