7/7/2010 1:00:00 PM
by Steve Flink
Day after day, through two glorious weeks, over a spectacular fortnight, the show went on at Wimbledon. Not a drop of rain fell during play at any stage of the tournament, the first time that had happened since 1995. More news and history was made during the first week than has been the case for a long while. Roger Federer nearly made a startling first round exit as the left-handed Alejandro Falla served for the match against the defending champion before bowing in five sets. John Isner and Nicolas Mahut battled gamely in the sport’s longest ever recorded match, fighting for eleven hours and five minutes over a three day span before Isner came through 70-68 in the fifth set. Isner set a record no one is going to touch with an astounding 113 aces, while Mahut managed 103 aces of his own. The level of play was not great, but the courage and resilience of both competitors had sports buffs all over the world talking excitedly about tennis.
And yet, after the surprises of the first week and a few upsets in the second week, order was restored in the end as world No. 1 Rafael Nadal captured his second crown on the Centre Court with a flourish down the stretch, and top seeded Serena Williams garnered her 13th Grand Slam championship with her most disciplined play ever at a major, taking a Grand Slam championship for the fourth time without conceding a set. They reaffirmed their greatness and big occasion prowess as Serena raised her record in Grand Slam finals to 13-3 and Nadal triumphed in a major final for the eighth time in ten appearances. Nadal and Williams are a pair of esteemed individuals who each compete with unbridled intensity and a willpower that few players in the history of the game have ever matched.
Nadal had a mid-tournament crisis of sorts, and he worked his way through that predicament honorably. In the second round, he took on Robin Haase, a Dutchman ranked No. 151 in the world. That was a strange match. Nadal was serving at 5-6, 30-0, in the first set, seemingly on his way to a tie-break. He double faulted, made a couple of nervous errors, and was broken to lose the set. The Spaniard quickly regrouped, took the second set comfortably, but then Haase went for broke in the third set and swept through it in 34 minutes. Nadal was down two sets to one, but he stormed back to win the fourth set without losing a game. One break was all he needed in the fifth set. In the fourth and fifth sets, Nadal won 27 of 28 first serve points, and five of seven on his second serve. Although he was stretched to five sets by a player who was taking big cuts at the ball and pulling off some spectacular winners in the process, Nadal was a convincing 5-7, 6-2, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 winner in the end, and the contest only lasted two hours and 22 minutes.
Two days later, Nadal was coasting along against No. 31 seed Philipp Petzschner of Germany. The Spaniard took the opening set 6-4 on one service break, and appeared headed toward a straight set victory. But, serving at 4-5 in the second set, having not yet faced a break point, Nadal played one of his worst service games of the tournament, and that surprising lapse made it one set all. On they went to a third set tie-break, and by now Petzschner was attacking skillfully, mixing up his tactics cleverly with some effective serve-and-volley combinations. In the tie-break, Nadal had a 2-0, mini-break lead, but Petzschner ripped a second serve return for a winner, and played on aggressively to build a 6-3 lead, with Nadal looking tense through that stretch. Nadal held both his service points to make it 6-5 for Petzschner, but the German produced a thundering 126 MPH service winner to Nadal’s forehand to take a two sets to one lead.
Early in the fourth, Petzschner was still attacking forcefully while Nadal was not at his big point best. He squandered two break points with the German serving at 0-1. Petzschner held on for 1-1 with an explosive 134 MPH ace. Nadal held at love for 2-1 and then called for the trainer. Petzschner would later imply that Nadal was using gamesmanship by calling the trainer out, although he never really backed up that claim. In any event, Nadal was moving freely, and he finally broke Petzschner in the following game to move ahead 3-1. Petzschner missed a forehand drop volley wide at break point, made a challenge, but the replay went Nadal’s way. In any case, Nadal’s returns in that game were much sharper and more consistent. At 4-2, Nadal held on from 0-30, and then he broke Petzschner for the set when the German double faulted at 2-5, 15-40.
Now Petzschner--- who had a problem with his leg—called for the trainer himself. Nonetheless, Nadal had a scare in the first game of the fifth set, falling behind break point at 30-40. He wisely sent his 121 MPH first serve down the T to the forehand, and Petzschner’s return was long. Nadal held for 1-0 and never looked back. In his last four service games, Nadal won 16 of 19 points. Petzschner competed well. He was level with Nadal until 3-3. But, with Petzschner serving at 3-4, Nadal inevitably made his move. At 15-15, an inside-out forehand winner put him in command. Then Petzschner served-and-volleyed, but could not gain the upper hand. Nadal caught him in his tracks with a low backhand crosscourt passing shot, and Petzschner missed the difficult volley. Down 15-40, Petzschner was way off the mark with an inside-out forehand. Nadal had the crucial break for 5-3, and then held at love to win 6-4, 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-3 in three hours and 45 minutes of rigorous tennis.
Nadal spoke after that match of his concern about his knees, but thereafter he was not troubled by any pain again. He cast aside Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, and then faced Robin Soderling in a repeat of the French Open final matchup. Nadal lost his opening service game of the match, which cost him the first set. In the opening game of the second set, Nadal was down break point. The umpire had given a point to Soderling, who had just won a challenge. Nadal justifiably felt he was in a position to make a shot at that point, and was therefore entitled to play a let. The umpire ruled against him. But Nadal used his distress over that situation and turned it into a positive, rolling through the second set. He was then poised to win the third set.
The Spaniard was leading 5-4 and ready to serve for the set when Soderling called for a trainer. That seemed like a deliberate ploy by the Swede to stall, and it seemed to work. Nadal double faulted wide down the T for 0-15, and double faulted again at 30-30. Soderling broke back for 5-5. That pivotal set was settled in a tie-break, which Nadal played masterfully from a strategic standpoint. Soderling was struggling inordinately off the forehand at this stage, missing with regularity off that side. So Nadal peppered the forehand throughout that tie-break. Nadal directed nearly every first serve in both the deuce and ad courts to the Soderling forehand, and the Swede made an avalanche of errors. Nadal took that sequence 7-4, and then crushed Soderling in the fourth set, winning the match going away by scores of 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1.
The match of the tournament in many ways was Nadal against Andy Murray. The No. 4 seed had admirably elevated his game after his woes in recent months to make it to the penultimate round. He did not lose a set until his quarterfinal appointment with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Against Tsonga, Murray was fortunate to avoid a deficit of two sets to love. He had lost the opening set, and Tsonga served at 5-4 in the second set tie-break, with a chance to close out that crucial set right then and there. Murray made an excellent low backhand pass to even the tie-break at 5-5, and then Tsonga moved forward behind his serve at 5-5. Murray’s return looked to Tsonga as if it would float long, but it fell well inside the baseline. Murray won that set and swept to a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5, 6-2, 6-2 victory.
Yet he deserved to be in the semifinals for the second year in a row, and he played a remarkable match against Nadal. In the first set, with the score locked at 4-4, Murray served an ace for 30-15, but double faulted to make it 30-30. He had probably outplayed Nadal until that moment, but now Nadal pounced. Murray had been hurting the Spaniard with a superb mixture of sliced serves wide and thunderbolts down the T, keeping Nadal guessing and off balance on that side. But when he sent his first serve at 129 down the T at 30-30, Nadal anticipated that serve in uncanny fashion. He drilled a penetrating inside-out topspin forehand return, put Murray on his heels, and then stepped in and rifled away a forehand winner to reach break point. Murray then rolled a forehand crosscourt wide to lose his serve, and Nadal served out the set, winning it 6-4.
In the second set, Nadal, always serving from behind, was often on the edge of difficulty. Murray was serving up a storm, continuing to mix it up artfully in the deuce court, and also keeping Nadal confused in the ad court with his flat serve out wide along with the kick and slice down the T. Meanwhile, Murray was also implementing the serve-and-volley with fine results. In six impeccable service games during that second set, Murray dropped only four points. Nadal, meanwhile, was working a whole lot harder. He had a deuce game before holding for 2-2. He struggled through two deuces before making it to 3-3. And then in the eighth game, Nadal was in jeopardy, serving at 15-40. He sent out a well placed 117 MPH first serve out wide to Murray’s forehand that was too good, and it was 30-40. Nadal followed by taking utter control of the next point, reaching deuce by approaching crosscourt off the forehand to the Murray backhand, and Murray missed the passing shot. Nadal eventually held on gamely for 4-4.
Both players held easily the next four games, and it was tie-break time. Serving at 3-4, Murray unleashed two aces in a row, going out wide in the Ad court on the first at 125 MPH, sending the second one down the T at 133. Now Nadal came in behind a backhand drop shot, read Murray’s backhand pass perfectly, and lunged to his left for a forehand volley into the open court. Back to 5-5, Nadal was where he wanted to be, in a position to serve his way to set point. Instead, out of nowhere, he double faulted. The buzz around Centre Court was loud and clear. They thought Nadal had uncharacteristically given away the set. They believed Murray would close out the tie-break on his serve, perhaps with another ace.
But Murray could not deliver. He missed his first serve, and then Nadal made a deep return off the second. Nadal found the opening to attack, went in on the forehand crosscourt approach, and anticipated Murray’s backhand down the line response. Bending in textbook fashion, Nadal angled his backhand drop volley crosscourt for a stunning winner. It was 6-6. The players changed ends. At 6-6, Murray did get the first serve in, and Nadal chipped his return short. Murray came in on a sliced backhand approach, and Nadal’s crosscourt backhand passing shot clipped the net cord and went past Murray in a flash, landing safely for a winner. Serving at 7-6 with his own set point, Nadal produced a sharply angled forehand crosscourt, making Murray stretch out on the run. Murray made contact, but not until the ball had bounced twice. Set to Nadal, frustration and despondency for Murray. Only Nadal could have turned that tie-break around so dramatically from set point down.
Nadal suffered a rare letdown at the start of the third set, losing his serve at love despite not missing a first serve. Murray released two more aces and held at 15 for 2-0, and served two more excellent games on his way to 4-2. Although it was inconceivable that Nadal could lose the match, Murray seemed almost certain to win the fourth. But Nadal ceded no ground. He held at 30 for 3-4. With Murray serving in the eighth game, trying to advance to 5-3, the British No. 1 saved a break point and got to game point. He made a decent drop shot, came forward, and seemed in position to handle Nadal’s backhand crosscourt passing shot. But Murray punched a forehand volley down the line wide and then double faulted. At break point for the second time, Nadal hit a soft, low backhand slice down the middle, drawing Murray in. Murray netted the awkward forehand approach. Nadal had improvised his way back to 4-4.
The Spaniard held at love for 5-4, closing that game with a 123 MPH ace down the T. So Murray was serving to save the match at 4-5 in that third set. He got to 30-30, but missed off the forehand. At match point down, Murray took a chance with a forehand swing volley, and drove it long. Nadal had won 6-4, 7-6 (6), 6-4. That was an astonishing clutch performance from Nadal, who could have lost any of the three sets, but won them all by bearing down as only he can on the big points and distancing himself from Murray. Murray, however, need not despair. He played his best tennis in months at Wimbledon, and he will surely regain his winning ways over the summer, and make a great run at the U.S. Open.
Tomas Berdych made a tremendous run at the All England Club to reach his first major final, right on the heels of his semifinal showing at Roland Garros. Berdych had his biggest win ever when he toppled six time and defending champion Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. Federer had picked up his game somewhat after making his big first round comeback to win in five sets against Falla. He had won his second round match in four sets, and had then accounted for Arnaud Clement and French Open semifinalist Jurgen Melzer in back to back straight set triumphs.
Although Federer had lost his most recent meeting with Berdych in Miami despite holding a match point on his serve at 6-5 in the final set tie-break, he had stopped the 6’5”, 24-year-old from the Czech Republic eight times in a row before that after losing the first match they ever played against each other at the 2004 Olympic Games. But Berdych made it apparent from the outset that he believed he could win. He served magnificently, especially on the big points. He was better than Federer from the backcourt, walloping his ground strokes with unrelenting depth and his customary pace. And his returns were outstanding. As former British No. 1 Mark Cox said later, “Berdych was treating Federer’s second serve like it was nothing, and Federer has a very good second serve.”
Berdych drew first blood in the seventh game of the first set, as Federer lost control with the backhand slice at 3-3, 30-40. Berdych had the break, and made it count. At 4-3, he held at love, finishing off that game with three consecutive aces. Two games later, serving for the set at 5-4, Berdych held at 15 with a 135 MPH service winner to the backhand. The big man was up a set, but Federer struck back. In the second game of the second set, Berdych double faulted to go down 15-30, and lost his serve for the one and only time in the match. Federer served his way safely through that set. It was one set all.
But Berdych quickly regained the momentum. With Federer serving at 0-1, 30-40, Berdych made an excellent sliced backhand approach crosscourt. Federer netted his backhand pass down the line. Berdych was up 2-0, and swiftly he made it 3-0. When Federer served at 1-4, he had a game point, but Berdych made a surprise backhand drop shot winner. Berdych advanced to break point, and then drove a two-handed return down the line off a second serve for a clean winner into the corner. At 5-1, Berdych held at love with an ace out wide at 130 MPH.
He was ahead two sets to one, but Berdych realized he had more work ahead. Federer demonstrated at the start of the fourth set that he meant business, holding at 15 with an ace for 1-0 with the one serve that was working for him that afternoon--- the wide slice in the deuce court. Berdych double faulted at 40-30 in the second game, but still held on. On his way to 2-2, Berdych was hard pressed again, going to deuce twice on his serve before holding with a pair of overpowering first serves that were too much for Federer. Berdych had a break point in the fifth game, but missed a backhand pass. Federer held on for 3-2, and then had his big chance.
Berdych was serving at 2-3, 0-40, having served two double faults in a row. But he did not lose his focus or composure. At 0-40, Berdych hammered a 135 MPH service winner to the forehand, followed by an inside-out forehand winner. At 30-40 he came in on Federer’s forehand and made a terrific backhand angled drop volley winner for deuce. Federer earned a fourth break point, which Berdych wiped out with an ace wide to the backhand at 131 MPH. Berdych held for 3-3. In the seventh game, Federer saved a break point and then served an ace at 127 MPH down the T for game point, only to drive a backhand long down the line to make it deuce.
Federer had another game point, but Berdych ran around his backhand for a forehand return winner off a second serve. Federer still had a third game point, but Berdych stood his ground. Now at break point again, Berdych was on the run and out of position as he went for a forehand passing shot. He blasted his shot hard and flat, sending it crosscourt. Federer was bowled over by the pace, and missed his forehand volley wide. Berdych held on for 5-3, and served for the match two games later, knowing Federer was not going to give it away. Berdych moved to 5-4, 40-30, match point, but Federer took control of the point and punched a backhand volley into an open court. Federer managed to create a break point opportunity for himself, but netted a forehand return off a second serve, playing that shot with surprising timidity.
Berdych garnered a second match point chance, and connected with a scorching 138 MPH serve wide to the forehand, which Federer could not answer. Berdych was victorious 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, handing Federer a second straight quarterfinal loss at a major after the Swiss had reached at least the semifinals in 23 previous appearances at the Grand Slam events.
Berdych had played a great match to beat Federer, but the 16 time Grand Slam tournament champion did not seem to see it that way. All through his post-match press conference, he was surly and condescending. He gave no real credit to Berdych, and blamed his defeat on being injured. As he asserted, “Like I said, I think he [Berdych] was a bit more consistent than in the past. I lost to him in Miami this year, where it was a really tight match as well. But from my end, obviously, you know, I’m unhappy with the way I’m playing. I couldn’t play the way I wanted to play. You know, I am struggling a little bit of a back and a leg issue. That just doesn’t quite allow me to play the way I would like to play. So it’s frustrating to say the least.”
Federer elaborated after being asked how his ailments affected him the most. He said, “Well, when you’re hurting it’s just a combination of many things. You just don’t feel as comfortable. You can’t concentrate on each and every point because you do feel the pain sometimes. And then you tend to play differently than the way you want to play. Under the circumstances I think I played a decent match. But I’ve been feeling bad for the last two, three matches now. It’s just not good and healthy to play under these conditions. So if there’s anything good about this, it’s I’m gonna get some rest, that’s for sure.”
It was sad and deeply regrettable that Federer would feel the need to explain away his defeat in this manner. Tennis players in the upper levels of the game frequently play with injuries. That is part of the game. They compete when they are battling illnesses and ailments. But the cardinal rule is not to use those problems as alibis; as former world No. 1 Roy Emerson once said, “If you walk on the court, you have no excuses.” Here is Federer, a man who has achieved beyond his wildest dreams, and earned the right to be considered the greatest tennis player of all time. He has handled his victories with admirable understatement and restraint. On that count, he deserves the highest of praise. He is also an exemplary sportsman on the court, seldom bickering with officials, always maintaining a high standard of conduct and dignity.
But the view here is that Federer sorely needs to learn how to lose with grace. On that count, for quite a long while now, he has not been exemplary. As long ago as 2005, at a time when he was dominating the game and coming off winning three majors the previous season, Federer lost 9-7 in the fifth set to Marat Safin in the semifinals of the Australian Open. He was interviewed a few months later by Patrick McEnroe on ESPN during the Indian Wells event. McEnroe mentioned that he had not seen Federer since that epic loss to Safin in Australia, and added that he thought it was a great match.
Federer had a chance there to say something like, “Marat played a great match. He was too good on the day. I thought I played well and it could have gone either way. I look forward to playing him more this year.”But, instead, he talked about a blister he had in the fifth set, and what a good effort he had put in under the circumstances in coming that close to victory despite the blister. I remember thinking how ungracious and unnecessary that remark was, and wondering why he could not be more sporting.
Over the years, he has handled most of his losses to Nadal very well. But then when others starting beating him--- especially Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic---he started offering a lot of after the fact excuses for his defeats. He would not go directly into press conferences and complain about injuries or anything else, but weeks or months later Federer would then make all kinds of excuses. That was the case in many interviews at Wimbledon in 2009, when reporters and players were anticipating the distinct possibility of a Federer-Murray final. Federer seemed to go out of his way to talk about his injuries and illnesses that he felt contributed to his losing record against Murray.
This spring, Federer lost not only to Berdych on the hard courts of Miami, but to Marcos Baghdatis at Indian Wells. When he was getting ready to move onto the clay, he said in an interview that he might have underestimated how much his lung infection following the Australian Open had taken out of him. Translated, he seemed to be saying that was why he lost the Baghdatis and Berdych matches, despite the fact that he had match points in both contests.
What was striking about his remarks at Wimbledon was that he expressed them immediately after the match, rather than doing it on reflection weeks or months later. Many people--- even experienced reporters who have followed Federer all across his sterling career--- believed that his excuses for losing to Berdych on Centre Court were out of character, that this was a departure from his normal way of handling losses. I don’t agree. To me, a pattern had emerged going back to his Safin loss five years ago. He hates to lose and can’t seem to allow anyone to believe that his conquerors were just plain better than he was on those given days. In his Wimbledon press conference after the loss to Berdych, Federer said he started having difficulty with his leg during the final of the warm-up event in Halle. On that occasion, former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt had ended a 15 match losing streak with a three set win over Federer. Hewitt deserved better than that from his old rival.
From here on in, it will be fascinating to see how Federer reacts to defeats. After being almost unstoppable from 2004-2006--- losing only 15 matches in that phenomenal three year span--- he became slightly more vulnerable in 2007. But in 2008 the losses mounted, and it has been that way ever since. The big difference now is that the losing has carried over into the majors; losing two straight quarterfinals at the Grand Slams did not sit well with him. But if he can’t reverse the trend--- and Federer has not won a tournament since the Australian Open, losing eight in a row since then and not making it to the semifinals in five of those events--- the Swiss must look for a way to stop demeaning himself and his adversaries, and start being as gracious in defeat as he has always been as a winner. Otherwise, he will harm his reputation as a sportsman.
In any case, Berdych defeated Novak Djokovic in the semifinals in straight sets, moving into the final against Nadal. Nadal had captured his last six contests against Berdych, and had won 14 sets in a row against the big man. That pattern did not change. With the wind blowing hard in the Centre Court, Nadal had the kind of conditions that worked in his favor. Berdych is an excellent ball striker off both sides, but he plays with a relatively slim margin for error. He was not going to beat the redoubtable Nadal under those circumstances.
Nadal missed more than usual off his devastating forehand, which is the best in the game. But what destroyed Berdych was the Spaniard’s serve. He kept swinging his serve wide to Berdych’s backhand with heavy slice, and for the second time in a row at a major final, Nadal was not broken in the match. That was the key. Meanwhile, his returns were there when he needed them. Nadal broke Berdych twice from 3-3 in the opening set, then overcame a spell of anxiety in the opening game of the second set, saving three break points. With Berdych serving at 5-6, Nadal broke his opponent at love, provoking error after error from the No. 12 seed by slicing his backhand down the middle, Berdych made three glaring unforced errors off his forehand side. Nadal had employed the correct strategy at precisely the right time. In the third set, Nadal fended off a break point at 1-1, and waited patiently for his opening. With Berdych serving at 4-5, Nadal got his chance, finishing off the match with a vintage crosscourt forehand passing shot. Nadal was victorious 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.
Nadal can now set his sights on the making of more history. Federer stands at the top of the all-time men’s list with 16 Grand Slam championships, followed by Pete Sampras (14), Emerson (12), Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg (11 each), and Bill Tilden (10). The view here is that Nadal will almost surely break into double digits, and probably pass Laver and Borg. He could well tie or surpass Emerson. He is only 24, and if he can preserve his knees, the majors will keep coming his way. Moreover, he now has two Wimbledon titles on grass and one more on hard courts (the 2009 Australian Open) to go along with his five French Open titles. No one in the men’s game has taken the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year since Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969, but Nadal has a serious chance to pull off the three surface triple this year. I believe he will win the U.S. Open.
As for Serena Williams, she is making history on a tall scale as well. Serena passed Billie Jean King by securing her 13th major at Wimbledon, and the only women ahead of her are Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (18). Serena turns 29 at the end of September, but if she takes good care of herself she can go on winning big prizes until she is 32 or 33. She has been priming for the Grand Slam events with increasing vigor. Starting with her victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, Williams has won five of the last eight Grand Slam tournaments. If she makes the most of her opportunities, Williams will have a reasonable chance to get very close to Evert and Navratilova on the leader board, and perhaps even move beyond them.
At Wimbledon, Serena never lost a set. She handled Vera Zvonareva with consummate ease in the final. She lost her serve only three times in the tournament, winning 61 of 64 service games. She now must be considered the best server in the history of women’s tennis. The purity of her motion, the consistency of her toss, the deceptiveness of her placement: all of these attributes make Williams the best there has ever been in the serving department. At Wimbledon, her toughest test came against Maria Sharapova in the round of 16. Williams was the victor 7-6 (9), 6-4, but Sharapova was admirable in defeat.
The 23-year-old Russian was serving much more like the Sharapova of old. In the first set, Williams took a 3-1 lead when Sharapova twice double faulted long. But that was not a bad sign. Sharapova was going for her second serve so Serena could not overwhelm her on the return of serve. Sharapova broke right back, however, and had an opening at 4-4. Williams was down 0-30 but the American got back to 30-30 and then served two aces in a row for the hold. The tie-break was critical. Sharapova led 6-4 and was serving, but Serena backed Maria up with a deep crosscourt forehand and forced an error. Serving at 5-6, Williams cracked a deep two-hander down the line, and Sharapova missed an arduous running forehand. It was 6-6.
Williams went ahead 7-6, but Sharapova saved a set point there with a deep second serve that Williams could not handle. Sharapova then took an 8-7 lead. Williams saved that set point with a service winner, and then moved to 9-8 with another unstoppable serve. A deep second serve kicker from Sharapova elicited an errant return from Williams to make it 9-9, but then Sharapova served a wild double fault long. At 10-9, Williams sealed the set with her 13th ace. Williams pulled away to win the second set, but Sharapova made Serena work hard. In this form, Sharapova will be formidable over the summer leading up to the U.S. Open.
Be that as it may, there will be two prohibitive favorites for the singles titles at the U.S. Open. Their names, of course, are Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.
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