When Angelique Kerber and Daria Kasatkina faced each other in Eastbourne a mere two weeks ago, it turned out to be a match for all ages, with Angie coming out on top by a score of 6-1, 6-7, 7-6. I don’t put too much weight into the concept that recent head-to-head matches matter in a non-major tournament followed by a major one. In this case, however, it was hard to ignore, considering their proximity in time.
This one turned out to be a straight-set victory for Kerber, but it was just as thrilling. In fact, at the end, it made me wish it had been a best-of-five match. I wanted to see more. But let’s put wishes aside and get to the nitty-gritty of Kerber’s 6-3, 7-5 win that lasted one hour and 29 minutes.
In my post-match breakdown of Kasatkina’s fourth-round victory over Alison Van Uytvanck, published on Monday on Tennis With An Accent, I closed the article by reminding readers that that the Russian’s next opponent, Kerber, was the second-most seasoned player left in the women’s field. Compared to Kasatkina, who has reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon for the first time (the second in majors after this year’s Roland Garros), the German appeared as a giant going into Tuesday’s match in terms of experience at the elite level. She appeared in three finals in three different majors (including Wimbledon in 2016), two of which she won.
That experience brought some intangibles to the table that you cannot necessarily see in the menu. They played a significant role in the outcome of the match.
Kerber’s groundies were tuned in from the start. What that means for the German is that she was moving well, keeping the ball deep, counterpunching as only she can, and furthermore, using her trademark accelerations to catch Kasatkina off guard, leaning on her back foot. Kasatkina started well too. In retrospect, the first game was one of the best games of the match in terms of quality. It was almost a warning for people to quickly grab their snacks and drinks and get settled for the rest of the duel.
The only substantial chance Kasatkina had to get on board in the first three games was the break-point opportunity she had in the first game, the one she squandered with a makeable backhand return missed long on Angie’s second serve. It did not help that Kasatkina began the next game with a double fault and ended it with another one. Double faults did present a problem to Kasatkina throughout the match, but they were not the main reason why she lost.
Kerber was very sharp from the baseline. She made only two unforced errors in the first set! She made none when Kasatkina began charging back after going down 0-3. How do you come back from 0-3 down against an opponent who gives you nothing? You don’t, although Kasatkina did appear to pull off the impossible at one point in the set. This is where, if you have the replay of the match, you may want to find the 3-1 game in the first set and follow along with me. If you do not have access, it is okay — you will relive it as I describe its details. Make no mistake, though: It describes a paramount element of the intangibles that propelled the German to victory.
After holding at 0-3 and getting on board, Kasatkina began the 1-3 game on Kerber’s serve with a vengeance, nailing a forehand winner to Angie’s deuce corner. Then came one of the intangibles that I noted above. You will not see in the stats a category called “Points won by Kerber on a variety of 1-2-punch patterns.” And yet, Kerber’s ability to produce a variety of 1-2-punch patterns to win the point, on top of her use of the classic style of 1-2 punch winners (big serve, followed by a short return, and the point ending with the next big strike by the server for a winner, often on the forehand), came in handy at several turning points in the match.
On that 0-15 point, right when it looked like Kasatkina was building momentum to climb back into the match in the early going, Kerber produced her own brand of 1-2 punch. This is the one in which she hits the serve first made world-famous by Martina Navratilova: the “can opener,” the wide serve to the ad side that keeps curving to the outside, thus forcing the opponent to leave the court, then follows it up with her trademark forehand down-the-line acceleration to put her opponent on the stretch. This is not your classic nail-the-winner-on-the-second-shot type of 1-2 punch. Angie’s forehand is measured here, accelerated but not banged. If it turns into a winner, fine. If it does not, the opponent is in deep trouble anyway. Kasatkina, in this case, had to run all the way to the other side of the baseline and still missed it in the net. Now at 15-15, stay with me for a bit more to wrap this game up.
At 15-15, Kerber gets another first serve in that Kasatkina blocks back on her forehand. Angie accelerates again, inside-out, back to the deuce corner, catching her opponent — who was recovering to the middle from the return — on her back foot. Kasatkina scrambles and gets it back with a defensive forehand and attempts to recover back to the middle again, at which point there comes another forehand acceleration to the deuce corner. Here is Kasatkina once again having to change direction and scramble. She gets it back sharper crosscourt, but Angie does it again, with her backhand this time. Once again, Kasatkina changes direction and stretches for the fourth time to hit a forehand, and misses. It’s a rally defined by another type of 1-2 punch that Kerber uses more efficiently than most other women on the WTA Tour.
Once again, she did not go for the “bang” winner on the second shot. Instead, she accelerated enough to avoid the silly error that often accompanies attempts at spectacular shotmaking (partially the reason why she committed only two unforced errors in the first set), and yet enough to put the pattern of the rally in a way that rendered her opponent’s life miserable. A 1-2 punch began the point and its aftermath turned the rest of the point into a horror show for Kasatkina. Many will not qualify this as a 1-2 punch point, because it did not end after the second shot. The official tally recorded this point as “D. Kasatkina loses the point with a Forehand Forced Error.” For my part, I count it as part of the intangible category I mentioned above, “Points won by Kerber on a variety of 1-2-punch patterns.” But wait, there is more.
On to the 30-15 point, Kerber pulled off yet another one. She struck a first serve to the “T,” and Kasatkina had to once again reach and block the forehand return back into the court. Angie stepped around in the middle of the court and looked lined up for a forehand strike, which put Kasatkina in a defensive stance two meters behind the baseline. Then, Kerber, at the last second, changed her backswing and snuck in a forehand drop shot. Kasatkina had not expected it, so she took off at the last second and barely got her racket on it on the full run and stretch, missing it wide. It was another successful 1-2 punch by Angie, this time executed with an exquisite drop shot. This also went to the record book as “D. Kasatkina loses the point with a Backhand Forced Error,” but you know by now in which category I put it. Kerber led 40-15 after that point and held serve on the next one.
By the way, have you noticed how, right when she needed to buckle down at 0-15, 3-1, to stop a nascent Kasatkina comeback that started at 3-0, Kerber made only first serves? Add that also to the intangibles menu, because you will not find it in the stats, just as you will not find any mention of the category I noted above. Those three points simply show up as three forced errors by Kasatkina in the official records.
Kasatkina did still manage to break Kerber’s serve later at 4-2, which speaks volumes of her abilities, considering Kerber’s level throughout the first set. Serving at 3-4, she played her worst game of the match and the stats, this time, will show it. At 15-15, she made an unforced forehand error and followed it up with two double faults. You can chalk that game up to Kasatkina, but the overall narrative of the first set should reflect what really took place. Kerber played at an extremely high level — intelligently, consistently, and within her strengths. That also included plenty of rallies in which she engaged in patterns that favored her, such as crosscourts from her lefty forehand to Kasatkina’s backhand.**
**Two examples for illustration: the 30-40 point in the second set at 3-3, and again, the 30-40 point at 4-4. You may have noticed, they were both break points for Kerber and she won both. Being seasoned counts. Experience brings intangibles.
Kasatkina adjusted her style to counter the Kerber puzzle as the second set began. She took a more aggressive approach to the rallies and began pounding her forehand whenever she got the chance. She was not hitting them flat for all-out winners because that is not in her stroke production – not yet, at least. She did however produce 11 forehand winners in the second set alone, which I find remarkable against a retriever like Kerber, even though she was adding plenty of topspin into them.
The larger picture that this particular adjustment represents cannot be underlined enough. It reaffirms how tremendously talented Kasatkina is at the age of 21. She is so versatile that she managed to give herself a chance to mount a comeback against an in-form, seasoned player who was at the top of her game on Tuesday, by actually resorting to some mixture of what she would usually use as her Plan B.
Kerber felt so much pressure that she veered away from her disciplined approach and made some bad decisions in the waning moments of the match, out of sheer anxiety of crossing the finish line, before finally putting away her pesky opponent on her seventh match-point opportunity.
In the last game, Kerber became apprehensive about coming to the net, even though she had Kasatkina on the full run. There were several points in the last two games like that, a product of Kerber’s fear of Kasatkina’s crafty stroke production. By the time the 6-5 game arrived, Kerber was so anxious not to let the second set slip away that her nerves turned fragile. See the fifth and the sixth match points (two among several other instances) in which she has clear chances to come to the net to win the point, but does not, in the hopes that Kasatkina will miss – because that is what tennis players do when they start carrying brittle nerves on the court.
On the fifth match point, she had Kasatkina on the full run from one side of the court to the other after the serve and did not follow up her shot to the net. Kasatkina turned the balance of the rally in her favor and showed the courage to come in when she got a short ball and won it at the net. On the sixth match point, Kerber got two short balls back from Kasatkina, but you can see from her footwork that she never even considered putting the heat on her. She did hit a pretty good drop shot that Kasatkina got back to her side. Kerber lobbed her and Kasatkina turned around and began running back. What should you do when that happens? Approach the net. Kerber did not. Of course, I cannot know for certain what goes on in the head of players, but I bet that she was, at that moment, hoping that the lob would land in and the ball would never come back. It landed out by an inch or two.
Kerber finally closed the curtain on Kasatkina when she did find the courage to go back to her strength. Yes, another 1-2 punch point, à-la-Angie, with the second shot being her trademark forehand down-the-line acceleration. Kasatkina missed the defensive forehand in the net and Angie could celebrate a well-deserved victory, one she earned thanks to her experience and her timely use of the intangibles, not because she was necessarily the more talented player on the court.
She will take on Jelena Ostapenko in the semifinals. There are two days to dissect what may happen in that match, but for now, let me finish with a reflection on the Russian player.
Can we safely assume, at this point, that Daria Kasatkina has arrived in the big leagues? I believe so. If you can reach the quarterfinals of Roland Garros – and a major – for the first time in your career, then turn around one month later and repeat the same feat on grass at Wimbledon, only losing to a seasoned champion like Angelique Kerber, who was forced to throw everything but the kitchen sink at you to get the job done, it is clear that big-league status should welcome you with open arms.
Furthermore, Kasatkina’s parcours to the quarters at Wimbledon should not be underestimated. She proved herself against a variety of competition in Jana Fett, Yulia Putintseva, Ashleigh Barty, Alison Van Uytvanck, and even in the loss to Kerber. This demonstrates that she engaged in arduous problem-solving and succeeded for the most part against players with a plethora of plan As based on either hitting the ball hard and flat, or attacking the net, or rallying steadily with few to no unforced errors, or serving big, or a mixture of any of the above.
Barring injury, the Kasatkina ticket should be in high demand by tennis fans in the years to come.
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.
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