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Steve Flink: Wimbledon Musings

7/5/2011 7:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

More than anything else, Novak Djokovic’s Wimbledon triumph was about validation. Djokovic knew after he had knocked out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals that he would move up to No. 1 in the world this week, and understood that garnering this high honor was a reward for everything he had done across the last year. No one could claim he did not deserve his place at the very top of his profession. To win 48 out of 49 matches over the course of this season, to be victorious in eight out of the nine tournaments he has played, to topple Rafael Nadal five times on three surfaces without losing all year to the Spaniard: it all demonstrated that the Serbian has not separated himself entirely from the pack by accident. He has simply played the game much better than anyone else all year long. His ground game is now the best in tennis, his serve is more of strength than ever before, his command of the volley is growing, and his mindset is that of an authentic champion who knows how to win on his off days while realizing that at his zenith he is almost unstoppable.

And yet, Djokovic also comprehends that along with his considerable progress over the past year has come the burden of a larger responsibility, of living up completely to his top billing. That is why he needed Wimbledon more than anyone ever knew. To work a lifetime in pursuit of the pinnacle and then get to No. 1 a day after losing the biggest match of the year would have been not only bittersweet but unacceptable and jarring for the Serbian. In 1999, Andre Agassi, fresh from his unexpected breakthrough at the French Open, faced Pete Sampras in the Wimbledon final. He, too, knew that he would be ranked No. 1 the next day—whether he won or lost against his estimable countryman. In that sense, Agassi had nothing to lose, but then again a defeat against Sampras in such a monumental match meant everything. Sampras took apart Agassi in straight sets, and moving past his adversary to No. 1 in the rankings under those circumstances felt hollow to the icon with the bald head and brilliant return of serve.

Now Djokovic can fully celebrate after underling his supremacy on Sunday. He has secured two of the three majors played in 2011, and will have an excellent chance to add another to his collection at the U.S. Open in September. He seems certain to become only the eighth man ever to win a career Grand Slam sweep of all four majors. His transformation from a gifted athlete hampered regularly by a fragile disposition to a seasoned champion with the right mentality has been astounding, and Djokovic showcased a growing mastery of his craft with his four set win on Sunday over Nadal. Playing with extraordinary poise and intelligence in his first Wimbledon final—on a surface he previously disliked—was proof that Djokovic can thrive anywhere, and evidence that he can handle any challenge that is thrown his way these days.

I wrote a detailed account of the final in my previous column immediately after the Djokovic-Nadal clash, but let’s look at it briefly again and consider the implications of the Serbian’s uplifting victory coupled with the Spaniard’s bruising setback. The first set came down to one critical game. Nadal was serving at 4-5, and up until then he was going toe to toe with Djokovic, with both men acquitting themselves well. In that tenth game, Nadal built a quick 30-0 lead before Djokovic struck two winners in a row. Well aware as he served at 30-30 that he could not afford to make one false move, Nadal cracked. He netted an inside-in forehand, then drove a forehand wide down the line off a solid yet not overwhelming forehand return from his determined adversary, and in a flash Djokovic had taken the set. Nadal hardly knew what had hit him.

The fact remains that Nadal had an immediate opening at the start of the second set. Djokovic was serving at 0-30 in the first game, and the Spaniard had a chance to gain a quick and morale boosting break. Djokovic rallied to 30-30, and then Nadal bungled an overhead with a break point chance seemingly on his racket. Thereafter, Djokovic was magnificent all through the second set, painting the court with a dazzling array of winners, removing every layer of Nadal’s confidence. Djokovic had the set, 6-1, but Nadal exploited an early lapse from Djokovic in the fourth, and stepped up his pace off the backhand side, flattening out his two-hander to rush Djokovic into forehand errors. Nadal took the third set 6-1 and had a break point in the first game of the fourth. Djokovic put Nadal on the defensive and held on.

The Serbian moved ahead 2-0, was caught at 2-2, but swept four of the last five games for the victory. Djokovic was unflappable in that fourth set and Nadal could not find a real weakness in the Serbian. And Djokovic sensed Nadal’s ongoing vulnerability. The worst game of the match for Nadal came at 3-4 in the fourth set, when he started with his first and only double fault and followed with three more unprovoked mistakes to lose that critical service game. Djokovic served out the match commandingly from there, catching Nadal off guard with a surprise serve-and-volley combination at 30-30, swinging his serve out wide to the Spaniard’s backhand, anticipating the down the line return, and closing in to put away a backhand first volley. At match point, Djokovic attacked off Nadal’s return and the Spaniard missed wildly with a backhand pass. Djokovic’s 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 triumph was a first rate piece of business.
 
Djokovic’s footwork was unfailingly efficient and his propensity to shift from defense to offense was unanswerable and strikingly impressive. Djokovic was impenetrable in every way, and Nadal found himself at an agonizing impasse. His capacity to dictate points regularly against Djokovic with a barrage of vicious topspin forehands and to play these matches on his own terms has been severely diminished. In building a 16-7 career head-to-head advantage over Djokovic through 2010, I always felt that Nadal would eventually prevail in those contests by exploiting his primary strength (the crosscourt forehand) to break down Djokovic’s backhand; he would either force the Serbian into an error, or open up an avenue for an inside-out forehand winner. Strength to strength, Nadal had the advantage. That has not been the case in 2011. Djokovic makes Nadal hit five or six winners to win a single point in some cases, and frequently he takes the initiative completely away from Nadal.

Think of it: Nadal has suffered five final round losses (two on hard courts, two on clay, and one on grass) this season, and now his career lead over Djokovic is down to 16-12. It was inconceivable that anyone could ever topple Nadal so many times in a row. Nadal has always had the formula to defeat all of his rivals in their head to head battles, which is why he is so perplexed at the moment by his stream of losses against Djokovic. Djokovic has rattled Nadal’s psyche substantially, made him doubt himself, and has taken the swagger right out of the Spaniard.

But Nadal was exemplary in defeat, leaving most reporters who walked out of the room after his press conference marveling at his integrity and forthrightness.  He said, “I lose because I am playing against the best player of the moment, the best player of the world tomorrow, and I am the second. And when you are playing against these players and they are playing unbelievable, the normal thing is to lose. That’s what happened the last few times. My experience says this level is not forever. Even for me when I was last year winning three Grand Slams, my level of play is not forever. Probably the level of Novak today is not forever. I gonna be here fighting all the time, waiting for my moment….. I understand the sport like this. When one player is better than you, at this moment the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and try to wait a little bit for your time. Last five times [against Djokovic] wasn’t my time. I gonna try a sixth. And if the sixth doesn’t happen, to the seventh. That’s the spirit of the sport.”

More so, it is the spirit of the inimitable Nadal, a man of unimpeachable integritywho looks reality in the eye and does not blink. He said of Djokovic, “He is in the best moment of his career. I am in one of the best moments of my career. Still not enough for him. I have to play longer. I have to play more aggressive. I have to have less mistakes. Yes, that’s what I have to do.” Nadal was making sense of it all, conceding that Djokovic has him off his psychological game, admitting that he is fighting himself to some degree as well as his estimable opponent. “Probably the mental part is a little bit dangerous for me,” he said,“because when I arrive to the 5-4 in the first set, I played a bad game with the 30-0. When I arrived to 3-4 in the fourth set, I played another bad game on my serve. That’s what I say: to win these kinds of matches, I have to play well these kinds of points and that can change the match.”

In any event, while Djokovic walked out of Wimbledon wishing the U.S. Open could start tomorrow, and Nadal left in a deeply philosophical and somber state, Roger Federer and Andy Murray had much on their minds as well. After handing Djokovic his only loss of 2011 to reach the final at Roland Garros, Federer had left his biggest boosters optimistic that he might tie Pete Sampras’s modern men’s record of seven Wimbledon singles titles. He lost only one set on his way to the quarterfinals, and many still believed he was on course to secure another crown. But for the first time ever at a Grand Slam event, Federer was beaten after leading two sets to love. Across his sterling career at the four majors, the 16 time Grand Slam tournament singles champion had an impeccable 178-0 record in matches when he had won the first two sets, but Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made history by upending Federer 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

What happened? Quite simply, Tsonga had an extraordinary serving day. Consider this: Federer broke Tsonga to take a 2-0 lead in the first set, and never broke the Frenchman again for the rest of match. Even more startling is the fact that the Swiss never even earned another break point against the big server from France, who mixed up his game plan nicely and kept Federer guessing about whether or not he would serve-and-volley or stay back, made him wonder when he might attack behind the forehand or go for an outright winner. The Frenchman held serve 24 straight times without being pushed to break point after he was broken in his opening service game of the match. Tsonga sustained his level as he seldom has before, and despite a cluster of abysmal mistakes in the second set tie-break, he did not get disillusioned.

But the question Federer never really answered was why he did not keep up his end of the bargain, hold his own serve sedulously, and take the third or fourth sets into tie-breaks where good fortune could have come his way. Tsonga’s return of serve is not among the best in tennis. Curiously, Federer let his guard down early in the last three sets, and never recovered. At 1-1 in the third, Federer was careless on his way to a 15-40 deficit, depositing an easy backhand volley into the net, and sending an inside-out overhead taken on the bounce wide of the sideline. Federer rallied to deuce. Then Tsonga got the break with a brilliant backhand crosscourt winner and a running forehand down the line passing shot that caught the edge of the line. That break was enough for Tsonga to win the set, although he was down 0-30 and had was pushed to deuce three times before he served it out at 5-4.

In the fourth set, Tsonga broke Federer at 1-1 again. Federer missed four out of six first serves, and Tsonga took full advantage, hitting three winners, including an inside-out forehand placement on break point. Tsonga closed out that set confidently, holding at love with four un-returnable serves at 5-4, finishing off that game with two aces. Federer left the court for a bathroom break, but immediately found himself in danger when he returned. Tsonga broke him at 15 in the first game of the fifth set, reaching 0-30 with two dazzling forehand winners. Federer fell behind 15-40 with a feeble netted backhand, and then Tsonga drew an error from the Swiss with a penetrating forehand crosscourt that Federer could not handle on the run.

Tsonga had the early break again, and he served his way unrelentingly to victory from there. Federer gave Tsonga full marks for his performance, which was the way it should be. But he had no plausible explanation for why he squandered a two set lead (could anyone imagine Pete Sampras ever squandering a two set lead in a big match on the Centre Court?), and he surely overrated his own performance. “It was a great match, I think, from both sides, “said Federer. “ To talk bad about this match would be unfortunate. I really did play well and I also thought Jo played an amazing match, as good as I’ve seen him play for such a long period of time. You know, you can only respect that.”

For the second year in a row, Federer has lost in the quarters on the fabled Centre Court he cherishes. More importantly, he has not won a major since the 2010 Australian Open. In his last six Grand Slam events since that Melbourne triumph, Federer has made it to only one final, losing to five different players in that span. He will surely get motivated for the summer, and will go all out to win the U.S. Open, where he could establish himself as the first man ever to win at least one Grand Slam event for nine years in a row. But it is going to be very difficult for the soon to be 30-year-old Federer.  Djokovic is a dominant No.1, Nadal is always ready to confront him, and a cluster of others are capable of beating Federer on any given day. Tsonga got hot at Wimbledon and caught him off guard; someone else might replicate that feat in New York.

As for Murray at Wimbledon, he played with growing assurance as he marched on to a third consecutive semifinal appearance, but for the second year in a row he could not stop the redoubtable Nadal. Murray played a terrific opening set, serving purposefully, and playing with totally controlled aggression off theground. The Centre Court erupted when Murray broke Nadal in the twelfth game of the opening set to move out in front. Nadal looked uneasy at that stage. The No. 4 seed went ahead 2-1, 15-30 in the second set, but missed an easy inside-out forehand with an open court. That mistake was costly. Nadal won seven games in a row on his way to a 2-0 lead in the third set, sweeping 28 of 35 points in the process.

The Spaniard rolled on to a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 triumph. Murray had taken wise tactical risks to build the lead, but had not readjusted once Nadal got his teeth into the match. Many were highly critical of Murray for the sharp decline in his level of play and his apparent resignation once Nadal picked up steam in the second set. Murray seemed way out of sorts from the middle of the second set until early in the fourth and increasingly forlorn, but the view here is that he was trying harder than it may have looked; he simply could not contain a Nadal who was executing his shots with so much more force and efficiency. Murray explained the shift in his fortunes by saying, “I was playing high risk tennis for most of the match. I went for it today, and I started to make a few mistakes…. Every time I play him, I explain the same thing. It’s tough. He makes a lot of balls. He’s very good when he’s behind. He’s one of the best players ever, and a great athlete on top of that. So, you know, even when he’s not hitting the ball unbelievable from the middle of the court, he gets to a lot of shots, makes you play an extra shot all the time. And eventually today, like after the first set-and-a-half, when I started making mistakes, he raised his game and started playing better and capitalized on it.”

Murray came up well short on another big occasion in another crucial match. But the fact remains that he has been remarkably consistent all year at the majors, reaching the final in Australia and following up with two journeys to the semifinals in Paris and London. He is a better player on hard courts than he is on grass, and no doubt he will be in the thick of things again at the U.S. Open. The view here is that Murray is going to secure a major before too long; he is too good not to get there.

Meanwhile, the player who caused the biggest stir aside from the favorites was surely the fascinating Bernard Tomic, an 18-year-old Australian who engineered the biggest upset of the event when he toppled No. 5 seed Robin Soderling in the third round. Tomic met Djokovic in the quarterfinals, and gave him a surprisingly serious test. Djokovic and Tomic have been frequent practice partners. When Djokovic took the first set handily, he seemed certain to assert this authority over his young opponent with relative ease. But the 6’4 Tomic took the second set from an unsettled Djokovic and went up a break in the third, taking a 3-1 lead.

Djokovic was still not playing very well, but he captured seven games in a row to seal the third set and move in front 2-0 in the fourth. Yet there was more hard work ahead as Tomic made Djokovic exceedingly uncomfortable by directing his ground strokes deep with no pace. He would lull Djokovic into long rallies, and the Serbian was not driving through the ball with his usual ferocity; rather, he was almost pushing the ball back at times. In other cases, Tomic would stun Djokovic with a sudden acceleration of pace, hitting winners past a perplexed and agitated opponent.

Tomic got back on serve in that fourth set, and had Djokovic worried. Djokovic was serving at 4-5, 0-30 but he raised his game in timely fashion, releasing a forehand winner crosscourt followed by a backhand winner. Djokovic was pushed to deuce but he held on for 5-5 with an ace and then broke Tomic in the eleventh game with a spectacular backhand drop shot winner that ended a long exchange. Djokovic pulled through 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, but he knew how far Tomic had pushed him, and how much damage he had done to himself with his timidity at certain stages.

Djokovic was also tested in the third round by Marcos Baghdatis in an entertaining four set clash, and by Tsonga in the semifinals. Buoyed by his big comeback against Federer, Tsonga served for the first set at 5-4 in the semifinals against Djokovic. The charismatic Frenchman trailed 0-40 but he made it back to deuce. Inexplicably, at that critical moment, Tsonga brain cramped, going for a second serve down the T at 133 MPH, and double faulting. Djokovic broke back for 5-5, won that set in a tie-break and took the second set with a brilliant returning display. Djokovic served for the match at 6-5 in the third set and had two match points in the ensuing tie-break, but an inspired Tsonga stole that set from the No. 2 seed. The Djokovic of old would have started the fourth set flummoxed, but the new Djokovic of 2011 simply gets on with his business with total professionalism and competes in an entirely different and more mature manner. He lost only two points in the first three games of the fourth set, and marched to a 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-7 (9), 6-3 triumph, setting the stage for his four set win over Nadal.

Djokovic has not only taken over at No. 1 in the world, but he is destined to stay there a long time, and will finish far ahead of his rivals at the end of 2011. At the moment, he has 13,285 ATP ranking points, while Nadal is at 11,270 and Federer stands at 9,230. No one is going to catch Djokovic for the rest of this year, even if his second half results don’t measure up to the magnificence of what he has done so far. Djokovic is going through a golden stretch in his career, and has established himself at last as the great champion we always knew he could be. Of this much I am certain: Djokovic will not rest on his laurels anytime soon.

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