I have just returned from London and am just starting to digest what happened on the British grass. Let’s recollect a compelling tournament, look at the defining moments and examine the people who made it so enticing.
When the Serbian reflects upon his third championship run, he will recollect vividly the fourth round match he played against the South African Kevin Anderson on Court One. The 6’8” Anderson clearly caught Djokovic off guard. Anderson’s ground game was decidedly better than his usual and his explosive serve was on song. He was primed for this round of 16 meeting, while Djokovic seemed out of sorts and too subdued during the early stages. He simply could not find much intensity or conviction. Djokovic was taken into an opening set tie-break, and led 3-1. But he did not bear down in his customary fashion.
At 6-6 in that tie-break, Djokovic double faulted. Anderson secured an 8-6 victory in that sequence. The second set also went to a tie-break, and Djokovic took a 4-0 lead. Despite a double fault at 4-1, he advanced to 5-2, but he slipped into passivity and Anderson attacked his way to a two set lead with another 8-6 tie-break triumph. Djokovic inexplicably found himself in that deep deficit.
Yet he soon emerged from his listlessness, recovered his customary firepower and raised his level from the backcourt significantly. Djokovic swept through the third set with assurance, and maintained that momentum across the fourth set. But darkness intervened, much to the dismay of the Serbian’s boosters. Anderson had been declining considerably and his fatigue was apparent. Had they completed the match that evening, the Serbian would have almost surely come through comfortably in the fifth set.
When play resumed the following afternoon, however, Anderson was revitalized and Djokovic was understandably apprehensive. Anderson had the benefit of serving first in that final set. The top seed was clearly uneasy as the set progressed. Anderson was serving thunderbolts and making Djokovic react, and the Serbian had no margin for error, no room to maneuver. He wandered perilously close to the edge of defeat.
Anderson would serve no fewer than forty aces over the five sets of this gripping encounter. Three of those untouchables were released in the opening game of the final set as the big South African held at love. At 1-2 in the fifth, Djokovic was down 15-40 when Anderson missed a running forehand down the line. Djokovic followed with a 124 MPH first serve to the backhand that Anderson returned long. He held on for 2-2. Serving at 2-3, Djokovic was stretched to deuce but he released a first serve out wide that raised chalk and provoked an errant return from his opponent, battling to 3-3 with full resolution.
But Anderson remained burdensome for Djokovic. The big man held at love for 4-3 and gave up only one point on serve on his way to 5-4. Djokovic was serving to stay in the tournament in the tenth game of that fifth set, but he took on that challenge with composure, holding at love with an ace. Now, at last, he got his chance. From 15-15 at 5-5, Anderson served consecutive double faults. At 15-40, he serve-volleyed to no avail as Djokovic’s excellent forehand return came back at his feet. Djokovic had the break, and then held from 0-30 with four winning points in a row to complete a 6-7 (6), 6-7 (6), 6-1, 6-4, 7-5 triumph.
Bolstered by that victory, reinvigorated by the narrow escape, Djokovic cast aside both U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic and Richard Gasquet in straight set wins to set up a second straight final with Roger Federer. In many ways, he won the skirmish with Federer in the first set. After losing his serve at love to trail 2-4, Djokovic broke right back in the seventh game, but trouble loomed ahead. Serving to stay in the set, he was twice down set point, but saved both with unstoppable first serves to the Federer backhand. Buoyed by that clutch stand, Djokovic dropped only one point in the ensuing tie-break to take a one set lead. Only once in his career had Djokovic lost to Federer after winning the first set.
The defending champion had ample opportunities to establish a two sets to love lead. He had seven set points in the second set, but played too many of them with excessive caution. The first one was when Federer served at 4-5 in the second set, and Djokovic missed a routine forehand crosscourt on the run. In the second set tie-break, Djokovic led 6-3 and had six set points, although only two were on his own serve. A supremely disciplined Federer refused to give anything away, but Djokovic failed to put the clamps down and finish off points aggressively.
At 3-6 down, Federer served-and-volleyed behind a first serve, provoking a return error from Djokovic. The next point was a dandy. Federer missed his first serve and the rally unfolded brilliantly. But on the 26th stroke, Djokovic blinked, sending a forehand down the line long off Federer’s angled forehand crosscourt. Serving at 6-5, Djokovic was in command as Federer’s return landed short. But the 28-year-old did not strike his inside out forehand with sufficient pace and authority. Federer stayed home on the backhand side and went down the line off the backhand. Djokovic was caught off guard, scampering back but netting a forehand.
Federer lost the next point and served at 6-7. He produced an immaculate kick serve and followed it in for a routine first volley winner. After Djokovic saved a set point at 7-8, he advanced to 9-8 and his fifth set point of the tie-break. Djokovic’s second serve return was short and inadequate, and Federer laced a forehand winner into a wide open space. But the Serbian won the next point, and served at 10-9. This was his sixth set point in the tie-break and his seventh overall. But on the 15th stroke of a fine rally, he drove a crosscourt forehand long, making another costly unforced error.
Federer somehow survived, winning that sequence 12-10 with immense poise under pressure, some timely attacking and a heap of help from Djokovic. The world No. 1 was infuriated by not capturing that tie-break and his rage was unrestrained at the changeover. He was absolutely livid as he vented to his team of supporters in the stands, including his coach Boris Becker. But after both players had opportunities for breaks at the start of the third set, Djokovic made good on his chance in the third game to move in front 2-1. He was up a break at 3-2 when rain intruded, forcing a brief delay.
Thereafter, Djokovic was largely in control. He played superbly across the last two sets while Federer faded physically. Djokovic’s propensity to make Federer engage in long baseline rallies took its toll on the Swiss, who lost power in his legs and control of his groundstrokes. Djokovic intelligently pounded away at the Federer backhand to open up avenues for shots wide to the Federer forehand, and that pattern was largely successful in wearing down his adversary.
Djokovic lost his serve only once in four sets, holding in his last 18 service games after getting broken to trail 4-2 in the first set. Over the full four sets, Djokovic made only 16 unforced errors, 19 fewer than Federer. He was unmistakably the better man from the backcourt. Moreover, Djokovic had superior serving numbers. He connected with 66% of his first serves while Federer was at 67%. Both men won 74% of their first serve points.
But Djokovic backed up his second serve more skillfully. He won 60% of those points and Federer was at only 49% on second serve points won. Most importantly, Djokovic broke Federer four times. Heading into the final, Federer had held in 89 of 90 service games over the course of the tournament. The highlight of Federer’s fortnight was indisputably his 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 semifinal victory over Andy Murray. In my view, it was the single greatest serving demonstration of Federer’s career. He faced only one break point (in the opening game of the match), and none thereafter. He got 76% of his first serves in for the match and served 20 aces. In the opening set, Federer was at 85% on first serves and he exceeded 80% in the third set.
In turn, Federer’s shotmaking at the end of each set was sublime. But, overall, I believe his performance was overrated. The serving was phenomenal but his ground game was only sporadically brilliant. His vulnerability from the backcourt was evident. And not enough was made of Murray’s frailties. Murray served very well and finished at 74% on first serves for the match. He fought ferociously, saving five set points in a 17 minute tenth game of the second set. But at 5-6 in both the first and second sets, he was found wanting, and made some damaging unforced errors off the backhand. Federer smothered him in many ways, but Murray did not stand up well to the pressure and he cracked when serving to stay in those sets.
In any event, Djokovic evened his career head to head series with Federer at 20-20, and now he has won 7 of 13 matches against the Swiss at the majors and two of three Grand Slam tournament finals. This triumph over Federer was crucial for Djokovic in his quest to move up the all-time ladder of the sport. It gave the Serbian a ninth victory in seventeen major finals. He must improve on that record, and almost surely will. The view here is that he will win at least five more Grand Slam titles, starting with the U.S. Open in September. He won three majors in his golden 2011 season, and is now poised to replicate that feat.
The central figure at Wimbledon in 2015 may have been Federer, who stirred the emotions of so many fans with his run to the final. But the last man standing was none other than Novak Djokovic.
SERENA MAINTAINS MASTERY OF THE GAME
The extra week between the French Open and Wimbledon probably did Serena Williams more good than any other player, with the possible exception of Djokovic. She had endured five three set matches in winning Roland Garros for the third time, and had fought an illness during the French Open as well. But she had time after Paris to recuperate and was fully prepared for Wimbledon. On the lawns in Great Britain she came away with her sixth Centre Court crown. Williams performed at a consistently higher level in London than she did in Paris, dropping only two sets, winning her first Wimbledon since 2012, performing stupendously at times and fighting tenaciously and forthrightly to beat two formidable adversaries along the way.
One was Great Britain’s Heather Watson, who played an astounding match against Williams in the third round. Watson was ranked No. 59 in the world, but she looked like a much more polished player than that status would indicate. Williams commenced that contest with controlled aggression and unswerving consistency. She took the opening set 6-2 but Watson began defending with vigor and then shifting onto the offense when the openings were there. She took Serena out of her comfort zone and returned serve with increasing efficiency and aggression.
Watson turned the corner at the end of the second set and then established a two service break lead in the third and final set. At 3-0, she lost a six deuce game on her serve despite a couple of game points. Williams secured four games in a row to lead 4-3, but the unwavering Watson struck back audaciously, took two games in a row, and served for the match at 5-4. From 15-40 down she made it twice to deuce, standing two points away from a singularly gratifying triumph. But Williams ultimately came through 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 despite an adversarial audience who not only cheered Watson on fervently, but also came down rudely at times on the world’s top woman player.
Be that as it may, Williams confronted Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. The former world No. 1 and two time Grand Slam tournament singles champion had good reason to come on court for this duel in a positive frame of mind. The 25-year old had been at triple match point against Serena in Madrid before losing that match, and then built a 6-3, 4-2 lead against the American at the French Open, only to lose again in three sets. But both of those meetings were on clay, a surface more favorable to Azarenka than Williams.
Now, on the Centre Court, they collided on grass. This was Serena’s chance to demonstrate her supremacy on a faster court, but it was Azarenka who came out of the blocks firing away meticulously from the baseline, beating Williams to the punch time and again. She was superb in winning the first set, covering the court remarkably well, striking the ball cleanly and purposefully, holding her nerve. Williams was hard pressed to stay with Azarenka in the rallies. Azarenka’s ball control on the run was superb.
They went to 2-2 in the second set. In the next four games, Azarenka had game or break points in all of them, but came away unrewarded. Thereafter, Williams soared to another level, and Azarenka could not stay with her. Williams triumphed 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. Her third set serving was magnificent; 9 of her 17 aces came in that set. Moreover, she won 89% of her first serve points in the third set. Poor Azarenka was overwhelmed by the potency and uncanny accuracy of the Williams serve, but she was never defeatist.
After that victory, Williams took apart Maria Sharapova for the seventeenth time in a row, winning 6-2, 6-4. And then in the final, she defeated Spain’s Garbine Muguruza 6-4, 6-4 in a choppy match. Williams rallied from 2-4 down in the first set, captured nine of ten games, and took a 6-4, 5-1 lead. Twice, she served for the match. The second time, she came from 0-40 all the way to match point with three aces in that span, but Muguruza still managed to break. The Spaniard served at 4-5, improbably poised to get back into the match. But she double faulted for 0-15 and never recovered. Williams came through 6-4, 6-4 for her 21st major, and now is only one behind Steffi Graf, and three shy of the all-time women’s leader Margaret Smith Court.
I have no doubt now that Williams will surpass Graf, and she will eventually collect four more to move past Court. It is very likely that she will win the upcoming U.S. Open and become the first woman since Graf 27 years ago to win the Grand Slam. Williams will have the American crowds effusively on her side and making history will be her driving force. Williams would be a worthy winner of the legitimate Grand Slam. For the second time in her career, Serena has won four consecutive majors, following up on her 2002-2003 feat. But the so-called “Serena Slam” is not of the same magnitude, and not even close. She wants to join Don Budge (1938) Maureen Connolly (1953), Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) Court (1970) and Graf (1988) in the Grand Slam club. Very few players in New York have the gifts, the temperaments or the games to prevent Williams from moving into that exclusive territory. The view here is that Williams will get there.
Not only did Muguruza handle her first major final with extraordinary poise and maturity, but she also celebrated an outstanding tournament across the board. Muguruza, the No. 20 seed, ousted No. 10 Angelique Kerber and No. 5 Caroline Wozniacki. Then she beat French Open semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky and former finalist Agnieszka Radwanska. Muguruza acquitted herself honorably all through the fortnight. Her tennis crackled with depth, power, and precision.
She is one of the biggest hitters in the game. In the final, she stood toe to toe frequently with Williams in the fierce exchanges. What she lacks is consistency. Her margin for error could be larger. In fact, she could learn from Williams, who has learned how to harness her power. Williams knows when to go for broke and flatten out her shots and how to create the right openings to blast away for outright winners. She also understands when to back off and play in a safer zone. Muguruza needs to weigh the percentages better, to roll the ball higher over the net at the right times, to mix patience with power.
But the fact remains that she is already at 21 a terrific player. Muguruza had ousted an off form Williams a year ago at the French Open decisively in straight sets. Earlier this year, she took the first set off Williams at the Australian Open before bowing. She is a superb all surface player whose game translates well to slow and fast courts. Muguruza now resides among the top ten in the world. Her run to the Wimbledon final was not accidental. She will be around the upper reaches of the women’s game for a long time.
GASQUET BACK IN A BIG SEMIFINAL
The Frenchman Richard Gasquet has one of the game’s signature one-handed backhands. It is one of those shots that seems to be lifted from our dreams, elegant and dynamic, graceful and explosive, as fluid as it gets. He has extraordinary all around ability as well, although his forehand can be a liability at times and his serve is not a big weapon despite its accuracy and variation.
Yet Gasquet has been a thorough professional, and through the years he keeps making surprise appearances in the semifinals of majors. Start with 2007. He was playing Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon that year and dropped the first two sets against one of the game’s greatest servers on grass. But the determined Frenchman drowned Roddick in a sea of backhand winners the rest of the way, winning in five sets. He lost to Federer in the semifinals, but Gasquet had reached his first career semifinal at a major. Federer won that tournament over Rafael Nadal in five sets.
In 2013, he returned to that destination in New York. But he was soundly beaten in the semifinals by a player he has never been able to topple— Nadal. Nadal won that tournament over Djokovic. But Gasquet had given a sterling account of himself in reaching the penultimate round.
At Wimbledon this year, Gasquet was striking the ball better than he has for long while. He reversed the result of a match he played at the All England Club a year ago against Nick Kyrgios. A year ago, Kyrgios saved nine match points in a five set duel with Gasquet. This time around, Gasquet was victorious in four sets. He then removed French Open champion Stan Wawrinka in the match of the tournament. Their five set clash was a spectator’s delight, featuring shotmaking of the highest caliber, sharp shifts in momentum, and a high standard across the board. Wawrinka, of course, has what many believe is the best one-handed backhand in the game, even better than Gasquet’s. Wawrinka is stronger and he can take high balls off that side and muscle them for winners, sending those shots whistling down the line.
But on this particular day when the two players went backhand to backhand, it was Gasquet who had the upper hand. He also mixed up his serve intelligently, attacked judiciously, and his forehand held up better than Wawrinka’s. And yet, it was a hard fought battle that could have gone either way. After Gasquet took the first set and Wawrinka retaliated to win the next two, the Frenchman rallied to win the fourth, and the stage was set for an exhilarating fifth set.
Both competitors were outstanding in that set. Gasquet broke Wawrinka for 5-3 and served for the match, but the Swiss broke back. From that moment on, the tension at Court One was almost palpable. In the end, Gasquet held back Wawrinka 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 11-9. Although Wawrinka produced 73 winners during the five captivating sets, he was never allowed by Gasquet to feel comfortable. Gasquet was cagey and versatile, changing speeds and spins, mixing up his game, refusing to let Wawrinka turn this into a slugfest of a contest.
It was a richly deserved win. Gasquet lost in straight sets to Djokovic in the penultimate round. He had another spirited run at a major, another journey to the penultimate round. Yet, ultimately, the somewhat diminutive Frenchman will always fall short of the highest honors.
But, as was the case in his previous two semifinal showings at the majors, Gasquet could console himself with the fact that he lost to the man who took the title.
HINGIS TAKES TWO TITLES
Way back in July 1996, 15-year-old Martina Hingis captured her first title at the All England Club, joining forces with Helena Sukova to win the women’s doubles. A year later, the Swiss stylist stepped forward to claim the singles crown over Jana Novotna. A masterful strategist who is perhaps the best chess player I have ever seen on a tennis court, Hingis secured five majors in singles over the course of her career, and won a 1998 Grand Slam in doubles with two different partners. At the end of 2007, she retired from singles after testing positive for cocaine use.
In 2013, Hingis was inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But her competitive drive was not completely diminished. Since that time, she has come back strong as a doubles player, finishing 2014 at No. 11 in the world in that capacity, reaching the final of the U.S. Open alongside Flavia Pennetta. Yet everything she did a year ago on the doubles court pales in comparison to her 2015 achievements. She began 2015 still playing with Pennetta, but then changed partners and joined India’s Sania Mirza on the same side of the net. Hingis has been the best doubles player in the women’s game. Hingis and Mirza were top seeded at Wimbledon, and they lived up to that label by eclipsing the No. 2 seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 5-7, 7-6 (4), 7-5 in the final, rallying from 2-5 down in the final set to claim the title.
The following day, Hingis won the mixed doubles title with 42-year old Leander Paes, a man who previously was victorious on the hallowed British lawns with Cara Black in 2010, Martina Navratilova in 2003 and Lisa Raymond in 1999. Competing solely in doubles these days, Hingis at 34 is celebrating a second career of sorts. She smiles incessantly through her matches. Her quick hands, sharp returns, tactical savvy and sheer love of the game are regularly showcased. Her professionalism is ever apparent. No one took more away from Wimbledon in 2015 than the effervescent Martina Hingis.