NOVAK DJOKOVIC REALIZES CAREER GRAND SLAM
In the aftermath of his latest triumph at a major tennis tournament, I am conflicted about which of his lofty achievements is to be admired more. Not only did Djokovic establish himself as only the eighth male player ever to record a career Grand Slam, but he also became the first man since Rod Laver 47 years ago to sweep four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. Probably the latter is the taller accomplishment; the fact that Laver was the last to take four in a row back in 1969 tells us everything we need to know about the extreme difficulty of the feat.
As for joining that elite career Grand Slam club, keep in mind that the other members are all luminaries. Fred Perry was the first to make it to that summit in 1935, followed by Don Budge in 1938, Laver in 1962, Roy Emerson in 1964, Andre Agassi in 1999, Roger Federer in 2009 and Rafael Nadal in 2010. Perry, Budge, Laver and Emerson realized their feats when three of the four majors were contested on grass. Agassi, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have done it in a more diverse era of competition, prevailing on two different hard court surfaces, clay and grass. They have demonstrated in the process how flexible they are in a variety of conditions.
In any case, this triumph in Paris was a long time in the making for the Serbian stylist. He had taken all of the other major titles by 2011, and even went to Roland Garros in 2012 in search of a fourth major in a row. He got to his first final that year, losing to Nadal in four sets. That final was played through the rain. After dropping the first two sets to the greatest clay court player of all time, Djokovic went on a substantial tear, sweeping eight games in a row to lead 2-0 in the fourth. Nadal held serve in the third game before play was halted. The following day, Nadal bounced back with customary vigor to defeat Djokovic 7-5 in the fourth set. Yet there could be no doubt that the Spaniard benefitted from the suspension of the contest.
The next year, Djokovic and Nadal collided in the semifinals. It was an epic duel. Djokovic was up 4-3 in the fifth set, serving at deuce. Theoretically, he was six points away from victory, but Nadal rallied ferociously to win 9-7 in the final set. Nadal took that title over David Ferrer in the final. Djokovic surely would have outdone Ferrer as well. In 2014, Djokovic won the first set of his final with Nadal before bowing in four sets, and then a year ago the Serbian won the first set of his final with Stan Wawrinka before the Swiss put on an unconsciously brilliant shotmaking display to collect the crown.
Indisputably, Djokovic had been on the verge of ruling at Roland Garros many times. It had been his hard luck place. But he never stopped making the French Open one of his highest priorities, and his skills as a clay court player have long been evident. In his era, Djokovic has been the second best player on the dirt behind Nadal. This year in Paris, he carved out three routine victories that carried him into the second week, but then he had to deal with the horrendous weather and an arduous schedule.
Djokovic faced a formidable clay courter in Roberto Bautista Agut in the round of 16. They were totally rained out on the second Monday of the fortnight. On Tuesday, a disoriented Djokovic lost his serve no less than three times as Bautista Agut took the opening set. Djokovic rallied to win the second set, and then moved to 4-1 in the third. But they were competing under impossibly heavy conditions. The balls were more like rocks. Ending rallies was unreasonably difficult. The situation for both players was untenable.
On Wednesday, when play resumed, Djokovic closed out the third set swiftly but then had to fight diligently to fend off Bautista Agut 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-5. Yet there was no time to relax or rest. The following day, he took on Tomas Berdych. From 2-3 down on serve in the first set, Djokovic hit his stride and found his range, sweeping seven games in a row. He defeated Berdych 6-3, 7-5, 6-3. And yet, having been on duty three days in a row, Djokovic had to return on Friday to confront the dangerous Dominic Thiem, the powerful, 22-year-old Austrian who now resides at No. 7 in the world.
This match was played on the Suzanne Lenglen court because all four semifinals were crowded into the same day. The atmosphere was highly charged with large segments of both Serbian and Austrian fans cheering their players on unreservedly. Thiem is a prodigious ball striker who can knock the cover off the ball from either flank, and his serve is a primary weapon as well. Most players are vulnerable to the Austrian’s vicious kick serve, and they can be overwhelmed at times by Thiem’s delivery.
When they had last met in Miami on hard courts, an apprehensive Djokovic beat Thiem 6-3, 6-4 but he served nine double faults and fended off break points in nearly every service game. But in this semifinal confrontation at Paris, Djokovic majestically cast aside Thiem 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. His returns were mind-bogglingly good, his court sense impeccable, his mastery of his craft unassailable. Djokovic was utterly unstoppable. Even when he fell behind a break at 3-0 in the third set, there was no panic. Djokovic simply gave Thiem a tennis lesson in point construction and the art of matchplay. It was a devastatingly impressive performance.
In the final, he took on Andy Murray as they dueled in a second straight title round meeting at a Grand Slam event. The beginning of that appointment was bizarre. Djokovic broke at love in the opening game of the match, only to lose 16 of the next 20 points and four games in a row. The world No. 1 chalked that up to a gnawing anxiety building from within. He was making an inordinate number of forehand unforced errors, pressing repeatedly, drifting into too much passivity. Murray exploited the surprising vulnerability of his adversary. The British player did not face a break point in winning that first set, and his scorching second serve returns were exemplary and telling.
Murray was victorious 6-3. But the crucial turning point of the match was at the outset of the pivotal second set. First, Djokovic erased a break point against him in the opening game, approaching the net confidently off the forehand and putting away an easy overhead. Then Murray double faulted at break point down in the second game. The color of the contest had changed radically in that instant. Djokovic opened up off both wings, found his timing, and started stepping around more frequently and effectively to drill inside out forehands. Murray was forced to play too many sliced backhands. Djokovic was dictating the tempo to a large degree. He totally distanced himself from Murray for a long while, winning the second and third sets at the cost of only three games, performing magnificently on his way to a 5-2, two break lead in the fourth.
Serving for the match, Djokovic was up 15-0 when Murray chased down a drop shot from the Serbian, whipping a forehand crosscourt with interest to force an error. At 15-30, Djokovic gambled on a big second serve at 177 kilometers, and double faulted. Murray then released a clean forehand passing shot winner to break. He held on in the ninth game. When Djokovic served for the match a second time at 5-4, his nerves surfaced again. Ahead 40-15, he double faulted and missed a wobbly backhand down the line wide.
It was deuce. Djokovic seemed to be wavering. But he is singularly strong mentally after enduring rough patches. Djokovic made an excellent forehand approach down the line, came forward unhesitatingly, and put away a forehand swing volley emphatically. On his third match point, after slipping slightly on a running forehand, Djokovic sealed the verdict on a netted backhand from Murray. Djokovic had completed a 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 triumph, raising his record in major finals to 12-8, besting Murray for the fifth time in seven head to head Grand Slam tournament finals, lifting his overall record against the No. 2 seed to 24-10.
Now, Djokovic stands proudly at the halfway point in his quest for a calendar year Grand Slam, a feat last realized by Laver in 1969. The last man to win the first two majors of the season was Jim Courier in 1992. He lost early at Wimbledon on his weakest surface. Djokovic is going for his fourth singles championship on the lawns at the All England Club, and his third in a row. I believe he is a strong favorite to win Wimbledon. Murray is a superb grass court player, and a healthy Roger Federer remains a formidable threat to win an eighth crown on the Centre Court.
But Djokovic is clearly the man to beat. It will take an inspired performance for anyone to knock him out of the world’s premier tennis tournament. If he succeeds on the grass of London and heads onto the New York hard courts with a chance to win the Grand Slam, Novak Djokovic will have the entire sports world following his every move, and wondering how he will respond. For the time being, Djokovic should pause briefly to appreciate the magnitude of his latest accomplishment.
GARBINE MUGURUZA CLAIMS FIRST MAJOR IN STYLE
A year ago at Wimbledon, this appealing Spanish competitor made her presence known compellingly. Her run to the final was inspirational in many ways. She ousted former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and the guileful Agnieszka Radwanska among others on her way to a title round encounter against Serena Williams. Although she was beaten 6-4, 6-4 by the world No. 1, Muguruza’s exuberance and shotmaking brilliance were strikingly apparent. I thought then that with her explosiveness off the ground and her unabashed joy in competing at the top level of the sport, Muguruza would be consistently threatening to make a bid at every major she played.
But she was beaten in the second round at the U.S. Open. Although she finished 2015 stationed at No. 3 in the world, she did not progress the way she would have wanted this season. In nine events en route to Roland Garros, she did no better than to make it to one semifinal. That was hardly the form to encourage her foremost boosters that she was ready to go deep into the draw at the French Open.
Yet that is the way it can sometimes work with leading players. Wawrinka had a mediocre clay court season in 2015, and very few if any authorities gave him a serious chance to win Roland Garros that season. And yet, he upended 2009 champion Federer with a sublime performance in the quarterfinals, overcame Frenchman Jo Wilfried Tsonga in the penultimate round, and then stopped Djokovic in his tracks with sheer brilliance in the final.
Muguruza commenced her title run this year inauspiciously. In the first round, she played Anna Karolina Schmedlova in the first round, and was in danger of bowing out of the tournament briskly. She lost the first set before recouping for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory. Thereafter, she got on a roll. In her next two matches, Muguruza conceded a mere five games in four sets. Next, she upended 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-4. In the quarterfinals, the Spaniard held back the surging American Shelby Rogers 7-5, 6-3. And then she toppled 2011 U.S. Open champion and 2010 French Open finalist Sam Stosur 6-2, 6-4.
That gave Muguruza the chance to meet Williams again on a big occasion, this time in the final of the French Open. To be sure, Williams was not at peak efficiency leading up to the final. She had struggled mightily to beat Yulia Putintseva 5-7, 6-4, 6-1, precariously surviving a break point at 4-4 in the second set. In the semifinals, she accounted for Kiki Bertens 7-6 (7), 6-4. It was abundantly clear that the 34-year-old American was neither physically nor mentally anywhere near the top of her game.
But she did elevate her game for the final far beyond where she had been the two previous rounds. Williams simply could not contain Muguruza in the fiercely contested baseline rallies. Muguruza was more often on top of the rallies. She was sounder off both sides. And the Spaniard withstood some tough setbacks along the way.
Perhaps the most critical game of the match from the standpoint of Muguruza was when she served at 1-2.Twice she was down break point, but she saved the first with a penetrating forehand crosscourt that was too much for Serena to manage, and wiped away the second with an ace down the T. That deceptive serve worked exceedingly well for her throughout the match. Muguruza broke Williams in the following game and was ahead 4-2. A resolute Williams went to work assiduously, sweeping three games in a row.
The pressure was heightened for Muguruza when she served at 4-5 to stay in the set. The Spaniard was immensely composed, holding at 15 for 5-5. She broke Serena for 6-5, double faulted for 15-40 in the following game, but once more she dealt with her challenge commendably, eliciting an errant return from Williams and then acing the American down T in the ad court again. Muguruza would hold on obstinately to win the set 7-5. Her three game run at the end was a sign of her growing maturity as a big match player.
The Spaniard had the immediate break at the start of the second set, double faulted thrice in losing her serve in the second game, but then broke an increasingly vulnerable Serena again for 2-1. They stayed on serve until Williams stood at 3-5 on her own delivery. Four times in a brave stand, she fought off match points, and she held on eventually.
Muguruza had every reason to be apprehensive when she served for the match in the tenth game. Lesser individuals would have been crippled by all of those missed opportunities, and might have fallen badly into disrepair. Not so with Muguruza. She held at love to seal a 7-5, 6-4 victory. It was hard fought. It was well won. It was a remarkable victory for Muguruza, who captivated the galleries in Paris with her verve as a player and her velocity off the ground.
Muguruza must now set her sights on a more consistent rate of success over the rest of this season and beyond. She is a great player to be sure, but the women’s game needs her to play more regularly the way she did in Paris. I believe she will do just that.
FEDERER STAYS OUT OF TOURNAMENT WITH INJURY
One of the marvels of the modern game has been Roger Federer and his capacity to stay relatively injury free across his sterling career. The Swiss Maestro has somehow withstood the rigors of tennis and has always been there for the big occasions. After missing the U.S. Open of 1999 when he had only just turned 18, Federer played an astonishing 65 majors in a row from the Australian Open of 2000 through the Australian Open earlier this year. He took great pride in his propensity to be that durable, to have that many opportunities to perform for crowds at all of the majors who have almost unfailingly rallied effusively to his side, no matter where he was in the rankings.
But a day after losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of Melbourne, Federer hurt his knee and needed surgery to repair the damage. He did not return to competition until the clay court season in Madrid, but had to withdraw with a bad back. He played Rome the following week and managed to defeat Alexander Zverev, but the next day he was halted by Thiem. With his back still bothering him leading up to Roland Garros, Federer elected to withdraw from the tournament.
That was a wise move for a man who was not realistically going to have a decent chance to win an 18th major on the red clay of Roland Garros.
And yet, his absence left a void that could not be filled.
NADAL PULLS OUT AFTER TWO MATCHES
The dynamic Spaniard is, of course, the most prolific Roland Garros champion ever at Roland Garros. He came to Paris this year revitalized after a first rate showing on the clay court circuit. He won the Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo for the ninth time, and followed up with a ninth title run in Barcelona. Nadal reached the semifinals of Madrid before losing to Andy Murray, and then played a tremendous match against Djokovic in the quarterfinals of Rome, losing that one 7-5, 7-6 (4) after having five set points in the second set.
That run on the clay gave Nadal’s band of supporters worldwide a sense that he could quite possibly take a tenth French Open title this year. He won his first two matches easily, and observers anticipated a gripping showdown with Djokovic in the semifinals. But then he announced his withdrawal from the tournament, startling players and press alike by disclosing that he had injured his wrist and would be unable to continue. His pain in making the announcement was unmistakable. The devastation of his many devoted followers was every bit as apparent.
My chief concern for Nadal is how he can avoid recurring problems with the wrist. He suffered a different injury to his right wrist that kept him out of the 2014 U.S. Open but this is his left wrist. The way Nadal hits his forehand will inevitably put an awful lot of strain on the wrist. So how does he avoid more injuries and even surgery in the near future?
I hope this is not career threatening, but fear that it will be.
SHELBY ROGERS SHINES
The best and brightest performance by an American player at this French Open was irrefutably given by Rogers. She celebrated the finest fortnight of her life, and she will reap the rewards of her success in Paris for some time to come. Rogers was ranked No. 108 in the world as she commenced her French Open participation. Now, after a stirring run to the quarterfinals, she has moved way up to No. 60, setting herself up for the rest of this year to play the last two majors and to make more inroads.
Rogers commenced her journey with a come from behind victory over No. 17 seed Karolina Pliskova 3-6, 6-4 6-3. She won her next match easily, and then toppled two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova by the strange scores of 6-0, 6-7 (3), 6-0. Her next victim was No. 25 seed Irina-Carmelia Begu. Rogers defeated the Rumanian 6-3, 6-4.
She pushed Muguruza hard for a set in the quarterfinals, but eventually was beaten 7-5, 6-3. But Rogers knocked out three seeded players in reaching the last eight. She learned that perhaps she is a better player than she once believed she could be. She has the opportunity now to take what she did in Paris and turn it into something more substantial. I hope that is the case.