NADAL AND FEDERER FAIL TO ARRIVE FOR ANTICIPATED QUARTERFINAL APPOINTMENT
Over the previous ten years on the Centre Court, nine of the mens singles titles had been taken by either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, with the Swiss claiming seven of those crowns and the Spaniard two. The only other player to win Wimbledon in that span was none other than Novak Djokovic in 2011. Nadal was unjustifiably seeded fifth after winning seven of his nine tournamentsincluding an eighth French Openen route to London. Federerthe defending championwas the No. 3 seed behind Djokovic and Andy Murray. If all went according to plan, they were slated to meet each other in the quarterfinals, a cruel twist of fate for a pair of all-time greats who had clashed in the final round for three years in a row, from 2006 through 2008.
But, of course, neither of these towering champions made it that far, and not even close. Nadal was ushered out in the opening round by a journeyman who had never toppled a top ten player. His name, of course, was Steve Darcis, a wily grass court competitor from Belgium who, under normal circumstances, would have been fortunate to take a set off the 12-time Grand Slam tournament victor. But Nadal came into Wimbledon for the second straight year compromised physically. His long campaign on clay had left his knee ailing, and he often winced in the final set as the pain became more apparent. Nadal bowed out in straight sets, losing in the opening round of a major for the first time in 35 career appearances.
Nadal had been ordered by his doctors to cancel his plans to play the warm-up tournament in Halle, Germany so he could rest his burdensome knee. That hurt his preparation. He had no grass court matches as he approached the lone Grand Slam event on that surface. That may have made a differencealong with the slickness of the grassand Nadal fell 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-4 against an inspired yet not overwhelming adversary. Darcis served for the first set at 6-5 but Nadal broke back and reached 3-3 in the tie-break, only to lose four of the next five points. In the second set, Nadal broke Darcis at 5-5 but did not serve it out. He rallied from 3-6 in the tie-break and had a set point with Darcis serving at 7-8, but lost three points in a row to concede the set. The Spaniard was soundly beaten in the third set.
Nadal was out of the game for seven months a year ago after his stunning second round, five set loss against Lukas Rosol. We still dont know when he will come back to the game after his loss to Darcis. He is considering playing one clay court event this summer before perhaps a hard court appearance on his way to the U.S. Open. Yet none of that has been confirmed. But clearly something was fundamentally wrong with him physically at Wimbledon.
The Federer loss two days later in the second round was different from Nadals. The Swiss had been at least a quarterfinalist in 36 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, a record nearly as impressive as his streak of 23 semifinals in a row at the majors that ended at Roland Garros in 2010. So his four set defeat at the hands of Sergiy Stakhovsky was a shocker to be sure. Federer has had a difficult time ever since he won Cincinnati last August, and his only tournament victory since then had been at Halle just before Wimbledon. He did suffer a couple of bad losses earlier this season, to Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam and Kei Nishikori in Madrid.
And yet, Federer has always avoided losses like that at the majors since moving to the forefront of the game in 2004. The Stakhovsky setback must have been particularly jarring for the Swiss because it occurred on his favorite court in the world against a player stationed at No. 116 in the world. Moreover, Federera superb front-runnerwas unable to press his advantage after taking the opening set. Stakhovsky rallied improbably for a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) triumph. As was the case with Nadal, Federer was found wanting on the biggest points.
Stakhovsky had an ultra-aggressive gameplan, and stuck with it to the hilt. He served-and-volleyed unrelentingly all through the match, and attacked with resolve, purpose and tenacity. There were 323 points played in this four set contest, and Stakhovsky approached the net 206 times, winning 139 of those points. He served-and-volleyed on 110 of his 141 service points, and won 78. That took its toll on Federer. He rarely confronts anyone who plays that way, and was unable to adjust his game despite knowing that Stakhovsky was not going to back off the notion of coming forward.
In the 2002 Wimbledon, the men in the field at Wimbledon served-and-volleyed on 39% of the points played in the tournament; that meant some competitors were serving-and-volleying at a very high rate. By 2012, that number had dwindled to 7%. Stakhovskys pattern was a throwback to those days when serve-and-volley tennis was a leading feature on the faster grass. He clearly demonstrated in his dismantling of Federer that it can still be done with regularity these days, even on the slower grass. Contributing to the effectiveness of Stakhovskys strategy was the fact that he recorded his upset on the third day of the tournament when the courts were still lower bouncing and greener, but he undoubtedly would have attacked with the same conviction had he met Federer later in the tournament. In four long sets, across 23 service games, over the course of three hours, Stakhovsky lost his serve only once, and broke Federer twice. Stakhovsky converted two of seven break points; Federer converted only one of eight. Remarkably, Federer connected with 72% of his first serves, won 80% of his first serve points, and took a respectable 55% of his second serve points, and still lost. Yet Stakhovsky won 64% of his second serve points, which demonstrated that Federer was not returning with the aggression he needed.
Most importantly, Stakhovsky outplayed Federer on the biggest points after Federer served an ace at 6-5 to seal the first set tie-break. At 4-4 in the second set tie-break, Stakhovsky served an ace down the T. After Federer made it to 5-5 and stood two points away from a two set lead, Stakhovsky forced Federer into an error and then made a winning forehand volley. It was one set all. With Stakhovsky serving at 4-5, deuce in the third set, Federer made an unprovoked mistake off the forehand. Stakhovsky served an ace for 5-5, broke Federer for 6-5 when the Swiss committed another unforced error (this one off the backhand), and held at love for the set.
Stakhovsky surged to 3-1 in the fourth but Federer captured three games in a row as he got back on serve. Federer then had a set point with Stakhovsky serving at 5-6, but the underdog punched away a backhand volley for a winner off a reasonably good backhand pass from the Swiss. They moved on to another tie-break, with Stakhovsky opening up a 5-2 lead. He had a set point on serve at 6-4 but elected to send his first volley to the Federer forehand, and the seven-time titlist passed him cleanly down the line. But Federer erred off a backhand down the line on the second match point for Stakhovsky, and the major upset had been concluded.
Where does Federer go from here? He will be 32 in August. In his last 14 majors, Federer has garnered only one title, falling once in a final, six times in the semifinals, five times in the quarters, and once in the second round. His pride has been deeply wounded by the recent turn of events, and winning another Grand Slam title will be an increasingly difficult task, but he remains determined to reverse a losing trend, and writing him off would be a colossal mistake.
SHARAPOVA AND AZARENKA BOW OUT EARLY
These two superb competitors show up for every Grand Slam event well prepared, enormously eager, ready to make their presence known. But the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds did not last long at Wimbledon. Damaging her knee in the first round, Azarenka had to default her second round meeting against Flavia Pennetta, leaving her supporters saddened by her departure. Sharapova, meanwhile, suffered an astonishing second round defeat against Michelle Larcher De Brito, a qualifier from Portugal ranked No, 131 in the world. Sharapova had serious problems with her footwork on the grass, falling down three times during the 6-3, 6-4 contest. But the fact remains that De Brito played a terrific tennis match. This was largely a slugfest from the baseline, and it was the kind of encounter Sharapova almost always wins. But not this time. De Brito was simply the better player. Her ground game was more reliable, her accuracy greater, her heart as big as Sharapovas. Maria lost fair and square, and she knew it. To be sure, she played on a slippery court, and was never sure of her footing. But she was fundamentally surpassed by a player who was unafraid of her.
Sharapova and Azarenka will undoubtedly be back in the thick of things at the U.S. Open, but they did not last long at Wimbledon, and that was very surprising.
SERENA GONE IN THE ROUND OF 16
Seldom if ever has Serena Williams approached Wimbledon as a larger favorite. In all of 2013, her only losses were against Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open and Azarenka in Doha. She had won the French Open convincingly. No one in their right mind would have picked anyone else to win the womens tournament. But the 31-year-old in pursuit of a 17th Grand Slam singles championship was beaten by a top of the line Sabine Lisicki in the round of 16.
Lisicki was the No. 23 seed, although her Wimbledon record is much better than that. Two years ago, she reached the semifinals before losing to Sharapova. A year ago, she stopped Sharapova and advanced to the quarterfinals. She was a quarterfinalist also in 2009. Clearly, Lisicki knows what she is doing on grass. Her serve is among the best in womens tennis. Serena stands alone in that category as the best woman server of all time, but Lisicki is right up there among todays female performers and is surely among the three or four best. She also knows how to apply pressure on an opponent, and her play can be sporadically brilliant.
Lisicki played a remarkably good first set against Serena, winning it 6-2. But after losing the first game of the second set, Serena secured no fewer than nine games in a row. She had been tight in the early stages but had then found her range and had seemingly solved the riddle of Lisicki. Williams led 3-0 in the final set, then had 40-15 before losing her serve. She broke right back for 4-2, only to lose her own serve again. Finally, with Lisicki serving at 3-4, Serena had 0-40. Had she won one of the next three points, she would have served for the match, but Williams became apprehensive when it counted. Lisicki broke her a third straight time and then came through steadfastly in the clutch. Serving for the match, Lisicki served an ace down the T at break point down, and then closed out the account handsomely with an inside-out forehand winner. Lisicki was victorious 6-2, 1-6, 6-4. She was fearless down the stretch, while Serena was unmistakably filled with apprehension.
BARTOLI CAPTURES FIRST MAJOR
Imagine a player heading into Wimbledon without advancing beyond the quarterfinals all year long. Remember that this player had been in only one major final during her career, and that was six years ago at Wimbledon. Consider that the woman we are talking about is 28, and regarded by many insiders as more a spoiler than a serious candidate to win a Grand Slam title. But understand that Marion Bartoli thoroughly deserved her triumph on the lawns this year. To be sure, she did not face anyone seeded higher than Sloane Stephens at No. 17 in the entire fortnight. Bartoli could not have asked for a better draw.
But the fact remains that she made the most of her opportunities, did not drop a set in seven matches, and refused to stop believing in herself. In the end, Bartoli established herself as the first double-handed player off both sided to win the worlds most coveted title. Even Monica Selesthe best player of that ilk ever to step on a courtnever once won at Wimbledon despite taking all of the other majors at least twice. Bartoli did not concede a set in seven matches.
In the final, the No. 15 seed Bartoli crushed Lisicki 6-1, 6-4 in the final. Lisicki was paralyzed in many ways by nerves, overcome by the occasion, unable to perform with the controlled aggression she had demonstrated in most of her other matches. But the fact remains that Bartoli peaked for the championship match. She set the tempo with her scorching returns, controlled the rallies relentlessly, served with consistency and accuracy. Her tennis was first rate in every way. I maintain that she will probably never win another major, but dont underestimate this player of unbridled intensity and deep determination. When a player wins her first major in her 47th career appearance, anything is possible.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST: ANDY MURRAY
In seven previous outings at Wimbledon, Andy Murray had done some extraordinary work. In 2008, he got to his first quarterfinal, losing to eventual champion Rafael Nadal. A year later, he bowed out in the penultimate round against Andy Roddick, who reached his third Wimbledon final in the process. In 2010 and 2011, Murray was beaten in the semifinals by Nadal. And then, a year ago, he faced Roger Federer in the final and took the first set, but Federer struck back boldly to oust a disconsolate Murray for the third time in a Grand Slam tournament final. Altogether, it was Murrays fourth defeat in a major final.
This time around, Murray was the freshest of all the leading players on the British grass. He had skipped Roland Garros to rest an ailing back. That gave him time to rest, time to get on the lawns sooner than the other players, time to get in the right state of mind. In the end, he toppled world No. 1 Djokovic in a straight set final to garner a second major title, but he had survived in a pair of exacting skirmishes on his way to the appointment with the Serbian. The pivotal moment of the tournament came in the quarterfinals against a revitalized Fernando Verdasco of Spain. After losing the first set, Murray went ahead 3-1 in the second but then dropped five games in a row amidst a flurry of unforced errors. That put the British star down two sets to love, dangerously close to a humiliating defeat.
But Murray gathered himself admirably to win the third set easily, and then dealt with a severe challenge from the Spaniard in the fourth set. Verdasco had two break points with Murray serving at 0-1, and two more with the British player serving at 2-3. Murray broke Verdasco in the seventh game and then served two love games in a row to close out the set. But Murray found himself in another bind later on. Serving at 3-4 in the fifth set, he trailed 0-30 but swept four points in a row for the hold. Nevertheless, Verdasco went right back to work, and held on for 5-4. Murray was one game away from losing, but he held at love for 5-5, broke at 30 for 6-5, and held at love to complete a hard fought 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-5 victory over an old rival. That was a triumph of the mind, a steely performance, a good win for Murray on one of his relatively bad days.
Next up for Murray was the towering 68 Jerzy Janowicz, an explosive player with an overwhelming serve and deft touch on the drop shot whom Mats Wilander believes is destined to be ranked No. 1 in the world someday. Janowicz took the first set in a tie-break from Murray after Murray had two set points with the Polish player serving at 4-5, 15-40. The No. 2 seed retaliated to win the second set, but soon he fell behind 1-4 in the third. Murray held in the sixth game but Janowicz was serving at 4-2, 30-30 when Murrays forehand trickled over the net off the net cord for a winner. On the following point, Murray anticipated a drop shot from Janowicz and drove a forehand crosscourt into the clear. He took the set on a run of five consecutive games.
Much to the chagrin and angst of Murray, there was a delay to put the roof up so that the match could be completed indoors. He was infuriated at the time, but when play resumed Murray was unstoppable. He pulled away 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3. Janowicz is almost surely a future Wimbledon champion, but Murrays rally was evidence of his temerity. He broke a very big server five times in four sets, and came into the final buoyed by that performance. He had come from behind with gusto to win two consecutive matches, and now only one man stood between Murray and his overriding goal of a Wimbledon singles title.
Earlier, Djokovic had needed four hours and forty three minutes to subdue Juan Martin Del Potro in five enthralling sets to win his semifinal. It was a match that many commentators and authorities graded on the highest scale. It was hailed as an epic by a wide range of authorities. It was regarded by many as a match worthy of a final, and some believed it was an all-time classic.
I viewed it differently. To be sure, it was the best Del Potro we have seen since the 2009 US. Open, when he upended Nadal (6-2, 6-2, 6-2) and Federer (coming from within two points of defeat to win in five sets) for his lone major title. Del Potro played sublime tennis in many ways to stop Murray and Djokovic at Indian Wells this past spring before losing a closely contested duel with Nadal in the final. In this stirring semifinal, Djokovic broke Del Potro at 5-6 to seal the first set before the Argentinian retaliated to win the second set after saving four break points at 2-3. The third set was pivotal, with Del Potro holding on from 5-6, 0-40 to force a tie-break, but then losing a critical point at 2-3 in the tie-break when he failed to put away an overhead before missing a follow-up smash attempt as Djokovicfar behind the baselineslipped.
At 3-3 in the fourth set, Djokovic broke for 4-3. He had lost his serve only once in the match but he allowed Del Potro to break him again in the eighth game of that fourth set, damaging himself with three unforced errors before Del Potro connected with a backhand down the line winner. They went to a tie-break and the Serbian had two match points, but his passivity was harmful there and a robust Del Potro took the set away with the might of his backcourt game. At 2-2 in the fifth set, Djokovic wiped away a break point and he pulled away from there to win 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (3) 6-7 (6), 6-3. As a contest it was compelling and exhilarating, featuring some astounding rallies. But Djokovic clearly did not rise to his customary high standards.
Del Potros firepower was extraordinary and his lethal forehand was firing on all cylinders. His majestic ball striking was a sight to behold. But Djokovic was nowhere near his best. He should have won the match much sooner. In my view it was a great match, but not an epic. It was overrated because no one seemed to take into account the sub-par performance from Djokovic; they only looked at it from the standpoint of Del Potro, who was irrefutably brilliant. Djokovic returned beautifully the whole match but wasted many openings by making uncharacteristic mistakes when he was involved in neutral rallies. Moreover, his backhand down the linethe Serbians bread and butter shotwas abysmal. He was missing it wide by appalling margins. He did not play an exceptional match but won on conditioning, poise and willpower.
Against Murray, Djokovic seemed depleted and uncommonly somber. He did not seem to have recovered well from his semifinal two days earlier. The evidence of that physical and mental fatigue was there from the outset. Djokovic was down 0-40 in the opening game before holding on. He was unable to get on top of the rallies, and unsuccessful in trying to break down Murrays forehand. Djokovic could not dictate the way he wanted, and so he often pressed. Djokovic would make 40 unforced errors in the match, 19 more than the industrious and disciplined Murray. Meanwhile, Murray was reading Djokovics first serve down the T in the deuce court, the same weapon that had thwarted Del Potro so frequently. Djokovic served 22 aces in five sets against the Argentine, but released only four in three sets against Murray. That was largely about Murrays superior returning and uncanny instincts.
In any event, after an early exchange of breaks, Murray seized control of the opening set, which he won deservedly 6-4. But Djokovic played his way into sharper form and focus in the early stages of the second set, moving ahead 4-1. That set was critical in determining the outcome of the match. The Serbian had a game point for 5-2, but missed his first serve. Murray jumped all over the second delivery, lacing a backhand return crosscourt for a winner. He broke back when Djokovic double faulted. Although Djokovic held on to build a 5-4 lead, he would drop 12 of the next 16 points as Murray seized the initiative and built a two set lead.
Early in the third, Murray sought to deliver the knockout punch. He went ahead 2-0, and had Djokovic down 0-30 in the third game. The Serbian, however, refused to buckle. He took four points in a row with some bold and purposeful play to hold, then broke Murray in the next game by chasing down a drop shot from Murray and somehow scraping the ball back to induce a backhand volley error wide down the line. Djokovic took the next two games at the cost of only two points to reach 4-2, employing the drop shot skillfully again. But Murray kept his composure and elevated his game again, sweeping three games in a row with aplomb.
At 5-4 in the third, Murray served for the match, surging to 40-0. But Djokovic is often masterful in these situations. Down triple match point, there was absolutely no sense of surrender from the Serbian. He came forward, angled a backhand volley crosscourt, then sent a forehand drop volley winner into the clear. He followed with a backhand inside-in return winner, driven beautifully. Understandably shaken, Murray drove a backhand up the line that travelled long. A seemingly easy hold had turned into an ordeal for Murray. He netted an inside-out forehand, and Djokovic was astonishingly at break point. Murray answered that call with an unstoppable first serve out wide to the backhand. When Djokovic made a backhand half volley winner off the net-cord, the Serbian had earned a second break point.
Murray could easily have slipped into panic or despair, but he did not allow that to happen. He attacked unhesitatingly, making a forehand winner off a short ball. Djokovic gave himself a third break point opportunity, but Murray erased it emphatically with a forehand volley winner. Murray moved to match point for the fourth time, and sent a 130 MPH first serve wide to the Djokovic backhand. The Serbian made the return, but Murray was set up for an inside-out forehand, and Djokovic had no answer for that penetrating and parting shot. Victory went to Murray 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.
And so Andy Murray was the champion of Wimbledon, becoming the first British man since Fred Perry 77 years earlier to rule at the worlds preeminent event. As was the case when Murray established himself a year ago at the U.S. Open as the first British male since Perry at Forest Hills in 1936 to win a major, the parallels were inescapable. Perry was seeded second when he took his first Wimbledon singles title in 1934; Murray was the No. 2 seed this time around. Perry faced Jack Crawford in the 1934 final, a player who had won the crown once; Murray eclipsed Djokovic, who had also won Wimbledon one time. Perry was the reigning U.S. Champion when he won Wimbledon for the first time; the same was true for Murray this time around. Perry was a Taurus; so, too, is Murray.
Murrays accolades in the last year have been nothing less than stupendous. He is the Olympic gold medalist, the United States Open champion, and the Wimbledon victor as well. He has done it all with Ivan Lendl as his coach, and it can be no accident that success has come so regularly since he brought the former world No. 1 into the fold. Lendl, of course, endured the same agonies as Murray on his way to realizing nearly all of his chief goals. Like Murray, Lendl lost four Grand Slam tournament finals but then he won eight of his next fifteen. Murray is now in a position to take his game to another level, to play the game with far greater freedom, to explore his considerable talent to the limit.
The view here is that the 26-year-old Murray will win Wimbledon at least one more time. He should come through again at the U.S. Open, perhaps this year. His name will surely appear someday on the Australian Open trophy. Only the French Open may elude him. Watching him win Wimbledon the other day was one of the highlights for me in forty years as a reporter. The crowd cheered him on unabashedly. They stood and showered him with applause when it was over. They understood what Murray had endured to reach the pinnacle of his profession. They realized how much it all meant to him.
Andy Murray had paid his dues fully, and is now reaping the rewards of so many years of devotion to his craft. Tennis is fortunate to have Murray exploring the boundaries of his potential.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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