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Steve Flink: 2012 Wimbledon in Review

7/11/2012 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

There was a growing feeling among many learned tennis observers as Wimbledon concluded the other day that it might be Andy Murray’s destiny to capture his first Grand Slam tournament singles title on the sacred lawns at the world’s most prestigious tournament. Murray had demonstrably withstood the rigors of the fortnight. Rafael Nadal had lost early, sparing the British No. 1 a fourth appointment on the fabled Centre Court against the two-time champion, and a third straight semifinal confrontation with the Spaniard. Murray had handled pressure forthrightly across the entire tournament, overcoming the tenacious David Ferrer and the dynamically athletic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in high quality, four set duels. He seemed to be peaking propitiously, and was competing with an equanimity we have seldom seen from him before.

But, in the end, fate delivered for someone else, for a man who had already amassed more prizes of consequence than anyone who has ever played the game, for a player who refused to lose faith in himself even when so many people were giving up on him, for a champion of rare stature who lived very dangerously early in the tournament before saving his best for a scintillating homestretch. Ultimately, destiny belonged not to the gallant Murray, not to anyone else, but only to one Roger Federer. Federer could so easily have bowed out long before his final round skirmish with Murray. The Swiss was two points away from a third round exit against Julien Benneteau no fewer than six times, but for the eighth time in his illustrious career he rescued himself from two sets to love down to win that dangerous match in five sets.

One round later, Federer had a serious problem with his back, leaving the court for treatment during his clash with the enigmatic Belgian Xavier Malisse. Malisse served for the first set at 6-5, but Federer struck back boldly to take that set before coasting through the second. With Federer still looking uneasy, Malisse took the third set and went ahead 2-0 in the fourth. A more stable and tougher competitor than Malisse might have finished the ailing Federer off in five sets, but the Swiss calmly collected six out of seven games to record a four set triumph for a place in the quarterfinals. Malisse fell into disrepair, his backcourt game utterly collapsing.

By the time Federer took on Mikhail Youzhny in the quarterfinals, his back had been treated, his comfort level had returned, and his state of mind was brighter. Youzhny was beaten before he even walked on the court. Federer raised his record to 14-0 over the No. 26 seed with a 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 triumph. In the semifinals, Federer confronted Novak Djokovic for the first time ever on grass, and the contest took place indoors under the retractable roof. Djokovic, of course, had won six of his previous seven collisions with Federer, winning four of those showdowns at the three other majors. But back in the safety of the Centre Court under that roof, Federer was first rate, losing his serve only once in four sets, finding his range off the ground. His tennis sparkled through most of the battle, but Djokovic was flat and simply abysmal. He returned poorly, he had no zest, and his returns were malfunctioning; Federer won 72% of his second serve points. Federer’s 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 triumph was a fine performance, but Djokovic’s level of play and lack of fire were sorely evident.

Federer thus approached the final with cautious optimism. He was within one match of tying Pete Sampras’s modern record of seven men’s singles titles at Wimbledon. He knew he could secure a 17th Grand Slam singles championship, and capture his first major since the 2010 Australian Open. He was an entirely different player from the fellow who stepped on court against Benneteau and Malisse. But Murray, too, was on a good roll coming into the final, and he took an 8-7 career winning record against his old rival, despite losing five of his last seven meetings with the Swiss. Moreover, Murray had realized his dream of reaching a first Wimbledon final, becoming the first British man since Buddy Austin in 1938 to go that far, hoping to establish himself as the first British male player since Fred Perry in 1936 to win the sport’s most highly valued prize.

The stakes were excruciatingly high for both players, and that was revealed in the way they competed in a first set of fluctuating fortunes. Murray was upbeat and sharp at the outset, breaking Federer in the opening game of the match. Federer’s tenseness was evident as he missed a forehand swing volley off a hanging return from Murray at break point down. Murray moved to 2-0, but then dropped the next three games as Federer gradually improved his backcourt game. Murray’s had to impose himself again in the middle of a pendulum swinging set.

He did just that. Murray held on in a deuce game for 3-3 but Federer retaliated by holding at 15 for 4-3. The Swiss made good on four out of five first serves in that game. His wide slice delivery in the deuce court was a problem Murray could not really solve. With Murray serving at 3-4, Federer had two break points, and he seemed on the verge of turning the set around and taking control. But Murray’s aggression at that crucial juncture allowed him to avert danger. He saved the first break point with a 131 MPH first serve that set up an inside out forehand which was too much for Federer to handle; on the second, Murray dug out a terrific low backhand volley and punched it beautifully with both feel and depth down the line, forcing Federer to loft a lob long.

Murray’s clutch stand enabled him to hold on for 4-4, and then he pounced, breaking Federer at 15 in the ninth game as the Swiss apprehensively missed two inside out forehands in a row. Serving for the set at 5-4, Murray allowed Federer only one point, closing out that game emphatically with a crackling 132 MPH ace wide to the backhand, followed by a service winner released at the same speed. Murray had the set, 6-4. He was right where he wanted to be.

In three previous finals at Grand Slams events—first at the U.S. Open four years ago against Federer, and again in the 2010 and 2011 Australian Open finals against Federer and Djokovic—Murray had failed to win a set. Now he had broken that nine set losing streak. That set was essential for Murray because Federer is such an unassailable front runner.  The Swiss had captured the first set in 13 of his previous 16 Grand Slam tournament triumphs. Of the seven major finals he had lost, Federer won the opening set only twice. Murray fully understood it was imperative that he had to secure that first set.

He then threw everything he had into winning the second set, looking to deliver a virtual knockout punch. Murray escaped from break point down in the opening game. With Federer serving at 2-2, Murray had two break points, but the Swiss was very lucky on the first, totally miss-hitting a forehand approach shot that landed in an awkward spot for Murray to counter. Federer won that point with an overhead. On the second break point, Murray did not give himself enough margin for error on a crosscourt backhand return, and his shot went wide. Federer held on. At 4-4, Murray garnered two more break points. On the first, his return was excellent, hit with great depth, forcing Federer to reply with caution. Federer rolled his forehand down the middle at a higher trajectory with extra topspin for control. Murray wanted to be assertive, but he went needlessly for a backhand down the line and drove it long. That was a critical moment, and the costliest miss of the match for Murray.

Federer saved the second break point against him in that game with supreme aggression, and then held on. A tie-break seemed almost inevitable. At 5-6, Murray moved ahead 30-0. But Federer’s capacity to stay loose even in the tightest of situations is remarkable. He released a forehand drop shot that set up a winning backhand passing shot up the line. It was 30-15. Murray then pounded a first serve to the backhand, and Federer’s reply was relatively short. Murray stepped around his backhand for an inside-in forehand, but drove it long. Suddenly, a seemingly easy hold became complicated.

With the score locked at 30-30, Federer’s spontaneous brilliance and supreme creativity were showcased gloriously. He worked his way forward, and played a delicate forehand drop volley down the line. Murray scampered forward and lobbed over Federer, but his shot unluckily landed a few inches long. Set point for Federer. It was an opportunity he would not waste. In the following exchange, he seized control of the rally rhythmically and majestically, pulling Murray off the court with a crosscourt forehand, driving his topspin backhand crosscourt, following that shot in. Murray’s passing shot attempt was not hit badly, but he had to slice it and did not keep the ball low enough. Federer almost outrageously produced a stroke of sheer genius and gumption, sending a sidespin backhand drop volley down the line, well out of Murray’s reach. It was the kind of volley usually seen only on the practice court.

Federer’s audacious wizardry had lifted him back to one set all, and Murray was surely shaken. With Federer serving at 1-1, 40-0 in the third set, rain forced a postponement of about 40 minutes. That was a good thing for Federer, who has not lost an indoor match since the autumn of 2010, when Gael Monfils saved five match points against him in the semifinals at Paris. Take away the wind and the sun and the elements, and Federer becomes uncannily precise off the ground and on serve. The roof clearly was helpful, but what mattered more was that Federer had recovered his confidence and authority by salvaging the second set after such a stern struggle.

Federer proceeded to play his two best sets of the match under the roof. With Murray serving at 2-3 in the third set, the single most pivotal game of the match occurred. It lasted nearly twenty minutes, stretched through ten deuces, and found both players ceding no ground. Murray had 40-0 and had seven game points. He took one particularly awkward fall chasing a short ball in that game. Both men competed with quiet fury, knowing that this game might determine the outcome of the set, and could be crucial in shaping who would win the match. Federer had five break points that Murray managed to fight off, but on the sixth he opened up the court by drawing Murray out wide on the forehand. That stroke gave Federer the chance to unload on an inside out forehand that Murray could not answer off the backhand. For Murray, the loss of this service game was a cruel blow. He had been consistently made to work harder the whole match holding serve as Federer mixed up his returns and kept making Murray play. His unrelenting persistence was rewarded.

Federer held twice from there to close out a 6-3 set, underlining his supremacy by serving two aces in the ninth game. Federer was flowing now, sensing he could not lose, realizing that Murray was under duress. Serving at 0-1 in the fourth set, Federer trailed break point. He had managed to keep Murray at bay through large portions of the match by drawing his opponent deep and wide to the forehand, pinned too far behind the baseline to do any damage. Now, a point away from going down a break in the fourth set, Federer approached the net behind a crosscourt forehand, daring Murray to come up with the goods. Murray missed a down the line forehand passing shot, and Federer held on for 1-1.

At 2-2, Federer found the opening he wanted. With Murray serving at 15-40, the British competitor cracked an inside-out forehand and came in on the Federer backhand. The Swiss Maestro seemed to have all the time in the world, rolling his passing shot exquisitely into the clear. Federer had the break for 3-2, held at 30 for 4-2, and never looked back. He held again at 30 for 5-3, and served for the match at 5-4. At 0-15 in that final game of the match, Murray missed a topspin forehand lob long. Federer followed with an ace and a service winner, and then Murray was off the mark with another crosscourt forehand passing shot. Federer had deservedly come from behind to beat Murray 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. He had not lost his serve again after getting broken twice in the opening set.

Yet there were many reasons why he prevailed. Murray kept trying to slug it out with Federer in backhand crosscourt exchanges, but Federer had one of his best ever days off that side, mixing up his trademark slice with some telling blows off his topspin backhand, missing infrequently. Murray should have mixed it up more, and could have taken his two-hander up the line more. He should have recognized that Federer’s backhand was not only holding up but flourishing. Meanwhile, Murray’s first serve percentage deteriorated over the last two sets. He had been at 58% in the first set and 72% in the second. In the third and fourth sets, he fell to 49% and 45%.

Murray also was forced onto the defensive too often as Federer drove him into submission in the third and fourth sets. Murray had won 8 of 11 net approaches in the opening set, and 13 of 17 in the second. But he approached only seven times in the third set (winning just two points), and came in only seven more times in the fourth set, winning four of those points. Federer’s numbers were consistently of a higher standard throughout the contest. His rate of attack was impressive. In the first set, he approached the net 18 times and won 13 points. He won 24 of 30 second set approaches, 11 of 15 in the third, and 15 of 16 in the fourth set. For the match, his success rate going forward was 80% as he won 63 of his 79 approach points. His first serve percentage was 68% in the first set, 71% in the second, 64% in the third, and 70% in the fourth. For the match, he was at 69%. Federer served a total of 131 points in the match and won 91 of those points, while Murray served 157 points and took only 88 of them. He worked harder, and was rewarded less than an opponent who was more accurate, purposeful and deceptive.

To be sure, Federer’s seventh title run at Wimbledon was one of his finest career moments. In some ways, it reminded me of his 2005 U.S. Open final round triumph over Andre Agassi in New York. Agassi was 35, and was a surprise finalist. The immensely popular American came back from the loss of the first set, won the second, and built a 4-2, 40-30 lead in the third. The audience in Arthur Ashe Stadium was sensing the possibility of a monumental upset, and was cheering on their man unabashedly. Yet Federer recouped with some brilliant shot making to win 6-3, 2-6, 7-6, 6-1. He dealt with a crowd that was overwhelmingly for his opponent, and won them over in some ways, silencing the fans with the eloquence of his play. This win over Murray was reminiscent of that triumph over Agassi. The Centre Court crowd was thirsting for a Murray victory, but Federer handled the situation with aplomb.

Federer realized how fortunate he had been to get by Benneteau in the third round. The 30-year-old Frenchman kept the Swiss uneasy with his attacking play and some extraordinary serving, building a two sets to love lead. Early in the third, Benneteau lost his serve, and he conceded that set tamely. But he fought his way through the fourth, and that was when he had Federer on the brink. At 5-6, 15-30, Federer’s first serve set up a forehand winner, and then he aced the Frenchman. But Benneteau got to deuce, and for a third time he was two points away from a major upset.

Once again, Federer got his first serve in, opening up the court for a crosscourt backhand. Benneteau netted a backhand on the run, although it looked as if he could have kept that shot in play. The Frenchman forced another deuce, and Federer came through with another first serve, drawing an errant forehand return from his adversary. Federer then held on for 6-6. The tie-break went to 5-5, with Federer releasing a service winner to win that point. Benneteau rallied to 6-6, and was serving to go ahead match point.

He never got there. Benneteau overanxiously missed a backhand. Federer wrapped up the tie-break 8-6, and marched easily through the fifth set as his opponent wilted. Federer survived that harrowing clash 4-6, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-1. It was a watershed moment for him. He could have been gone, only one day after Rafael Nadal’s five set, second round shocker against Lukas Rosol, a journeyman ranked No. 100 in the world. Nadal was sorely off key for most of that match, yet still he took the first set. But he dropped the next two as Rosol kept going for broke off the ground and serving too big. But Nadal played his most inspired tennis of the match to win the fourth set with gusto. He was told that the tournament wanted to play the fifth set under the roof as the skies darkened.

Had he realized that it takes more than thirty minutes after the roof is closed for the grass to adjust, the Spaniard might have balked. But Nadal mistakenly thought that play would resume in five to ten minutes. When he returned, Rosol was a man possessed, serving nothing but thunderbolts, going for one outright winner after another off the ground, hardly missing. Rosol dropped only three points in five service games during his astounding fifth set blitz, and closed out the contest with three love games in a row on his delivery, making eleven of twelve first serves in that span, serving seven aces in those last three service games—and three in the last game! The two-time champion—who had not lost before the final since 2005 at Wimbledon—was ousted in startling fashion 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 by an essentially unconscious player in the second round. Unsurprisingly, Rosol came down to earth in the next round, bowing in straight sets to Philipp Kohlschreiber.

So Nadal has slipped to No. 3 in the world, Djokovic has dropped to No. 2, and, remarkably, Federer is back to No. 1. He has tied Sampras for the record number of weeks at No. 1 (286) but he will soon break that record, and will remain at the top for at least a while. Djokovic has to protect a Masters 1000 win in Canada from last summer, a final round showing in Cincinnati, and a U.S. Open triumph. Federer has very little to protect from that period: he lost in the round of 16 in Canada last summer, fell in the quarterfinals of Cincinnati, and was beaten by Djokovic in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

After the Open in 2011, Federer won Basle, and then took the Masters 1000 crown in Paris, and the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. Perhaps then Djokovic might have the incentive to make it back to the top of the mountain, but the view here is that Federer will almost inevitably finish 2012 at No. 1 in the world. That is a remarkable accomplishment for a man who is about to turn 31. But he has moved back to the top step by step. Since his jarring loss to Djokovic at the Open a year ago, he has won eight tournaments, far more than anyone else in that span. All of the leading players will have a chance to add substantial ranking points to their records at the Olympic Games back at Wimbledon beginning in late July, but Federer figures to do very well there. If Djokovic fares better at the Olympics, he might briefly move past Federer again, but not for long.

I am convinced Federer will win at least one or two more majors before he puts the racket down for good, and he just might take three to realize his goal of 20 majors. Perhaps his biggest obstacle—other than a revitalized Djokovic and Nadal, or an always enterprising Murray—will be his back, which has acted up three times this year.

The men’s game is in awfully good shape. Every member of the “ Big Three”—Federer, Djokovic and Nadal—has won a major in 2012, and Murray is surely going to get on the board at a Grand Slam event some time very soon, perhaps in New York at the U.S. Open. His coach, Ivan Lendl, lost in four major finals between 1981 and 1983 before capturing eight Grand Slam championships across his distinguished career. Lendl will lead Murray into the land of the elite one of these days: of that much I am nearly certain.

No less an authority than Roger Federer himself is on record proclaiming that Murray will win not only one major, but more than that. I am in accord. 
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.