And so it was again at Wimbledon this past fortnight. This was a landmark year on a number of levels. Roger Federer claimed his record breaking 15th Grand Slam championship and his sixth on the lawns of the All England Club, overcoming Andy Roddick in a stupendous final consuming a record 77 games across five sets and an unprecedented 30 games in a gripping final set. Serena Williams gained an eleventh major title by securing the womens title for the third time, reclaiming a crown she last owned in 2003. Andy Murray bowed out in the penultimate round, but had his best Wimbledon yet while handling the burden of vast expectations with admirable style and grace. And the new retractable roof came into play only on the second Monday, but it was clear that it will be immensely beneficial in the years ahead.
Above all else, this tournament will be celebrated for the third consecutive five set mens final on the Centre Court, and the best ever meeting between Federer and Andy Roddick. The way I saw it, among the great Wimbledon finals of the Open Era that have been played since 1968, only Federer versus Rafael Nadal a year ago and Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe in 1980 have surpassed this Federer-Roddick duel. This was a mighty battle from start to finish, and it put to rest completely the notion that the grass courts at Wimbledon have become permanently slower.
Perhaps the heat wave we experienced through a major portion of the tournament contributed to the courts getting harder and, in some ways, faster this year on the grass, but it was apparent that the conditions suited those who wanted to attack. Tommy Haas served-and-volleyed frequently in his quarterfinal win over Novak Djokovic, and again in his semifinal contest against Federer. Ivo Karlovic did not lose his serve through four rounds, holding 79 straight times heading into his meeting with Federer in the quarterfinals, making life miserable for all of his adversaries, including Fernando Verdasco, who might well have toppled Karlovic on a slower court.
But I am digressing. Lets return to the astonishing clash between Roddick and Federer, the skirmish Federer kept referring to as a crazy match. Roddick played perhaps the match of his lifecertainly he has never performed better on grass— and competed with an equanimity and honor that was not only impressive but also inspiring. Federer gave one of his most admirable demonstrations of composure and resolve under duress. He reminded us that he is, above all else, a masterful match player who succeeds in his business as much with his temerity as with his talent—- especially these days.
Remarkably, in that riveting 77 game encounter, there were only 3 service breaks. Roddick broke Federer twice, and Federer did not break the American until Roddicks 38th and final service game of the match. To lose under those circumstances, to perform so magnificently and still not prevail, to throw himself so unabashedly into the heat of a fierce battle and not get rewarded with a victory, had to be a mean blow to Roddicks pride. I have heard from many friends and fans since Sunday who without exception have developed newfound respect for Roddick, and they commiserated deeply with his misfortune in that final.
He deserves every bit of the high regard he is garnering from the public, and from his fellow players. Only the misinformed would suggest that Roddick did not play well enough to win. He stood toe to toe with Federer from the baseline, and in many ways outplayed his illustrious adversary off the ground. His two-handed backhand was more solid and dependable than Federers one-handed topspin and slice off that side. His forehand was nearly as effective as Federers majestic shot off that flank, and Roddick— despite serving only 27 aces while Federer produced an astounding 50— was the better server over the course of the match.
In fact, Federer has seldom looked more uneasy on his returns. He had serious problems with his backhand chip return as Roddick mixed up his delivery skillfully. Federer was not feeling the ball particularly well, and he steered many backhand slices over the baseline, and held back at times off his dazzling forehand. As I reflect on the match and replay it in my mind, I still have a hard time comprehending how the estimable Federer found a way to win that match. This one must rank right up there at the top of his triumphs of the mind and spirit. He was indefatigable. He was unshakable. He was a champion through and through.
Having said all that, I must add that Federer was also a very fortunate man when you consider the startling way the second set tie-break concluded. Roddick had captured the opening set stylishly, fending off four break points on his serve at 5-5, then breaking Federer for the set with a timely and beautifully struck backhand down the line that caught the Swiss maestro off guard and lured him into a forehand error. The second set went entirely on serve, and then Roddick stormed confidently to a 6-2 lead in the tiebreak. All he needed was one of the next four points to open up a commanding two sets to love lead. From that juncture, Roddick would have been next to impossible to stop.
He was serving on the first set point at 6-2, and he connected with a first serve deep to the backhand, which Federer blocked back down the middle without much depth. Roddick had good options to explore. He could have ripped a two-hander down the line to force Federer back on his heels. He could have gone deep crosscourt. He might have considered coming up to the net. But, perhaps briefly distracted, Roddick sliced his backhand ineffectually down the line and not very deep. Federer stepped in, clipped a forehand crosscourt, and made Roddick play an arduous running forehand down the line. Roddick hit the shot well, but Federer— stationed just inside the baseline— casually flicked a spectacular backhand half volley crosscourt for a winner with Roddick out of position on the other side.
Federer was back to 3-6, but still in a dire predicament. He released an excellent serve to the backhand that Roddick could not return: 4-6. He then aced the American out wide to the forehand: 5-6. Now the pressure was on, but Roddick was serving again. He missed his first delivery but the second serve was first rate. Federer went with the short, low chipped backhand return to draw Roddick in. Roddick was ready. He got around his backhand and his forehand approach was excellent, deep to Federers forehand. Federer drove a forehand pass up the line but failed to keep the ball low. Roddick was seemingly poised to deposit a high backhand volley crosscourt to seal the set, but he conceded later that thought Federers passing shot might have been sailing long with the wind.
Roddick quickly realized that he had to make a play. He had covered the line, but his indecisiveness was costly. He bungled that volley totally and Federer somehow was back to 6-6. Roddick— who had won 26 of 30 tie-breaks in 2009, including 7 of 8 during the tournament— was now not going to take this one. Federer ran out the set with six consecutive points. It was one set all. A new best of three set match was about to begin. Roddick could easily have been sorrowful. He could have drowned himself in a sea of pessimism. But he did nothing of the kind.
Remarkably, Roddick steadied himself and fought on courageously. But, after both men held serve all the way to 6-6, they played another tie-break. Federer was primed for this one and took it 7-5. He was two sets to one up, and a four set verdict for him seemed almost certain. Once more, Roddick revealed his character, breaking Federer for only the second (and last) time in the match for 3-1 in the fourth set, holding three more times to force a fifth.
Both players put on a spectacular serving display down the stretch. Federer hit 22 of his 50 aces in the fifth set. He was releasing them in clusters, catching Roddick leaning the wrong way, finding the corners with uncanny regularity. Roddick was always serving from behind, and eventually that did him in. Ten times—- starting at 4-5 and ending at 13-14— Roddick managed to hold when he was serving to stay in the match. That took extraordinary grit and gumption. It took immense resolve. It showed character. But an unwavering Federer was no less determined than Roddick and his court presence, quiet intensity, and poise was ever apparent.
At 14-15, Roddick was depleted, and a series of miss-hit ground strokes— including one on match point— brought about an end to the match. After four hours and 16 minutes, after both players had shined in different ways, after Federer had moved past Pete Sampras to win his record breaking 15th major, it was time to salute Federer for his enduring greatness, and to wonder what might have been for Roddick. The 26-year-old American did not really lose that match in the fifth set; he lost it in the second set tie-break. Had he exploited his advantage there and built a two set lead, the match would almost surely have belonged to him, and Roddick would have had his first major title since the 2003 U.S. Open.
The fact remains that Roddick— despite coming agonizingly close to the most gratifying triumph of his careerstill achieved significantly at this Wimbledon. His four set win over Murray in the penultimate round was a tactically impeccable and technically outstanding performance, one of the best of his career, and perhaps topped only by his stellar showing against Federer. Murray was serving at 4-5, 30-0 in the opening set when an opportunistic Roddick audaciously took that set away from the British No. 1. At 30-30, Roddick threw in a backhand drop shot winner, and then a sidespin backhand down the line drew an error from Murray.
Murray struck back boldly to take the second set, and then had Roddick down 0-40 in the opening game of the third set. That was a critical game. Roddick won five points in a row to hold on, missing only one first serve in the process, signaling to Murray that he would not be going away. Roddick served for that third set at 5-3, but that was the only time he really faltered. Murray broke back. They moved on to a tie-break. Two aces in a row lifted Murray from a 4-5 deficit to set point. Roddick came forward, lunged, and made an accidental forehand drop volley to win the point. Roddick took that sequence 9-7.
At 3-4 in the fourth set, Roddick was break point down. He laced a backhand down the line to pull Murray out of position, and then whipped a forehand crosscourt winner behind the No. 3 seed. Murray would have been serving for the set if he had won that point. The two players moved on to another tie-break, with Roddick reaching 6-4 and match point on his serve. Murray made one of his best backhand passing shots of the match, and was now serving at 5-6, still match point down. Roddick made a remarkably good blocked return of serve with great depth. He eventually found a way to get to net behind a deep and low forehand approach. Murray could not make the pass.
Roddick prevailed 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5) over Murray. In that match, he was patient, purposeful, and sensible. Playing in front of a big Centre Court Murray crowd, Roddick was restrained. His maturity in that situation was striking. We should have known then how dangerous he would be in the final. But lets look at what he has done this season under the guidance of his brilliant strategist and coach, Larry Stefanki. Roddick has two wins over Novak Djokovic, one over Murray, and a near-miss against Federer. He played Nadal tough at Indian Wells. He also was within striking distance of a victory over Federer in the quarterfinals of Miami.
If he can give himself time to recover from the deep wounds he must have suffered from his Wimbledon loss to Federer, Roddick has a good chance to establish himself as a Big Five member along with Nadal, Federer, Murray and Djokovic. I believe he will be a serious contender at the U.S. Open. He is playing the best tennis of his career. His game is more versatile than ever before. His first and second serves are as good as ever. One way or another, no matter how long it takes, regardless of the gigantic effort that will be required of him, Andy Roddick is going to win another major over the next two years. He will settle for nothing less than that.
It will also be intriguing to see how well Federer performs now that he has the all time mens record for majors. A pattern has emerged in the last four majors. More and more, he is being pushed to his limits. At the 2008 U.S. Open, Igor Andreev took Federer to five sets in the third round. At the Australian Open in January, Tomas Berdych had Federer down two sets to love before Federer recouped. He lost in the final to Rafael Nadal in five sets. At Roland Garros, Federer rallied from two sets down to beat Tommy Haas and revived from two sets to one down against Juan Martin Del Potro in the semifinals. And then, of course, he narrowly averted defeat against Roddick in a harrowing five set encounter. I expect him to win three more majors before he puts the racket down, but the draws at these big ones are becoming increasingly difficult for the Swiss.
What can I say about Serena Williams? Serena played perhaps her finest Centre Court final ever, and it was a joy to see her so fully concentrated in defeating five time champion and sister Venus Williams 7-6, 6-2 in the championship match. Serena was long overdue to win Wimbledon again, and she knew it. She won her second title in 2003, but since then Venus had taken over Centre Court, collecting the titles in 2005, 2007 and 2008 to lift her total to five.
Serena was distraught after losing the final a year ago, and made amends this time around. It was her sixth final round win in 8 career Grand Slam tournament finals against Venus. Serena has now won three of the last four majors. She has eleven career majors in her collection. She was in full command of her powers in the final and did not lose her serve in that match. But it was her semifinal triumph over No. 4 seed Elena Dementieva which will linger the longest in the minds of all who had the good fortune to witness it.
Dementievas ball striking in that semifinal was outstanding. She was driving her flat ground strokes off both sides with unrelenting depth and ball control. Her serve was holding up well. Her mindset was ideal. And Serena was hard pressed to answer the demands made on her by the Russian. The first piece of evidence about Dementievas state of mind and the state of her game was in the eighth game of the opening set. Dementieva was serving at 3-4, 0-40. Losing her serve at that stage and allowing Serena to quickly establish a one set lead would have been a serious problem for the Russian. But she confidently escaped to hold for 4-4, and then displayed poise and precision to win the opening set tie-break 7-4.
Dementieva was hitting the ball so cleanly and accurately, and maintaining such extraordinary depth in the rallies, that Serena was constantly on her heels, backed up and forced to defend, always reacting rather than setting the tempo as she so often does. At 3-4 in the second set, Serena was down break point when she drove a forehand down the line. Dementieva challenged the call, believing the ball was out, but the replay went in Serenas favor. Williams made it back to 4-4. At 5-5, Serena won a crucial challenge to get a service break, as the replay showed that Dementievas forehand crosscourt was wide. Serving four aces on the last eight points of a long game at 6-5, Serena took that second set.
But, in the third set, Dementieva remained the decidedly better player from the baseline. She went ahead 3-1. Williams got back to 3-3. At 4-4, Dementieva held at love, and now Williams was serving to save the match at 4-5. Serena was down a match point at 30-40. She missed her first serve but her second serve a good one. With characteristic fearlessness and brio, Williams found a way to get to the net, approaching on Dementievas backhand. Serena closed in tight, read the crosscourt response, and punched her backhand volley down the line. It grazed the net cord but Williams deservedly won the point with that gutsy shot.
Serena held on for 5-5, but a resolute Dementieva would not cede much ground. At 5-6, Serena was down 0-30, two points away from dismissal. She came up with a huge first serve to the backhand that Dementieva could not return. Then Williams aced Dementieva for 30-30. She held on gamely for 6-6, and went on to a 6-7 (4), 7-5, 8-6 victory. Serena demonstrated with that triumph that no one can match her ferocity and willpower in the tight corners of the tightest contests.
Twice before in her sterling career, Williams had replicated what she did this year at Wimbledon. In the semifinals of the 2003 Australian Open, she saved two match points and struck back from 1-5 in the final set to beat Kim Clijsters before ousting Venus Williams in a three set final. Two years later, she fought off three match points to beat Maria Sharapova in the semifinals, and then toppled Lindsay Davenport for the title. She simply seems to relish the chance to prove how great she is under pressure.
If only Dinara Safina could compete with the same kind of intensity and deep inner belief. The world No. 1 was dismal in a 6-1, 6-0 semifinal loss to Venus Williams at Wimbledon. This was the continuation of a disturbing pattern of ineptitude and apprehension on big occasions for the Russian player. In the 2008 French Open final, she did play reasonably well in a straight set, final round loss to Ana Ivanovic.
But since that time, she has never done herself justice at the majors. At the U.S. Open, Serena Williams routed Safina 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinals. Serena took Safina apart again in the final of the Australian Open back in January as Safina garnered only three games. Safina was beaten in straight sets by Svetlana Kuznetsova in the recent French Open final, and then came the latest debacle at Wimbledon. This is a terribly unfortunate situation for the womens game. It is not healthy for the No. 1 ranked player to stay up there without a major title in her collection.
To an extent, it is Serena Williams fault that she is not ranked No. 1. Despite having won three of the last four Grand Slam events, she has not done enough elsewhere. At one stage this spring, she went on a four match losing streak. Serena can remedy matters by being more consistent across the board, and then she would take her rightful place at the top of the rankings. But there is a flaw in the ranking system that must be addressed as well. Safina has no business being regarded as the best in the world if she repeatedly fails to get across the finish line at the biggest events. Being a perennial semifinalist and finalist is not sufficient if you want to be considered the world champion.
Putting that issue aside, it was a memorable Wimbledon, a time for Federer and Serena Williams to prove once more that they are the most enduring of champions and a fortnight for the sports world to be reminded that tennis at the highest levels of the game is singularly enriching for all who follow it.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com
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