Roundtable: Wimbledon takeaways
How will 2014 Wimbledon be remembered? Will Roger Federer get another legitimate chance at winning his 18th Grand Slam title? What are Serena Williams' prospects for the U.S. Open after continuing her 2014 struggles at the biggest events? A panel of tennis writers — Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover, Erik Gudris of Tennis Now and Matt Zemek of Bloguin.com's Attacking The Net — joined me to discuss these topics and more from the third major of the year.
Courtney Nguyen: How will this Wimbledon be remembered?
Lindsay Gibbs: I think it will be remembered for the finals: Petra Kvitova's absolute master class and the great match between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. There were a few other memorable matches -- Kvitova vs. Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova vs. Angelique Kerber, Nick Kyrgios vs. Rafael Nadal -- but nothing that overshadows the finals.
Nguyen: Thank the tennis gods for Kyrgios. If not for his quarterfinal run, the whole tournament would have felt very sleepy before the finals.
Gibbs: Agreed, Courtney, especially on the men's side. It was a very sleepy tournament, so I'm glad the final matches were memorable -- albeit for different reasons.
Erik Gudris: The women's side was full of surprises. But we expected it considering how the last few months have been. So I guess in a way we now expect the unexpected.
Matt Zemek: Kvitova seems likely to be one of Wimbledon's better champions (she should win a few more). Yet, having said that, I don't see her faring well at any of the other three majors for reasons that are well known (Melbourne heat, slow Parisian clay, New York smog and noise. We could be entering (or already exist within) a WTA period in which there are major-specific players -- Sharapova on clay and Kvitova on grass.
Gibbs: Outside of Serena Williams' third-round loss, I wasn't shocked by anything on the women's side. Kerber over Sharapova isn't a huge shock on grass, we all knew (hoped?) that Kvitova had a tournament like this in her, and Eugenie Bouchard has been very consistent in Slams. Bouchard vs. Kvitova was nowhere near as shocking as some of the WTA finals of the past few years.
Nguyen: I suppose you're right, Lindsay. The only huge disappointment/surprise for me was that Bouchard vs. Simona Halep was a dud. Obviously, it didn't help that Halep injured her ankle a few games into the match. I was really looking forward to that matchup.
Gibbs: I agree with that. So much.
Gudris: There may be a tendency to play up "shock" upsets, but these results are happening very frequently now. The days of penciling in expected winners based on previous results are long over.
Nguyen: Do you think that's because of increased parity and depth or because the once dominant names are now more inconsistent?
Gudris: Both. But especially at Wimbledon, where the turnaround from clay to grass is still too quick for many. Perhaps the added week next year between Paris and London will help.
Gibbs: Yes, it's a bit of both. Players like Kvitova and Kerber are always dangerous on any given day, especially on grass. When Serena's off the way she has been this year, I really feel like there are around eight players I could back for a title with relative certainty because of their strengths, not because of a weak field.
Zemek: In a larger sense, this Wimbledon will be remembered for featuring a lot of grass-court tennis. Well, of course this is a grass-court tournament, but the point is the singles competitions on both sides featured plenty of the first-strike tennis we normally associate with grass. When Nadal was making finals, this wasn't as much of a conversation piece.
Djokovic in full
Nguyen: Can anyone put forth a colorable argument that Novak Djokovic isn't the best all-surface player in the game?
Gibbs: In the men's game? Currently? Absolutely, he is. Now, at different times in the past decade Federer or Nadal could have made his own case.
Zemek: In July 2014, Djokovic is the best all-surface player in men's tennis. I would hasten to clarify that Nadal is the superior player if clay and hard court are the only two surfaces involved. Such a contention might acquire more significance for Rafa's fan base in light of the narrow sliver of the calendar the grass "season" (if you can even call it a season) occupies. However, if the discussion is strictly about all surfaces (including indoor hard court as well), Djokovic is the most consistent player. Nadal, of course, can change this equation by making the semis or better at Wimbledon next year. Moreover, given the extra week of rest Erik referred to above, Rafa just might win a third Wimbledon in 2015.
Gudris: While I would agree that Djokovic may just be the best all-surface player in the game, he's still yet to win the French Open. Despite winning nine clay-court titles, that lone missing part of Djokovic's résumé will still have many picking Nadal instead for that honor -- especially given the way the Spaniard mastered the summer hard-court events last year. We may need a few more years before we can really answer that question.
Nguyen: I don't know if I buy the Nadal argument, Erik. His extreme dominance of the French Open is the only thing keeping Djokovic from winning there, and Nadal's clay prowess doesn't compensate for his deficiencies on grass and indoor over the last few years.
Stuck on 17
Nguyen: Was this Federer's last/best chance at Grand Slam title No. 18?
Gudris: Well, never say never about Roger. Many thought he wouldn't get this chance at No. 18 again, but he did. Was it his best chance? Probably. Was it his last? Probably not.
Zemek: Was it his best chance? Quite possibly. Was it his last chance? Not likely. It comes down to this: Can Federer receive a manageable draw, avoid Nadal and get things to click (enough to win a tiebreaker or two) in the final? Wimbledon will probably remain the best portal to 18. The Australian Open will be his second-best shot. As he likes to say, "If I can just keep giving myself chances ..."
Gibbs: I feel like we've all underestimated Fed's draw at Wimbledon. It was far from the most difficult, but facing an in-form Stan Wawrinka in the quarters and No. 1 seed Djokovic in the final isn't exactly a walkover. So I'd say it's not his last, and also not necessarily his best. I still don't think he's definitely going to get No. 18, but the top guys haven't been terrifyingly formidable this year.
Nguyen: I don't know, Lindsay. A less-than-100-percent Wawrinka on grass? That's a favorable matchup for Federer. Agree on Djokovic, though.
Gudris: The formula for No. 18 is basically the same: Keep things short in the first week, serve really well and avoid Nadal at all costs. Then, one never knows.
Nguyen: This really did feel like the opportunity for Federer. Cake draw, Nadal lost early and Federer played really well in the final. Djokovic had to play some gutsy tennis in that fifth set to hold him off. Federer impressed me, but I just don't know if the stars will ever align like that for him again.
Nguyen: We can't convene a roundtable and not talk about Serena. Were you surprised by her third-round loss to Alize Cornet?
Zemek: I definitely was, if only because -- after the early rain delay at 1-1, deuce -- Serena won five straight games to take the first set. This wasn't like the second-round match against Garbine Muguruza at the French Open, where nothing went right for Williams. Instead, she established a commanding position and couldn't hold it.
Gibbs: I was surprised. I keep expecting Serena to snap out of this funk, but it's not happening.
Gudris: Surprised, but only in the way Serena responded in the second and third sets. Instead of playing to win, Serena played to lose, and did. Rather than take advantage of opportunities to move forward, she would run back to the baseline. When was the last time you saw that from Serena?
Zemek: What stood out to me was her deficient net game. Not that we should expect her to be Jana Novotna-like at net, but she failed to punch away a few fairly simple volleys, and those three to four lapses in the third set really came back to bite her.
Nguyen: Serena has failed to advance past the fourth round at a major this year. As of now, is she still the favorite to defend her U.S. Open title?
Gudris: I wouldn't pick her as the clear favorite, even if she does well in the summer hard-court events. We learned after she won the Italian Open in May that even when she appears back on track, nothing is quite certain with her these days.
Gibbs: She'll be one of the favorites barring injury -- and knowing me I will have a hard time not picking her -- but it will be far from clear.
Zemek: What's the old saying? Fool me once in Paris, shame on you ... fool me twice at Wimbledon, shame on me? A lot of tennis pundits have said that Serena has lost the benefit of the doubt. I agree. This is not tantamount to writing her off; it's merely a reflection of the uncertainty about her. When she's on, she's still the best in the sport. It could be that after all the heavy lifting she did in 2012 and '13, she's mentally tired. I'm not going to be too critical of her for that.
Gudris: That attempt at doubles with her sister was unsettling to watch. If unwell, why even go out there?
Gibbs: And Venus just stood there. That was so bizarre.
Nguyen: That seems to be the million-dollar question, Erik.
Gudris: Serena's appearance and play left a lot of questions unanswered.
Gibbs: I wish some of the public speculation were more responsible, but I always wish that.
Zemek: The incident shows that all sports have to have defined policies in place that don't put these kinds of decisions solely in the hands of the athletes.
Nguyen: I agree, Matt. We've seen such incidents as Frank Dancevic basically hallucinating on court because of heat; Li Na bashing her head to the ground and undergoing concussion tests; and Victoria Azarenka and Anna Chakvetadze having some scary moments after getting dizzy. I do think tournament doctors and trainers should be able to wave off a match and prevent players from taking the court or continuing if they are putting themselves in danger. But I'm also a pragmatist. How would this actually work? We're going to give a doctor power to basically pull the plug on a match and a player's tournament? A doctor who is employed by either the tour or the tournament, whose interests may conflict with those of the player? It's tricky.
Gudris: From the lack of lights on outside courts, to the day of rest on Middle Sunday that jammed up the schedule once Monday dawned, some players criticized the traditions that make the event unique. Should Wimbledon -- which does have some really odd local laws to deal with -- change to help the players? Hard to say.
Gibbs: Traditions should enhance the sporting experience, not take away from it, and some of Wimbledon's traditions are getting in the way of the fun, first-strike tennis that the tournament is (usually) known for.
Gudris: It's also a health and safety issue. When players are running around in near darkness trying to hit a ball, that's not good.
Zemek: Tradition and common sense can coexist. Wimbledon was late to the party on equal prize money, but the tournament has in many ways shown that it can maintain a lot of its tradition-soaked aura while also modernizing (the roof, new broadcast facilities, etc.). Regarding Middle Sunday, the tradition works fine if there's no rain on the Saturday before and the first week can be played. Middle Sunday facilitates Manic Monday and the split-gender second-week draw, which ensures that the winning quarterfinal players get full and equal rest before the semifinals. It's the best second-week major schedule in tennis. When it does rain on the first Saturday, though, Wimbledon must finish the third round Sunday.
Nguyen: The panic over Middle Sunday is a bit over the top. Let's not forget that there are plans for a roof over No. 1 Court. Once that happens, there won't be many scheduling problems. Also, on behalf of those who work the tournament on site: Middle Sunday is the greatest tennis invention since the game itself. Love it.
Gibbs: Sure, Courtney, but that's not the case now. I love Middle Sunday in theory -- and, like you said, as a writer it's a much-needed break. Plus, as Matt said, the second-week schedule is great when it goes according to plan. But it's very frustrating to see some players put at a disadvantage, like they were last week, when there is another option. Yes, schedule jams happen. But if an action can be taken to help, d it. But my complaining won't change a thing!
Nguyen: Keep fighting the good fight, Lindsay!
Gudris: Let's also not forget that the other majors often get their schedules jammed up too, mostly because of weather. It's just one of the challenges players have to deal with.
Zemek: To be clear, I like Middle Sunday when the tournament's first week goes off without a hitch. Once Wawrinka (against Dennis Istomin) and Feliciano Lopez (versus John Isner) had their third-round matches pushed back, though, the tournament simply had to avoid having those players play (potentially) three straight days. It's hard to shake the thought that Wawrinka -- who beat Istomin on Monday and Lopez on Tuesday -- didn't feel fully fit in the third and fourth sets against Federer on Wednesday because of a grind that was avoidable.
Gudris: I like Middle Sunday too, in theory. The tournament says the day off is also needed so the grass can rest. But with matches taking longer than they did 20 or 30 years ago, does a day off really help that much?
Gibbs: And if there's been so much rain that they're behind schedule, the grass has already gotten the rest!
Youth in revolt
Nguyen: The youth movement was a main theme not just at Wimbledon (where 23-year-olds Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic made their first major semifinal on the men's side and the 20-year-old Bouchard beat the 22-year-old Halep in the women's semis) but also all season. As both Federer and Sharapova pointed out, however: Yes, the kids are making more of a splash, but the veterans and/or established favorites are still winning the big trophies. So is the youth revolt real or are people just trying make up a narrative?
Gibbs: We're all just so hungry for some fresh blood that we'll take what we can get! Besides Bouchard and Halep -- who still have things to prove but who have been mighty impressive in 2014 -- I'm definitely on a "wait-and-see" kick with the others.
Zemek: There's more genuine traction in the WTA. I'm convinced that Bouchard and Halep will win multiple majors in the next three years. Can I say that about Dimitrov or Raonic? No. The women have the better long-term prospects than the men, especially if Djokovic and Murray can stay healthy and focused for the next five years.
Gibbs: The stats are staggering: No man born in the 1990s has made a Grand Slam final, and only Dimitrov, Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz have made a semi. Only five women in that category have reached a semi: Kvitova, Bouchard, Halep, Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki. All but Stephens has made a final, and, obviously, Kvitova is the only one with a title.
Gudris: While a young player can knock out a veteran on the right day (Muguruza over Serena, for example), Bouchard and Halep are the only two who continue posting deep, consistent runs. As far as the men go, Dimitrov and Raonic aren't exactly "young guns" anymore. They've both been around a while and are starting to finally post the results that they were long predicted to do. Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem are really the only two young ATP players who have burst on the scene this year, but they still are very much raw talent with lots of upside.
Nguyen: Between Dimitrov or Raonic, who wins a Masters title first? Slam first?
Zemek: Dimitrov will likely win a major first. At Wimbledon, Raonic's court coverage was exposed in a big way by a guy who was one month short of his 33rd birthday. If Federer can serve to the wide sides of the boxes and basically take Raonic out of the match as a returner, surely other formidable players can do the same. Raonic put together a terrific Wimbledon, finally delivering on his promise, but winning semifinals and finals looks like an Everest-sized mountain for him. Dimitrov, on the other hand, can cover the court a lot better. First Masters win? Whoever gets hot at Bercy, maybe? ;-)
Nguyen: Ah, Bercy. The "Other" Masters.
Gudris: I'll say Raonic for a Masters. That serve can win a lot of third-set tiebreaks.
Gibbs: I'd pick Dimitrov for both. Raonic would need to (further) improve his movement and return game -- or get big-time draw help.
Nguyen: Bouchard has earned respect with her game and competitiveness, but I've heard from some fans who are turned off by the way she's touted as the next big thing.
Gibbs: It's very difficult for people (myself included at times) to separate the marketing behind Eugenie Bouchard from the athlete and person.
Nguyen: How do you mean, Lindsay?
Gibbs: The media and WTA are not doing a good job of hiding their drool that there's a conventionally beautiful, blonde and fluent-in-English 20-year-old taking the WTA by storm. And it can be off-putting, particularly watching ESPN and feeling like Bouchard was talked about 10 times more than Kvitova before, during and after the final. But none of that is Bouchard's fault. She is a consistent and fiercely competitive player who is improving rapidly.
Gudris: Is there really a Bouchard paradox? I find the marketing -- which I'm not sure she can control -- running parallel to how she presents herself in interviews. She is blunt, up front and mostly talks about how much she wants to win and improve. However, the perception of her, mostly because of the marketing, is that she has a different personality. I don't find a problem with either, but only because the distinctions are so apparent.
Nguyen: I came out of Wimbledon with an incredible amount of respect for Bouchard from a tennis perspective. She talks a big game, and she delivered. When the draw crumbled, with losses by Serena and Sharapova in her quarter, she seized her moment. If only more players -- of any age -- could do that.
Gibbs: Oh, I absolutely am on board with that. She is so mentally strong that I have little doubt that she'll win a major (or majors) in the next couple of years.
Nguyen: As for the marketing side, you can't blame Bouchard. She is what she is and right now she's the hottest property in tennis. With her agency contract expiring this year, everyone wants a piece of her. She smartly does what she feels she needs to do to maximize her marketing potential. Sometimes it comes across as trying too hard -- really? You wore a kimono to the press conference? -- but hey, if that's how she wants to present herself, more power to her.
Zemek: It's not a new thing -- or at least, it shouldn't be. Fans in any sport quickly get tired of certain athletes who are shoved through television sets on a 24-7 basis. Sometimes fans direct their ire over the runaway publicity at the player. ("UGH! I can't stand Genie! I want her to go away!") Hopefully, fans can be patient enough to sort things out and hate the marketing overkill while enjoying Bouchard's competitive qualities.
Gudris: That's very true, Matt. Stephens went through some of that same "runaway publicity" a year ago, for better and worse.
Nguyen: With six months of the season in the books, what are your big takeaways and what are you looking forward to for the rest of the year?
Gibbs: Serena and Nadal are human, there's life left in Federer, Murray is still unpredictable, and Halep and Bouchard are the real deal.
Gudris: Serena is still No. 1, but hasn't been acting like one in the majors. She still can turn things around this summer, but a U.S. Open title defense is not a sure thing. Bouchard and Halep are stars of right now. On the ATP side, I'm most interested in watching Nadal try to defend all of his summer hard-court titles. Murray needs a big bounce-back, but will he get it? How much inspiration will Federer draw from reaching the Wimbledon final?
Zemek: Halep and Bouchard are here to stay. Maria still loves clay. Kvitova loves (Wimbledon) village life. Boris Becker's year has been redeemed. The ATP's young guns aren't ready for prime time, but they're finally going in the right direction. As for the rest of the season, I'm curious to see how Li Na does after splitting with coach Li Na and how Nadal fares defending summer points and Djokovic fall points. There's also Federer's pursuit of a Davis Cup title -- just imagine what #TennisTwitter will be like if he plays Tomas Berdych in the fifth rubber of a 2-2 tie in the finals (if Switzerland and the Czech Republic get there).
Nguyen: I want to see if Murray can get himself back into the top five with Amelie Mauresmo. I also look forward to seeing how the youth movement on both tours manifests itself. Will we see a player born in the 1990s win a Masters 1000? But perhaps the biggest intrigue surrounds Serena. Can she stop the tailspin in New York? To go from the year she had in 2013 to possibly not making it past the fourth round of all four majors would be an incredible letdown.