LONDON – “THE DEFENDING CHAMPION IS SERVING TO STAY IN THE TOURNAMENT,” intoned a commentator. The all-caps and italics are, of course, ours. But this marked one of the few times all tournament that the BBC commentators spoke in something other than a reverential whisper.
Kevin Anderson had just held his serve for 5-4 in the fifth set. And Novak Djokovic was four points from defeat in this men's fourth round match. Then? Djokovic simply comported himself like a champion. He held serve for 5-5. Then broke serve, benefitting from a pair of double-faults from Anderson that should have come attached with a gift receipt for return purposes. And then Djokovic served out the match. The stat sheets quantified Djokovic’s 6–7, 6–7, 6–1, 6–4, 7–5 win. As both players remarked, almost in stereo, “The match came down to a few points.”
It may as well have been the motto for the day, a prefiguration for what would follow. Each of the four women’s quarterfinal matches were tight—and thoroughly entertaining—affairs, three of them requiring a third set. Each was ultimately decided by a few points that changed the entire equilibrium of the match.
Timea Bacsinszky and Garbine Muguruza followed Djokovic and Anderson onto No. 1 Court. Both players were vying for their first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, but played a clean first set. Leading 6-5, Muguruza earned her first break point of the day and she cashed it in to win the set. At 3-3 in the second, she elevated again, reeling off the last three games. “I know it was a really small gap between us,” Bascinszky rightly pointed out.
Simultaneously on Centre Court, Maria Sharapova was having her way with CoCo Vandeweghe, the American armed with an elephant gun of a serve. But with Sharapova ahead a set and 5-3, Vandeweghe dialed in her strokes and won the second set in a tiebreak, elongating the match. Sharapova may have been in control but she failed to close and suddenly the math was tied. She regained her equilibrium, though, and closed out 6–3, 6–7, 6–2.
Back on No. 1 Court, in a terrific contrast in styles, Aga Radwanska won a first-set tiebreak over Madison Keys—13 games of tennis, distilled to a few critical points. Keys then bludgeoned the ball and leveled the match at a set. Radwanska, though, brought her experience to bear, allowed Keys to make error after error and closed out 7-6, 3–6, 6–3. Keys won more points, 98-95. Radwanska won more sets.
Finally, there’s Serena who, of course, has made a career of elevating her game when it matters most. We have reached a point of parity here. How well does Serena play under pressure? And how expected is it? When she dropped the first set to Victoria Azarenka—a former No. 1 player and perhaps the closest Serena comes to a rival—Serena was STILL favored to win the match.
Which she did. We've seen this movie before. Fourteen straight times this year, in fact. But it doesn’t make it less entertaining. Serena fought back, at once inspiring herself and demoralizing the opponent. Want to know from timing, from playing well when it matters most? Azarenka clawed back into the third set and won a game to make the score 4-2. Serena responded by winning her service game in less 80 seconds, slamming three aces. If you were to call her the best clutch athlete in sports, you'd be on secure ground.
The matches today underscored that tennis is not a sport of “how many” but of “when.” Belt all the aces you want. Club all the winners you can. But in this sport—a sport without a clock—timing is everything.
I'm the first to admit I didn't see yesterday's match so I don't know who was looking more fatigued or who had the momentum. But I cannot for the life of me figure out why Wimbledon officials did not finish the match on Center Court under the roof. They moved the Monfils match there the other night. Why not do the same last night? The conspiracy theorist in me thinks it's because they wanted Novak to get a good nights rest and come back in the morning to take set five (which he did, much to their delight, I'm sure). The sport wonders why it's losing fans: inconsistencies, favoritism/scheduling, conflicts of interest, screeching/grunting...shall I continue? How frustrating and disappointing for the fans.
—Kris S., Connecticut
• I think that’s too much of a conspiracy theory. “This is an outdoor tournament and it should remain that way if at all possible,” an official told me. Had the affair moved to Centre Court and the roof unfurled, it would have changed the match conditions considerably. If anything, the break helped Anderson, who had lost the third and fourth sets and looked out on his feet. Why did Simon/Monfils get moved on Saturday night? Because the absence of a Sunday session would have meant a TWO day break and really would have messed with the schedule.
Fraser apologizes for "bigotry" comments at Kyrgios, Tomic. We in the U.S. see these comments pop their ugly faces up against first generation or second generation immigrants. I was on the opposite end of this spectrum in my thought process before this incident happened. I was thinking a few days earlier if the immigration rules and the time for getting paperwork approved were not so long, the U.S. would have the likes of Raonic, Posposil, Kokkonakis, Kyrgios, Tomic, etc. Then us Americans wouldn’t be then lamenting the woes of not having top 10 players in ATP. These players' families moved to Canada and Australia because the immigration rules and wait times were far less than in the U.S. Moral of the story is there are always two sides of the coin.
• Long as we’re here, what Dawn Fraser said was—by any definition—loathsome and offensive and should be rightfully condemned. But I’ve spoken to multiple Australian athletes today who say that, in the national sports community Down Under, Fraser is an absolute legend. As the story was told to me, a male swimmer stole a Japanese flag at the 1964 Olympics. Fraser took the rap for it so a teammate could continue his career. “Moral of the story is there are always two sides of the coin.”
I was wondering if tennis history was made when Serena played against Venus in their fourth round encounter on Monday. When was the last time a five-time Wimbledon Champion played another five-time Wimbledon Champion at Wimbledon? Evert never had five. Navratilova was long gone by the time Graf earned her fifth Wimbledon title. Billie Jean was absent by the time Navratilova won her first five Wimbledons. Can somebody confirm/verify.
• Very good. I’ll crowd source this one. Anyone?
Who do you think the best female player to never win a Slam is? Safina, Wozniacki, Jankovic, Zvonareva, Dementieva, Radwanska or someone else? You can save this question until after Wimbledon is over if you want, in case Radwanska wins.
—Evan from Albany, N.Y.
• We need an acronym for Best Player Never to have Won a Major. Of the names you gave me, I say Dementieva. (Irony: Dementieva never got to No. 1 while many others did.) She had the strokes and the movement. The serve simply let her down.