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.
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.
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.