It always takes me at least a day or so after returning from Wimbledon to collect my thoughts and assess with clarity what happened over the fortnight and how it all unfolded. I am ready to proceed now with my overview of the fortnight. It was as always a tournament to celebrate on many levels, but this year there were too many injuries and retirements, not enough compelling matches and two singles finals that left us disappointed in many ways by the fact that the victors benefitted from opponents who were hampered physically and unable to compete with their usual vigor.
It was not a vintage Wimbledon by any means, but the fact remains that there is much to savor and a lot to reflect upon regarding everything that transpired at the All England Club. Here are my lasting impressions.
Seeded third this year behind defending champion Andy Murray and French Open victor Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer was still regarded as the clear favorite among most members of the cognoscenti. There was good reason for that. He has long been the most natural grass court player in the world. For my money, he volleys better than anyone in today's game, attacks instinctively, takes full advantage of his serve, and alters the tempo of rallies with sudden bursts of acceleration off both wings that catch opponents thoroughly off guard.
He was the man to beat for other reasons as well. Federer had not won Wimbledon for five years but over the last three years he had twice been runner-up to Novak Djokovic before losing a five set semifinal a year ago to Milos Raonic, injuring his knee during the final set of that confrontation and missing the rest of the season due to that mishap.
This year, Federer had taken ten weeks off after his back to back victories at Indian Wells and Miami, missing the entire clay court circuit with a prime purpose in mind: being revitalized for Wimbledon. The strategy worked to the hilt. The Swiss swept through the draw largely unchallenged, and for the first time in his career won Wimbledon without the loss of a set. The last man to rule on the British lawns in that fashion was Bjorn Borg in 1976.That puts the feat fully into perspective.
To be sure, Federer had a kind draw. He owns Grigor Dimitrov, and demolished the No. 14 seed 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. In the quarterfinals, the Swiss cut down No. 6 seed Raonic 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (4), rallying from 0-3, double mini-break down in the tie-break. Facing Federer in the semifinals was No. 11 seed Tomas Berdych, who gave him his toughest match. Federer prevailed 7-6(4), 7-6 (4), 6-4 over the man who beaten him in the 2010 quarterfinals. In the final, Federer accounted for No. 7 seed Marin Cilic, romping 6-3, 6-1, 6-4. Cilic was beset by a painful blister on his foot and across the last two sets he was significantly compromised.
So Federer had some good fortune as he secured an eighth singles title at Wimbledon, breaking a tie for the men's record with Pete Sampras and William Renshaw. He also established himself as the oldest men's champion in the Open Era at 35 years and 342 days. Federer was so eager that he looked much younger than his years. And why would that not be the case? He captured a second major of 2017 on the grass at the All England Club, and not since 2009 had he taken more than one major in a single season. He took his fifth singles title of the year in London and his 19th major, passing the estimable Martina Navratilova and Chrissie Evert on the all-time list, moving into a tie with Helen Wills Moody. Now only Steffi Graf with 22 Grand Slam championships, Serena Williams with 23 and Margaret Court with 24 are ahead of Federer.
The view here is he will at least make it to 20, and it is entirely possible that he will win more than that. Meanwhile, Federer can reflect on a job well done this year at Wimbledon. He won all five tie-breaks he played. He did not lose a set. He lost his serve only four times in seven matches. He made it two for two at the majors this year. Skipping the clay court circuit was a decision he clearly will not regret. The Swiss Maestro has raised his record to 19-10 in major finals.
MUGURUZA RISES AGAIN TO CLAIM SECOND MAJOR
When Garbine Muguruza got to the final of Wimbledon two years ago and gave Serena Williams a decent run for her money, I was among the people who believed she was destined to make her presence known with regularity at the tournaments that matter the most. I liked her spunk. I thought her big hitting game would take her to places she had never been before. She seemed to have the desire to achieve extraordinary things, and the work ethic to get it done.
But the Spaniard suffered a lot of growing pains before she reemerged. And yet, there she was at Roland Garros in 2016 on perhaps her favorite surface, working her way into the final, toppling Serena Williams with an inspired display of shotmaking, taking her first Grand Slam tournament title in style. Muguruza had delivered ably on the promise she has shown nearly a year before, and had done it on clay. I was convinced she would build on that victory and start competing at a high level habitually rather than occasionally.
That was not the case. The rest of 2016, she seemed to rest on her laurels and motivationally she was sorely lacking. Her record in 2017 was nothing to brag about either as she headed into Wimbledon. She took no titles, and gave her boosters no reason to think she could win the world's premier title. Her performances in two grass court tournaments leading up to "The Big W" only reinforced the notion that the Spaniard was not likely to be a real factor in London.
She did reach the semifinals of Birmingham, but lost there to Ashleigh Barty in three sets. The following week in Eastbourne, the alarm bells were ringing as Muguruza was beaten 6-1, 6-0 by Barbora Strycova in the first round. Nevertheless, Muguruza found her form from the start of Wimbledon and sustained it. She did not lose a set in the first three rounds, and then came from behind ferociously to beat top seeded Angelique Kerber 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in the women's match of the tournament. The level of play in that encounter was soaring from beginning to end, and Muguruza carved out a victory with deep resolve and a more aggressive tactical approach than her left-handed adversary.
That was the pivotal moment of the fortnight for Muguruza, who cut down No. 7 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and the surprising Magdalena Rybarikova in straight sets. That set the stage for an early anticipated final round showdown between the No. 4 seed Muguruza and No. 10 Venus Williams. At 37, Venus was appearing in her first Centre Court final since losing to her sister in 2009. She had not won Wimbledon or any major since 2008. But the American dropped only one set on her way to the final, and was so impressive in her wins over French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and Great Britain's Johanna Konta that many observers believed she would overpower Muguruza on the grass with both her serve and her high octane ground game.
Muguruza, though, was quietly confident. Serving at 4-5, 15-40 in the opening set, she out-dueled Williams in a critical 19 stroke exchange. At 30-40, she released a well place serve to the forehand that coaxed an error on the return from Williams. Muguruza held on, broke Williams in the following game, held again to win the set and never looked back. Muguruza prevailed 7-5, 6-0, winning 39 of the last 56 points, refusing to get distracted as Williams almost disappeared. The American was abysmal in the second set while Muguruza moved in a sprightly manner and made some sparkling passing shots on the run. Moreover, Muguruza hardly missed in the second set.
Imagine winning the French Open in 2016 and then enduring a slump stretching beyond a year before claiming the Wimbledon title. That is precisely what Muguruza did. In between majors, she went through a disconcerting drought. Now it is time for her to buckle down, recognize the responsibility of being an authentic front line player, and start performing at a high level with more consistency and a fuller commitment. Muguruza has confirmed by winning majors on clay and grass that she is a great player, but she must demand a lot more of herself from here on in to realize her full potential and represent the game the way a Wimbledon champion should.
MURRAY AND DJOKOVIC PLAY HURT
Think about the 2016 season in men's tennis, and only two players spring to mind. Novak Djokovic picked off where he left off from 2015, winning his third and fourth majors in a row at the Australian and French Opens, taking six titles altogether, dominating the game ruthlessly and relentlessly. The Serbian slumped after Roland Garros and won only one more tournament the rest of the year, but Andy Murray took over, winning his second Wimbledon, claiming his second victory in a row at the Olympic Games along with a gold medal, and going unbeaten after losing in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open.
But both Djokovic and Murray have fallen upon hard times this season. And neither man was healthy at Wimbledon. Murray was hindered throughout the tournament by a painful hip injury. He willed his way into the quarterfinals but was halted in five sets by Sam Querrey, dropping the last two sets 6-1, 6-1 as his mobility was significantly impaired. Djokovic did not drop a set on his way to the quarters, but he retired at 7-6 (2), 2-0 down against Tomas Berdych with an elbow injury that he explained later has been bothering him for a year-and-a-half.
Losing the top two seeds in this fashion was saddening to their legions of supporters. They were prisoners of their own battered bodies. My hope is that they shut down their 2017 seasons if that is required. Djokovic should get an accurate reading on that elbow, give it time to heal, and not worry about contractual obligations that can be renegotiated. Murray should not worry about all of those ATP Ranking points he could lose by not competing. They need to make the long term their priority. Rushing back in time to play the U.S. Open would undoubtedly be a mistake.
The game needs Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to be healthy, wealthy and wise. The only way that will happen is if they essentially forget about 2017 and look toward the future. Watching them at Wimbledon this year as they departed was not the least bit enjoyable.
KONTA REACHES FIRST MAJOR SEMIFINAL
British tennis fans were euphoric when Murray won Wimbledon in 2013 and established himself as the first man from their country to rule at their country's Grand Slam event since Fred Perry took his third title in a row 77 years earlier. They were delighted when Murray secured a second crown in 2016. But the last British woman to win the Wimbledon singles title was Virginia Wade back in 1977. The following year, Wade reached the semifinals before losing to Chris Evert. No British female competitor advanced to the penultimate round at the All England Club again until this year, when Johanna Konta went that far with gumption, persistence, match playing acumen and the courage to go for her shots in the tightest corners of her contests and accept the consequences.
Konta was seeded sixth this year, and she had to work exceedingly hard to win five matches and make the final four. In the second round, she narrowly escaped defeat against world No. 58 Donna Vekic before winning 7-6 (4), 4-6, 10-8. Two rounds later, she had to fight to the finish before subduing No. 21 seed Caroline Garcia 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4. And most remarkably, she hit her way out of deep trouble in the quarterfinals against No. 2 seed Simona Halep, winning 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 6-4 after trailing 1-3 and 4-5 in the second set tie-break. Aside from the Muguruza-Kerber showdown, this was the best match of the women's tournament in my view. Halep was typically quick and resourceful from the backcourt while Konta kept hitting out freely. It was an often dazzling display from both competitors. Konta was rewarded for her boldness in the end. It was an impressive win that sent her into the semifinals.
Confronting Venus Williams, Konta had a chance when Williams served at 4-4, 15-40 but the American was unshakable at that defining moment. She went wide in the deuce court with a first serve that set up a backhand winner down the line behind Konta. At 30-40, Williams pounded a second serve at 106 MPH into Konta's body, and the British player netted a forehand return. Williams held on for 5-4 and was unstoppable the rest of the way, gaining a 6-4, 6-2 triumph. Konta pressed in the second set and her forehand deteriorated, but the fact remains that she had a stellar tournament. She is to be commended.
MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT: MULLER VERSUS NADAL
All through the first week of Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal was striking the ball with ferocity, taking his outstanding clay court form and transferring it onto the grass, moving through the first three rounds without the loss of a set. He then had two days off before taking on Gilles Muller in the round of 16. Their match was scheduled on Court 1 rather than Centre Court, and as Nadal dug a deep hole for himself by losing the first two sets, the feeling was eerily reminiscent to 2015 when Djokovic came perilously close to defeat against Kevin Anderson on the same court. Djokovic, too, fell behind two sets to love but he fought back to take the next two sets before darkness intervened. A day later, he prevailed in the fifth set and went on to win the tournament.
Like Anderson, Muller is a big server who can take a top player dangerously out of his rhythm. Muller came into Wimbledon fully prepared. He won the grass court tuneup at the Ricoh Open in the Netherlands and reached the semifinals of the Aegon Championships at London's Queen's Club. That carried him into Wimbledon on a roll, and he was strong at the start against Nadal. The Spaniard had a break point at 2-2 in the opening set but Muller stymied him with a 126 MPH service winner down the T. He then broke Nadal in the following game. In the second set, Nadal was ahead 4-3 and 15-40 on Muller's serve but the left-hander aced Nadal down the T and attacked to save the second break point. Muller held on tenaciously for 4-4. With the Spaniard serving at 4-4, 30-30, a let cord return winner took Muller to break point and he travelled to 5-4 when Nadal netted a backhand drop shot off a low slice from Muller, who held at 30 to close out the set.
Nadal roared back from that dismal beginning to win the third and fourth sets with one break in each set, but he had the disadvantage of serving from behind in the fifth set. It reminded me a great deal of Andy Roddick having to serve from behind in the fifth set of his epic 2009 final against Roger Federer, which the Swiss won 16-14. In this instance, Nadal was serving at 4-5, 15-30 when he double faulted into the net. But he served a 116 MPH ace at 15-40 to save one match point and then erased the second with a heavily sliced serve wide to the Muller forehand that the 34-year-old could not return. A cagey serve-and-volley from the Spaniard gave him a game point and he aced Muller down the T for 5-5.
At 6-6, Nadal had a break point but Muller came through in the clutch again with a first serve down the T that Nadal hardly touched. Muller held on for 7-6. On they went to 9-9, and here Nadal was constantly on the doorstep of a breakthrough. He had four break points but could not convert, largely because he was overanxious. He approached crosscourt off the backhand on the first one, leaving a wide open space for Muller to pass him down the line. On the second, Nadal missed a down the line backhand pass that under normal circumstances, with less tension in the air, he would have made. Reaching break point for the third time, he made a deep return of serve but uncharacteristically missed a forehand long on his next shot.
Nadal seemed to have succeeded on his fourth break point when a double fault was called on Muller, but Muller challenged the call and was right. That gave him a first serve. He aced the Spaniard down the T, took the next point and aced Nadal again. Muller held on for 10-9. Serving in the twentieth game, Nadal fought off two more match points, one with a high forehand volley winner, the next on a miss-hit forehand return from Muller. Nadal gamely got to 10-10. But the Spaniard could not make any more inroads on the Muller serve. And at 13-14, Nadal miss-hit a forehand long at 15-30 and then drove a running forehand long. After four hours and 48 minutes, Muller had knocked out the two-time former Wimbledon champion 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13. The 34-year-old served 30 aces, while Nadal produced 23 of his own. Both men won 80% of their first serve points but Nadal won 60% of his second serve points while Muller took only 48% on his second delivery. Nadal won 198 points in the match with Muller winning only 191.
And yet, the Spaniard lost. He has seldom if ever sounded more despondent after a defeat. He seemed to have daylight all the way to the final. The view here is that he would have beaten Cilic in the quarters and Querrey in the semifinals, and he would have had a decent chance of overcoming Federer in the final. But he never gave himself that opportunity. For the fifth time in a row that he has completed a major, Nadal fell in five sets. That streak goes back to the 2015 U.S. Open when he squandered a two sets to love lead against the enigmatic Fabio Fognini. He then lost to Fernando Verdasco at the 2016 Australian Open, to Lucas Pouille at the 2016 U.S. Open, to Federer in the Australian Open final and now Muller.
I don't believe Nadal lost those matches physically; those defeats were largely about nerves. Not only did he have the two set lead over Fognini, but he was up a break in the fifth set against Verdasco. He led 4-3, 30-0 in the fifth against Pouille and had a game point for 4-2 on his serve in the fifth set against Federer in Australia. So the opportunities abounded. It was very unfortunate that Nadal did not defeat Muller, who lost in five sets to Cilic. A Nadal-Federer final would have been the most compelling final round matchup. Once Nadal lost this match to Muller, it took a lot of life out of the tournament. The two best players in the world this year have been Federer and Nadal by far, and the Spaniard leads the Swiss by only 550 points in the Race to London. It would have been fitting if they had collided on the British grass for the fourth time in a Wimbledon final, but it was not to be. I remain optimistic that they will meet for the first time at the U.S. Open and if that happens it would be a dandy.