SERENA MAKES MORE HISTORY
When Willliams won Wimbledon a year ago, she put herself in a strong position to become only the fourth woman ever to win the coveted Grand Slam. She was hoping to join Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970), and Steffi Graf (1988) as the only female players to sweep all four majors in a single season. But Serena was upended in New York at the U.S. Open, beaten by Roberta Vinci in the semifinals.
Ever since, she had worn the wounds of that defeat. She did not play any more tournaments after the Open, taking the rest of 2015 off. This year, she was upset by Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza in the finals of the Australian and French Opens. She seemed to still be carrying the scars of the year gone by, and it must have been a growing concern for both Serena and her foremost boosters that losing the matches of consequence was becoming something of a pattern.
That is why her seventh triumphant run on the lawns at the All England Club was so heartwarming for Williams. She needed this victory more than any other she has recorded for quite some time. In the second round, Serena appeared to be in disarray against countrywoman Christina McHale, a consummate professional but not a player who should trouble Williams deeply on grass. The enterprising McHale was ahead 2-0,40-15 in the final set before Williams fought back ferociously to win 6-7 (7), 6-2, 6-4.
Thereafter, the top seeded American found increasingly reliable form, and her performance in the final was outstanding. Williams avenged her loss to Kerber in Melbourne with a hard earned 7-5, 6-3 victory. Williams reaffirmed in the process that she is far and away the finest server in the history of the women’s game. She did not lose her serve even once in that contest. She released 13 aces in eleven service games. She rose to the occasion and captured her 22nd Grand Slam tournament title, raising her record in major finals to 22-6.
Williams now stands in a tie with Graf for second place on the all time women’s list of major title singles victors. Inevitably, she will pass Graf either at the U.S. Open (that is entirely possible) or at the Australian Open in January. But can she eventually surpass the leader Margaret Court? The prodigious Australian secured 24 Grand Slam singles championships between 1960 and 1973. In my view, Serena will definitely pull even with Court next year and she might even move beyond the formidable athlete from “Down Under” by the end of 2017.
These next couple of seasons will be critical for Williams, who turns 35 in September. She must exploit every opportunity to collect the premier crowns. She needs to treat every ” Big Four” tournament she plays with absolute urgency. The view here is that she will do just that.
MURRAY WINS FIRST MAJOR IN THREE YEARS
After Andy Murray had a remarkable run across 2012 and into the middle of 2013—winning the Olympic gold medal, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in that sterling stretch—he fell upon hard times. After back surgery late in 2013, he was simply not the same player for most of 2014, performing decidedly below his old standards until the end of that debilitating season. He did manage to secure three titles in the autumn to ensure that he finished that year back at No. 6 in the world, and then he improved markedly over the course of 2015, reaching the final of the Australian Open, and the semifinals of both the French Open and Wimbledon.
This year, Murray raised his game another notch, finishing as the runner-up at both the Australian and French Opens. The way he had played through most of this season encouraged many of his supporters to believe that the British competitor could win Wimbledon again. When Djokovic was upended in the third round, Murray became the clear favorite to take the tournament, to secure his first major in three long years, to reward himself with a prize he wanted more than any other.
The No. 2 seed maintained a lofty standard all through the fortnight. He did not drop a set to anyone but the highly charged and ever explosive Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. That quarterfinal contest was a riveting battle. The first set was crucial for both competitors, and Murray was awfully close to losing it. He was ahead 4-2 in the opening set but Tsonga rallied to bring about a tie-break. The Frenchman had three set points in that sequence but, buoyed by the vociferous Centre Court crowd, Murray responded boldly to that challenge and prevailed twelve points to ten.
That spirited comeback carried Murray through a decisive second set but Tsonga took the third. Once more, Murray took command, establishing a 4-2 fourth set lead. Tsonga would not relent. Going for outright winners with regularity, connecting with one spectacular forehand after another, making Murray both confused and infuriated, Tsonga captured four consecutive games to reach a fifth set. He had a break point in the first game of the fifth set but Murray held on and never looked back, winning 7-6 (10), 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-1 in three hours and 54 minutes.
Murray then was sound and resourceful in removing Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 for a place in the final. His performance against Milos Raonic in the title round contest was exemplary. Murray made only 12 unforced errors across three sets, never lost his serve, faced only two break points, and played two nearly impeccable tie-breaks to win his second crown at the single most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, carving out a 6-4, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2) triumph.
This was an enormously significant win for the 29-year-old. Not only did he take his first major title in three years, but he did so in style. Tsonga was the only one of his seven opponents to take any sets off Murray. To be sure, the No. 2 seed was fortunate that world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was ousted in the third round by Sam Querrey. But the fact remains that Murray was thoroughly professional all tournament long, and in my view this was the most convincing tennis he has ever played at a Grand Slam event. He still has work to do in establishing himself as a big match player; his record in Grand Slam tournament finals is 3-8. But his triumph in London could lead to more success elsewhere.
Murray reunited with coach Ivan Lendl at Queen’s Club a few weeks before Wimbledon. Lendl will once again be invaluable to Murray, who walks away from Wimbledon feeling better about himself than perhaps he ever has over the course of his career.
No one could have started a year with more swagger than Angelique Kerber in 2016. The left-handed, large-hearted, immensely appealing German stepped forward emphatically at the Australian Open, toppling Serena Williams in an absorbing three set, final round skirmish, securing her first major title. Her victory was celebrated by a public who deeply appreciated her industriousness and athletic verve, and by the vast majority of female players who seem so genuine in their respect for her as a person of unimpeachable integrity and uncommon decency.
At the time, having watched her pull off the large upset of Williams with so much fortitude and obstinacy, I thought Kerber would move comfortably into the forefront of the women’s game, taking her breakthrough win and turning it into an opportunity to celebrate more successes off the top shelf. After suffering some injuries and tough losses, Kerber was victorious in Stuttgart, but her play by and large from Melbourne all the way to Wimbledon was abysmal.
Kerber seemed uncomfortable with having entered a new realm in her sport, questioning her legitimacy in that territory, doubting herself beyond all reason. And that is why her run to the final of Wimbledon was so exhilarating to those who know how good she is and how great she could be. Kerber played top of the line tennis from the beginning of the fortnight right up until the end.
She knocked out Simona Halep in the quarters, overcame five time champion Venus Williams in the penultimate round, and put on an extraordinary show against Serena Williams in the final. The Williams-Kerber final was more entertaining in many ways than Murray versus Raonic. Williams came away with a win because her incomparable serve was so sublime. The American sent out 13 aces, faced only one break point which she erased majestically with an ace, and kept Kerber at bay with the supreme accuracy and effortless power of her delivery.
Yet Kerber more than held her own from the backcourt. Her forehand gave Serena fits. Kerber’s ball control on the run, from well wide of the court, against both angled and deep shots from her opponents, is outstanding. She was as aggressive as possible in the rallies against Williams but, above all, she hardly missed. Although she never did manage to shake up the Williams rhythm on serve, the German was strikingly adept at holding her own delivery. Her serve—particularly the second serve—had been a mounting problem throughout the tournament, but she acquitted herself uncommonly well against the top woman player in the world. Serena had difficulties attacking Kerber’s second serve.
Remarkably, Kerber was broken only once in each set, at 5-6 in the first and 3-4 in the second. She played beautifully, as did Williams. It was the best straight set women’s final I have seen at Wimbledon or any Grand Slam event for a long time. Kerber has reclaimed the status she acquired after Melbourne, rising to No. 2 in the world again. That is right where she belongs.
RAONIC TAKES PLACE IN FIRST MAJOR FINAL
Two years ago, Canada’s earnest and quietly ambitious Milos Raonic contested his first semifinal at a major, confronting Roger Federer in the penultimate round at Wimbledon. Raonic was overcome by anxiety, losing his revered serve in the first game of the encounter, never really recovering. Earlier this year, he cut down 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open, giving a good account of himself by reaching another major semifinal before losing in five sets to Andy Murray. His hard work and unflagging dedication to his craft were indisputable.
Raonic came into Wimbledon with pride and optimism, realizing the opportunity he had, recognizing that the time had come for him to translate potential into tangible success. Raonic came from two sets down to overcome the deceptively capable David Goffin in the round of 16, defeated Sam Querrey in the quarters, and then took on Federer in a rematch of their 2014 confrontation.
This was a gripping match. Federer double faulted at break point down to fall behind 3-1, and Raonic exploited that lapse to win the opening set. They went to a second set tie-break, and the Canadian faltered badly, double faulting at 3-3 and collapsing thereafter. One service break gave Federer the third set, and the Swiss seemed on the verge of victory frequently in the fourth set. Raonic rallied from 15-40 at 2-2, saving two break points there with a wide slice serve that Federer could not handle and a running forehand crosscourt that elicited an error on the run from the 34-year-old. At 4-4, 30-40, Raonic attacked behind a 139 MPH body serve to the backhand, and Federer netted the return. Finally, at 5-5, 0-30, Raonic, stretched out for a forehand volley, punched it away brilliantly for a clutch winner.
Raonic thus put himself in a position to play a fourth set tie-break, with the chance to move on to a fifth and final set. But then the match took a totally improbable turn. Federer served at 5-6, 40-0. Raonic unloaded on a forehand and laced a winner. But then Federer inexplicably double faulted twice, with both second serves (the first at 104 MPH, the second at 111 MPH) landing long. Federer fended off two set points and earned a third game point with a 126 MPH ace down the T, but Raonic replied with a backhand return winner off a weak (86 MPH) second serve. Federer pulled a forehand crosscourt wide to give Raonic a third set point, and then the
Swiss made an uncharacteristic strategic mistake.
Raonic’s return was very short off the backhand. Federer was set up to drill a forehand crosscourt that Raonic would presumably have been hard pressed to reach. But Federer outsmarted himself by going down the line, hitting it poorly. Raonic easily passed the Swiss down the line to seal the set. The Canadian was much too strong in the fifth. He broke through for a 3-1 lead. Federer had taken a spill up at the net and he called for a trainer to rub his knee. When play resumed, Federer saved a break point and garnered a game point, but Raonic persisted. He got the break by chasing down four Federer volleys and passing the No. 3 seed beautifully on the fifth.
Raonic had gone from near-elimination in the fourth set to a man possessed in the fifth. He won 6-4, 6-7 (3), 4-6, 7-5, 6-3. It was only his third career triumph over Federer in twelve meetings, but surely his most important win. He followed by performing admirably in the final. Losing his serve only once in three hard fought sets against a player of Murray’s stature was no disgrace. He had done himself proud, becoming the first Canadian man to reach the final of a Grand Slam championship.
Raonic has steadily matured as a player and competitor. Coming from behind and winning two five set matches on his way to a first Wimbledon final was a sign of how far Raonic has come, how badly he wants to succeed and where he may be headed.
CILIC SADLY MISSES OUT
When Marin Cilic came through to win the U.S. Open in 2014, his play down the stretch was breathtaking. In the last three rounds of that tournament, he cast aside Berdych, Federer and Kei Nishikori without the loss of a set. His showing against Federer was a revelatory performance, and the match of his career in many ways.
The 6’6″, 27-year-old came ever so close at Wimbledon to replicating the gem he produced against Federer in New York two years ago. In their Centre Court quarterfinal, Cilic was serving magnificently. He took a first set tie-break and soon was up two sets to love. At 3-3 in the third, Cilic had Federer trapped at 0-40, but missed a routine backhand. Federer held on, broke Cilic in the following game, and won the set. In the fourth set, Cilic had match points with Federer serving at 4-5 and 5-6, and then the big man had another match point in the tie-break.
Federer was steely in his resolve, but Cilic was wobbly when it counted. Cilic had cracks at second serves on two of the three match points, but missed forehand returns on both. In between, Federer aced Cilic on the second match point. He proceeded to play a terrific fifth set to win 6-7 (4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9), 6-3. It was the tenth time in his sterling career that Federer had climbed from two sets to love down and prevailed.
And yet, for Marin Cilic, there could be no other conclusion: this was shattering. He would have collided with Raonic in the semifinals, and might well have won. Cilic would have had the chance to be back in another major final. But this was a serious setback for a fellow who too often sells himself short.
DJOKOVIC AND MUGURUZA SAY GOODBYE TOO SOON
Since the middle of the 2009 season, Novak Djokovic had been the master of reliability. He had been to the quarterfinals or beyond in every major he had played in that seven year stretch—28 in a row. Moreover, the 29-year-old Serbian had just completed a splendid run in Paris by winning four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, establishing himself as the first man to realize that feat since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam back in 1969.
Djokovic seemed certain to surge into the latter stages at Wimbledon, where he had been victorious in 2014 and 2015. Altogether, he had won the world’s premier event three times. But in a Court 1 clash that few if any authorities could have envisioned, Djokovic was beaten in four sets by the American San Querrey. The 12-time major titlist was simply not himself in this battle fought out over two days and featuring several rain delays. I remain convinced that he was hurt, although a despondent Djokovic refused to offer any excuses in his press conference. The bottom line is that the tournament was irrevocably altered by the departure of the sport’s greatest player.
Meanwhile, French Open champion Garbine Muguruza—the No. 2 seed—seemed depleted and listless in a second round loss to Jana Cepelova. The Spaniard lost 6-3, 6-2, and it was as if she was somewhere far away rather than competing with her customary intensity. A year ago, Muguruza was in the final. It was regrettable that she had very little left in her emotional tank, but inevitably she will be back in the thick of things soon on big occasions, maybe even at the U.S. Open. As for Djokovic, I have no doubt he will return to defend his Open crown in New York with renewed purpose, sparkle and determination.