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X AND O ANALYSIS: DJOKOVIC-NADAL

Saqib Ali

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Mert Ertunga

Saturday at Wimbledon, tennis fans got what they deserved.

No, no, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way at all.

When the semifinal round was reached and the bottom part of the men’s draw produced Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the promise of adding another high-quality encounter to the many thrillers in the most prolific rivalry in men’s tennis could only generate excitement among tennis fans.

Djokovic won, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8.

I’ll repeat again: Tennis fans got what they deserved. With the exception of a couple of short sequences on Saturday, two massive champions offered their best to spectators on Centre Court and to viewers worldwide over two days and five sets. Part one took three sets on Friday evening, part two took two, with the fifth set extended to 10-8.

The two parts of the match were played on different terms and deserve to be looked at separately, because what defined one did not come into play as much in the other. Let begin with Friday’s part.

Due to the previous semifinal’s late end time, the roof was closed and lights were switched on, in order to allow for the maximum time available for play before the curfew took effect at 11 p.m. By the time Nadal served the first point of the match at 8:09 p.m., the players had a little less than three hours to either complete the match or carry on as far as they could, before returning next day to resume.

It’s unclear if Nadal planned it all along or if he decided to do so once the roof closed and conditions became more suitable to it, but in any case, he began the match vigorously aggressive both on serves and his groundies. Djokovic was ready, though, and began answering with strikes of his own. After the first two games, it already felt like we were in for a treat. One of the biggest questions I had – and talked about in my preview – was quickly answered. Djokovic’s footwork was on display in its finest form. These two phenomenal athletes, as they have done so many times before, were going to play a contest of who is better at constructing favorable patterns in rallies. Why? Because putting the ball away was not going to be easy for either of them, even though they ended up overachieving in that department too (73 winners each and a boatload of forced errors).

Let me pause here and hone in on a pattern that has greatly benefited Djokovic over the course of their rivalry, one that, in my opinion, has given Nadal fits. This pattern has bothered Rafa enough to be an essential part of why Novak represents a more daunting challenge to Nadal from the baseline than anyone else.

Anytime Novak plays a point in which he engages Rafa’s backhand with his crosscourt forehand more than once, he gets ahead of the Spaniard in that rally. The nuance is that he does not stay with that pattern more than three or four shots. In other words, this is not done solely for the benefit of hitting one’s favorite shot repeatedly to the other’s (seemingly) weaker side – this is closer to what Nadal has chosen to do with Federer in the past, for example. He is perfectly comfortable rallying with his forehand crosscourt to Roger’s backhand for as long as it takes until it produces an error from the Swiss, or the ball falls short enough for him to strike the winner.

Djokovic, however, is not looking for an extended rally with his forehand crosscourt to Nadal’s backhand. He is looking for a couple of shots, at best three or four, and not necessarily in a row, with the intention to either accelerate down the line to Rafa’s open-court forehand side when it becomes available, or produce a sharper crosscourt on the second or third try, seeking to throw Rafa outside the boundaries of the court.

It does not matter that Nadal has turned his backhand into a weapon over the last few years. Once Novak gets him pinned to the ad corner with his forehand for a shot or two, Nadal is faced with the endlessly annoying “how-do-I-get-out-of-this” puzzle, one that he has struggled to solve.

Let me provide examples from the first set alone for those interested in seeing them on their own without going into too much detail here, because I will do that a bit later with two glaring ones from the third-set tiebreaker.

Watch the third point of the 2-2 game, the first point of the 3-3 game, and the first two points of the all-important 5-4 game. These are just a few of several points in the first set where Djokovic had success when engaging Nadal in that particular pattern during rallies. Novak won six out of seven points in that set when he was able to strike at least two forehands to Nadal’s backhand in a rally. Remember, I am not counting the times when he won the point after one such forehand drive and Nadal made an error trying to get that one back, or when Djokovic approached on one and won it at the net.

Heck, Djokovic even started the second set by winning another such point. This is why the deuce point on Novak’s serve when he trailed Rafa 2-3 in the second set represents a major swing point. You see the pattern emerge again, but this time, Nadal gets the best of him by nailing one of his hardest backhand crosscourts of the match and turning the tables on Djokovic to win the point.

With that in mind, see Rafa’s animated reaction at the end of the point. Racket immediately moved to the right hand as he watched Novak’s lob land wide. He left fist-pumped and swung to the ground followed by a “Vamos,” and a second one again, just like that. Folks, that is the reaction of someone relieved to finally overcome at an important point what has been a nightmare for him. The only other point he won in those types of rallies was early in the first set. He had lost eight of those since then.

That also represents the moment when the match began to turn in the Spaniard’s favor for the first time. He broke Djokovic’s serve – his first break of the match – on the ensuing point to finally get a leg up on the Serb at 4-2. That sequence eventually enabled Nadal to level the match at one set each.

Now, let’s press the fast-forward button and arrive at the third-set tiebreaker and talk about two of the most critical points – in my opinion, the most critical – of the match. They were both won by Novak Djokovic. The first one saved him from going down two sets to one to Nadal; the other put him up two sets to one.

Djokovic faced three set points in the tiebreaker, but two of them were on his serves, at 5-6 and 7-8. He saved them both with two first serves that Nadal could not manage to return back in the court. The other one, at 6-7, was on Nadal’s serve, so he could not depend on his serve to save it. He needed to return Rafa’s serve and figure out a way to win from the baseline. He returned straight to Rafa’s backhand, which sent it back crosscourt, thus allowing Djokovic to pin him to the backhand corner with his crosscourt forehand once again. He did just that; from that moment forward, Nadal had to scramble and chase Novak’s shots for the next four shots, eventually losing the point on a drop shot by the Serb.

Then came the 10-9 point, Novak’s second set point, in which Novak engaged Rafa in the same pattern again. He hit six forehands to Nadal’s backhand corner in that rally, five of them from his deuce side. It was an 18-shot rally won by Novak at the end, because Rafa, under assault from Novak’s forehand crosscourts, felt the need to change direction with his backhand and slice it down the line, except that it fell a bit short and Novak placed a fantastic backhand down the line, this time forcing an error out of Rafa. Whether it was done consciously or not, Djokovic went to the pattern that had worked for him until then on the two biggest points of Friday, and perhaps, the match.

novak

Source: Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe

Friday’s quality of tennis was hard to describe in words, but for those who have the time, my advice would be to watch this tiebreaker to see two elite champions at their best. There was only one “bad” point in it and it came on a double fault by Djokovic to start it. The rest was a tennis extravaganza.

Then came part two on Saturday. It turned out to be a vastly different style of play compared to the evening before, with different elements determining the outcome, although the first game of the fourth set did not give that impression. Somehow, Djokovic and Nadal were able to

start from the gate with the same intensity and produce almost the same quality of tennis as the tiebreaker of the third set, as though they never took the overnight break, during a stunning 16-minute-long first game. Not being able to break Nadal’s serve despite having two break-point opportunities had an impact on Djokovic, who lost his serve in the next game. Nadal then played a “blank” game: He “blanked” his opponent with three stunning shots, the last two forehand winners clocking in at warp speed.

When you thought Nadal was running away with the fourth set, he played his worst game of the match at 3-1 on his serve. It included two forehand unforced errors, plus another one that was forced but should have gotten back into the court, and a drop volley that bounced high enough for Novak to pass him without difficulty. Although Djokovic got back on serve, he played a bad game of his own at 3-4, featuring a double fault to start it and a forehand unforced error to end it. Nadal held the next game and the fourth set went in the record books as 6-3 in Nadal’s favor. After that remarkable first game, the level of tennis went down to what most of us humans would call “good.” It’s all relative; we were spoiled from the evening before and had high hopes after the first game. Frankly, it would not have been realistic to expect that level of performance for five sets straight.

In the fifth set, the match took on a different tone — one that I did not expect, I must admit, if you read my preview. All of sudden, serves became the dominant shots, reminiscent of the first semifinal played on Friday between Kevin Anderson and John Isner, or the quarterfinal between Anderson and Roger Federer. Each player began to collect two or three points per service game just on first serves. Not only was it surprising in the sense that these two players are not among the biggest servers in the ATP, it was also unusual to see the two players many consider the top returners in our sport fail to get more returns back in the court.

Of course, it was not as simple as I make it sound, either. Both players came up with clutch first serves or aces whenever they found themselves down a break point, or two points away from losing their serve at 0-30 or 15-30. Djokovic, for example, came up with an ace and a winning first serve at 4-4, 15-40, to recover and hold. He did it again at 7-7, 15-40, when he saved the first break point with a big serve that allowed him to use the 1-2 punch to win it and aced on the next point to recover to deuce.

Nadal, for his part, saved a break point at 3-4 with a hard first serve that curved into Djokovic’s body and jammed his forehand for an error. At 4-5, 0-30 down, Nadal came up with four straight winning first serves to climb out of the dangerous hole and tie at 5-5. At 7-8, he saved a match point and closed the game with an ace.

Something had to give, and it came at Nadal’s detriment. In a set when servers dominated, it was ironically a blank break game that ended the match. He first missed a forehand on a deep return by Djokovic to go down 0-15. Next, he responded to Djokovic’s drop shot with another drop shot of his own (not a great one, a bit high). Novak saw it coming and moved up in time to hit the cross-court backhand passing shot. In the 0-30 point, he slipped and fell on a running forehand which caused him to scramble for the next shot and miss it to go down 0-40.

The curtains closed down on Nadal when he missed a forehand crosscourt that he would normally make. This also brings me to a larger point that I have been meaning to make for a while.

What the Spaniard has achieved in the last two years, since the beginning of 2017 after his return from injury, is simply astonishing. I believe we can all agree that the world number one still maintains high standards of baseline efficiency and remains the fiercest competitor on the tour at the age of 32. Many have said that he has even improved his game – the same argument has been made for Roger Federer in the same fashion, after his comeback from injury at the same time as Nadal – and is now a better player than he was before. I can completely agree that his backhand has gotten better over the years, as well as his net skills.

But – and you knew there was a “but” coming – his best shot, the forehand, is no longer what it used to be. I know this may come as a surprise to many, but the signs are there.

Many experts – including current commentators and ex-professional players – argued for years, with valid reasons, that Rafa’s forehand was the best in the game. Whether it had been the case or not prior to his comeback in the beginning of 2017 is anybody’s call. One thing that I can firmly say, however, it is not what it used to be since then. His most important defeats of 2017 came via forehand unforced errors, often ones that he would make in his sleep at his peak.

The forehand missed against Federer at game point, leading 3-2 in the fifth set of the 2017 Australian Open final, plus the two forehand unforced errors both coming in the extension games of the fifth set in his loss to Gilles Muller in the fourth round of last year’s Wimbledon, are a few of several examples when his forehand let him down in the last year and a half.

Saturday was also one of those days. There is not a single point to which I can refer and say, “this one cost him dearly,” as I can in the above examples. Yet, there was a stream of forehand errors flowing from Nadal’s racket in the fifth set that put him in significantly difficult positions on the scoreboard. He made 22 unforced errors (my own count) on his forehand throughout the match, with eight of them coming after 3-3 in the fifth set. He made one forehand unforced error per game over the last four games.

This is not even counting the forehands that you would expect him to get back in the court even if he is on the full run. A great example is the 4-4 game with Djokovic serving, at deuce. Djokovic comes to the net and hits an angled backhand volley on the stretch, leaving the court open for a forehand passing shot if Nadal can get to it. Rafa does indeed get to it, although he is on the full run. But the court is wide open — all he needs to do is land the ball back in the court. He doesn’t, he misses it wide. That counts as a forced error in the stats, but it is definitely a point that Nadal should have won. It would have given him a third chance to break Djokovic on that ninth game.

Nadal is a master of finding solutions to problems and I am not even sure if this can be called a “problem.” He still hit a ton of terrific forehands throughout the match. It’s just that the 2018 forehand is not the same Nadal forehand that set his high standards during the 2008-14 period (give or take a year).

Novak Djokovic will take on Kevin Anderson in the final on Sunday, a match in which he will step on Centre Court at 2:00 p.m. as the clear favorite to win a major. Believe it or not, that is a position he has not been in since 2016. But as tennis fans, we should all be glad to have him back in one piece, and in full form.

That form was displayed at Wimbledon in a match which reminded us of everything that is great — and tactically fascinating — about the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry.

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Majors

Roundtable — The Significance Of The Wimbledon Final-Set Tiebreaker

Tennis Accent Staff

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

QUESTION: Whether you like the decision or not, what is the most significant aspect of Wimbledon’s decision to adopt a final-set tiebreaker? 

JANE VOIGT — @downthetee

Kevin Anderson was out of breath and sweating hard. He had just defeated John Isner in the longest semifinal in the history of The Wimbledon Championships, six hours and 36 minutes. The fifth and final set: 26-24.

“I hope this is a sign for Grand Slams to change,” Anderson told ESPN. “I really hope we can look at it and address it; it’s happened to John before. Just playing in those conditions is tough on both of us.”

Anderson’s message — “just playing in those conditions” — was directed at Wimbledon, at The Grand Slam Committees, the ITF, and to tennis. He wasn’t talking about the weather, the air temperature, or the condition of the battered lawn. Kevin was being generous in his delivery. He was gracefully arguing that tradition be dashed, no more agonizingly long fifth sets. Enough!

With the win Anderson advanced to his second major final, a first for him. He lost to Novak Djokovic in straight sets on Sunday, though, a dreadful display for the game of tennis because Anderson couldn’t play anywhere near his best. It had been drained from him two days prior. Forty-eight hours wasn’t enough recovery time for the South African. A month might not have been long enough to really rise to the occasion. After Isner defeated Nicolas Mahut in 2010 at Wimbledon, after three days and a 70-68 fifth set, the American’s feet were so torn up he lost in his next round, naturally, and wasn’t fit to play for months.

What a way to treat the players who earn tennis its income.

And, yes, you could argue that none of Anderson, Isner or Mahut could break serve and run away with a set and a match within its allotted boundaries: five sets, regular scoring for each, last set win by two games. But, thank goodness, they don’t have to worry about that situation every again. Wimbledon finally got off its traditional high horse and changed the rules. Bravo!

In its announcement Friday Wimbledon’s gavel came down at 12-12. That for-whatever-reason score will signal, come 2019 Wimbledon, that a tiebreak is about to determine the winner of the match. Gone will be the three-day matches a la Isner and Mahut. Gone will be the exhaustion Anderson felt entering an all-important Grand Slam final where he tried desperately to shut out the pain and mental chatter that, perhaps, taunted him to give up.

The implications of Wimbledon’s decision are profound because it finally stood up for the players, their health and well-being, which is, after all, the most important part of its fortnight. No players. No Wimbledon. Now what would be even more profound? The Australian Open follows in the footsteps of those folks with the fancy lawns.

MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk

To introduce the tiebreaker for the fifth set was long overdue. While it may not be officially called the “Isner” rule, there is no doubt that the American single-handedly managed to make it impossible for Wimbledon to continue the archaic extended fifth set.

Having said that, I am fairly certain that hardly anyone believed Wimbledon would switch to playing a tiebreaker at 6-6, as the U.S. Open does. I was personally hoping they would surprise everyone and do it, but I also knew better. It would have been too much to expect that from the major tournament that changed from white tennis balls to yellow ones several years after all other majors did.

Having stated my preference, there is an argument to be made for playing the tiebreaker at 12-12. The big question is, will a player who wins a match 13-12 in the fifth set, meaning after playing six full sets (also meaning, two of them at least equaling regular 7-6 sets), have enough stamina to perform well in his next-round match, in comparison to winning that match 7-6 in the fifth, thus playing one less full set? That is the difference between using the 12-12 rule for the deciding set Wimbledon has now adopted versus the 6-6 rule the U.S. Open has been using.

Looking at the last 10 Wimbledon men’s draws, within the context laid out above, I found that 33 matches were extended beyond 6-6 in the fifth, but not beyond 12-12. In those 33 matches, 13 of the winners went on to win their next matches (a rate at 40 percent). Therefore, it is not a clear-cut argument that an extended fifth set with a tiebreaker at 12-12 for the deciding set ruins a player’s chances for the next round. Furthermore, when I considered only the last five years’ numbers, 10 out of 18 winners of these matches also won their next round, bringing the rate up to 55 percent. Thus, implementing the tiebreak at 6-6 versus 12-12 does not have a significant impact on the winning player’s chances for the next round.

Of course, one could argue that if the player had to play two of those types of matches in a row, then it may make a difference. But that is a negligible probability, and in a domain where no perfect solutions exist, the 12-12 solution does not seem unreasonable, although it is still not my preference. I would prefer consistency in all majors, and hope that one day, all four majors will adopt the system currently utilized at the U.S. Open. One argument for the tiebreaker at 6-6 is that it leaves the daily schedule less vulnerable to unexpected fluctuations.

Lastly, how many of these extended sets would Wimbledon have avoided had it adopted the 12-12 system during the last 10 years? A total of 10.

In other words, this rule change is likely to only save us from watching, on the average, one match per year at Wimbledon that would have gone beyond 12-12. But it takes one or two blatant examples to finally break the resistance to making changes. Isner’s marathon match versus Mahut in 2010 and his semifinal match against Kevin Anderson in this year’s semifinals are probably the two biggest influencers of this decision.

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

I offered this news reaction at Tennis With An Accent after the story broke on Friday.

I raised questions more than I rendered verdicts, but I did note what Mert pointed out above: the inconsistency of the four major tournaments in handling the same issues. Is that good or bad? What matters most is how the players handle these topics and try to arrive at a better arrangement with the majors in resolving differences or complaints.

Since I addressed the problem of inconsistency in that piece, I will use this roundtable piece to tackle a different point of significance arising from Wimbledon’s decision.

Why does this decision matter so much to tennis? There are many valid answers, but the one I will choose here is that Wimbledon’s move makes it a lot harder for tennis fans and commentators to claim that tennis is or has been static in relationship to reforms and innovations over the years.

Yes, there are some things in tennis which I am not comfortable with: on-court coaching, no-let rules for serves, no-ad scoring. A lot of reforms make tennis “less than tennis,” in my eyes. I know plenty of people will disagree. Discussing reforms in any endeavor, let alone tennis, invites a familiar and irritating conversation in which YOU like reforms in general… but not that one over there. Your conversation partner also likes reforms… but not the one YOU yourself advocate.

Not everyone can agree on which reforms make the best – or worst – ideas for changing how tennis is structured, but at a higher level of discussion, I really like the fact that Wimbledon is willing to evolve. When the world’s oldest and most famous tennis tournament changes, that is a signal to the rest of the sport that it is okay to change as well.

When Wimbledon does something like this, it sends a message: “This thing which seems to have existed forever is not as permanent as you might think. The structure of tennis is not and has not been as fixed or immovable as the historical record actually shows.”

Let me briefly illustrate:

Wimbledon used a tiebreaker at 8-8 in non-deciding sets in the 1970s, then moved to 6-6.

Wimbledon used to play its men’s singles finals on Saturday and the women’s final on Friday before moving them up a day in 1982.

Wimbledon didn’t have a roof. Then it did, beginning in 2009.

Wimbledon didn’t have equal prize money. Then it did.

Ideas such as “Wimbledon is an outdoor tournament,” or “All four majors should be structured the exact same way,” do possess some merit. One can certainly make a case in support of those claims. Yet, Wimbledon and other tennis tournaments are constantly evolving. More precisely, the evolve at different speeds.

Insisting tennis IS a specific kind of entity might feel emotionally satisfying to say, and it might be reinforced by tangible facts and established realities, but it doesn’t represent a complete or unassailable truth.

Tennis can be what you think it is – and you wouldn’t even be wrong to assert as much – but it can simultaneously be something different and something more than your own perception of it. Wimbledon’s change creates a lot more irregularity in tennis, which makes it harder to say that “Tennis has always been like THIS… or THAT.”

Tennis is always changing – that’s what is most true about the sport.

The next time you say, “It was always THIS way,” chances are you’re not being entirely accurate. This opens the door for discussions about the identity of tennis to be more honest… and less filled with knee-jerk assumptions. That’s good for everyone… even if some people won’t acknowledge it.

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A New Era — Wimbledon Breaks With Tradition On Tiebreaks

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Anderson and John Isner reformed the sport of tennis… but to what extent?

For now, the marathon semifinal at Wimbledon this year has led the All-England Lawn Tennis Club to adopt a final-set tiebreak for 2019. It was widely felt — maybe not universally, but certainly to a considerable degree — that the time had come to place at least SOME limits on the length of a final set, given the 26-24 servefest between Anderson and Isner this past July on Centre Court.

The fact that Wimbledon — unlike the other three majors — coexists with a quirky English village which doesn’t want to be disturbed (and owns considerable political clout) has forced the tournament to use a curfew. This means that the nighttime use of Centre Court is something the AELTC doesn’t wish to pursue unless absolutely necessary. It also means that when Wimbledon DOES have to use Centre Court for night tennis, the fun stops at or near the magic hour (11 p.m.), with relative little flexibility. The Australian Open has played matches past 4 in the morning. The U.S. Open has gone past 2:20, and it went deep into the night a few times this past year, especially in the Marin Cilic-Alex de Minaur match.

Wimbledon could not play a fourth set in the semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — not to its completion, at any rate. The Anderson-Isner semifinal pushed back Rafole far too late for the two icons to play four full sets before the curfew.

As soon as that second semifinal between two superstars was suspended due to curfew, everyone in the tennis community knew that Wimbledon was going to make this change. The only question was when the final-set tiebreak would occur: 6-6, 9-9, 10-10, or 12-12? Those were the four primary options. 12-12 won out.

If Anderson and Isner play another semifinal at Wimbledon, their final set — strictly in terms of games played — will therefore not reach even half the number of games they played in the fifth set this past summer. They played 50 games in that last stanza in July. Next July, they would not be able to play more than 24 service games before submitting to a breaker.

Most tennis fans — if not all — can widely agree that a 12-12 tiebreaker represents an improvement over the previous structure. It might not be a perfect solution, but 12-12 means that two players will essentially get to play a sixth full set of tennis, 12 more games, if they can’t break the other’s serve. Six sets with no resolution screams for a tiebreaker. Yet, the sudden-death crapshoot doesn’t come too quickly, as some feel it does at the U.S. Open (6-6). People on various sides of this issue get something, even if some sides don’t get everything they wanted.

Narrowly viewed, this is — in one person’s opinion (mine!) — good for tennis.

HOWEVER:

Yes, there is a “but” here…

While Wimbledon’s decision is, on balance, a good one in microcosm — two men’s semifinals should be able to be completed without a curfew from now on — this move does raise larger questions for the sport of tennis as a whole.

Let’s simply acknowledge that two majors now have final-set tiebreaks and two don’t.

Let’s note that two majors (the Australian and U.S. Opens) have serve clocks while two don’t.

Let’s point out that among the two tournaments with final-set tiebreaks, one is at 6-6 and the other is at 12-12. Even within the realm of the final-set tiebreak, unanimity does not exist in the relationship between the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

Let’s note that Wimbledon still plays best-of-five-set men’s doubles, unlike other majors.

In these and other areas, we are moving into an even more fragmented and less uniform tennis landscape in which the major tournaments have their own personalities and identities.

Some will say this is a good thing. Others will say this is a bad thing. (Insert “there are very fine people on both sides” snark here.)

As I like to point out from time to time, my opinion on this doesn’t matter. What matters is what players think of all this. This movement by Wimbledon could lead Roland Garros and Tennis Australia to adopt final-set tiebreaks for 2020… but if it doesn’t, will that upset players who feel all four major tournaments need to protect them by limiting the wear and tear on their bodies, which are central to their ability to earn money?

A tennis player union would certainly help in moments such as this, and with the offseason not very far away (it has already arrived for some tour pros due to injury, and for much of women’s tennis as the WTA Finals and Zhuhai approach), this is a great time for players to communicate among themselves as they try to process what is happening around them.

We — at Tennis With An Accent — will have more to say about what this tiebreaker reform means for the sport, but for now, simply realize that a good decision within a narrow context has created many more questions for the sport on a larger level. How those questions get resolved will have so much to say about how tennis lovers — fans who pay for tickets and those of us who comment in a professional capacity — perceive the sport.

How we adjust — and if we even WANT to adjust at all — will be a commentary in itself about the tennis community’s relationship to a sport which, as much as we might love it for its traditions, is constantly changing.

That reality of constant change was affirmed by Wimbledon on Friday, three months after a July Friday which altered the way the world’s most famous tennis club handles its fabled tournament.

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Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON ATP REVIEW: RESILIENCE FROM DJOKOVIC AND OTHERS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

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
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